On Feminism, Relationships, and How We Aren’t Fish
Gloria Steinem famously stated that, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.
Years later, we still invoke this saying as a reminder that women don’t need men. And I’ll grant you, we don’t. Feminism’s work in teaching women that our worth is not reliant on men has been among the most important parts of the movement, and it has been instrumental in opening doors to discussing and then tackling problems like labor force participation and domestic violence.
Women may not need to base their self-worth or social value on men, but the reality is that men are a part of women’s lives, and feminism needs to talk about what that actually means. Feminism has done a great job of explaining to women that is okay to not be in a relationship, that relationships do not define us, but there’s a gap there regarding how relationships can or should function in our lives, and that’s what I really want to talk about.
During her now-famous commencement speech at Barnard College, Sheryl Sandburg remarked that whether you commit to a partner, and who that partner is, is one of the most important decisions a woman makes throughout her life. That comment is what finally caused me to start thinking about the realities of relationships for women. A woman whose partner is supportive, who contributes significantly at home, is going to make it possible to meaningfully engage and advance in the workplace. A woman whose partner is absent, or who does not contribute at home, or who demeans her aspirations, presents a barrier to professional successes. A woman who desires children needs a partner who wants them as well, and a woman who does not want children needs a partner who supports that decision, if she chooses to have children at all.
The truth is, relationships are an important part of many people’s lives. No person is an island, and everyone eventually develops a social support structure that facilitates their success or at least their survival. Those people may be family members, they may be friends, they may be colleagues, but they may also be (or include) significant others, and those relationships do matter. The fact that we’ve spent so much time and energy advocating for women to be able to define themselves outside of their relationships with men, outside of romantic or sexual relationships altogether, has caused feminism to neglect another important subject: what relationships should look like, and what role they can play. I’m not talking about identifying relationship violence or talking about consent, although those things do matter. I’m talking about relationships as a significant force in shaping our lives, and how that fits with the rest of feminism.
I actually previously touched on this subject with my open letter to my fifteen-year-old self, in which I discussed knowing what you deserve in a relationship and finding a partner who supports your vision of yourself. I’d like to expand upon that here.
The role a relationship plays is, I believe, directly related to what one should expect from a relationship, but I’ll start with the issue of expectations. Feminism has attacked the widespread problem of dating violence, but I think the truth is we aren’t doing enough to help women see that what we deserve is more than just to not be abused. We deserve to be actively respected, and we need to be able to talk to our partners about what we want, how we want to handle our relationship, and how we feel when our needs aren’t being met. Relationships need to be about a fulfillment of those needs, not just a socially-derived fantasy of being with someone instead of being alone. For all that feminism has done to advocate for women’s independence, the reality is that a fear of being alone is still real for many people, and that’s something that definitely needs to be addressed. But on top of that, we haven’t done enough to teach women what they feel is demeaning. I think it’s worth recognizing that nothing is demeaning unless it makes you feel demeaned, and no one can decide that for you, not even feminism. But feminism should be teaching women to critically examine how they feel about particular aspects of their relationships, and how to articulate those feelings to our partners so that we can resolve problems we have, or walk away if they are intractable.
But this feeds into what I think is the greater conversation, the idea that relationships can be spaces of empowerment. Yes, a person should have her own goals, but they have to be the goals she sets for herself-~-and whether that’s pursuing a PhD, or teaching in a school, or working as a doctor, or staying home with her kids, women should be able to work towards the future they see as the best path to their own happiness and fulfillment. These goals are not in conflict with things like relationships or marriage-~-though they are sometimes painted as such (especially by those who oppose feminism), I think the truth is that relationships and careers are complementary. Having a partner who is emotionally supportive, who acts as a sounding-board for your ideas, who makes your life less stressful, can be a major help in pursuing other goals. Having a partner who can keep a living situation financially feasible while you are pursuing a graduate degree or transitioning to a new phase in your career can provide stability and make it possible to take advantage of other opportunities.
Our current discourse of empowerment places women’s abilities to pursue careers and hold positions of power/authority as the gold standard for being empowered, often at the detriment of other aspects of women’s lives. As a result, women who prioritize their relationships often feel alienated from the movement, like they aren’t living up to these goals, like they aren’t fulfilling the dreams that feminists of the past fought and sacrificed for. But for many people, relationships are important, not because the Patriarchy told them they need a man, but because people desire companionship and emotional support, and they may find this in their intimate partners. I would argue that empowerment needs to be about more than just pure economic or legal opportunity: it needs to be about women being able to access their own security and happiness, and relationships can be a part of that equation. Letting women feel ashamed for prioritizing their relationships, or sending a message that romantic relationships are not important, is often incongruous with women’s lived realities. It’s time to start constructing a narrative that places women’s desires and needs at the forefront, and recognizing that all roads which lead women there are legitimate paths to walk.
I’ll just conclude with this: women don’t need men like fish need bicycles. We need men like we need bicycles-~-that is to say, we don’t actually need men, but relationships with men (in keeping with Steinem’s metaphor) just might make getting where we are going faster, easier, or more fun, and sometimes, a bicycle (or a relationship) is a cool thing to have.
~ by Randi Saunders on April 7, 2014.