I’m a conflicted feminist

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 31, 2003

My family taught me to be an independent woman, but now they want me to find a man.


Dear Cary,

As a 32-year-old single female I have been told my whole life that I don’t need a man. I can be educated (I am), have a career (I am working on it) and own a home (I do). The importance of being independent was drilled into me from an early age and to be fair I embraced it with open arms. I love not having to depend on anyone, knowing that I made my way in the world by myself for myself. Yet all those people who told me that I didn’t need to count on a man are now the ones implying that I will be unhappy for the rest of my life if I don’t find and keep a man. I have had serious relationships and have been in love. And naturally I have had my heart broken. But I moved on and worked on my other goals — career, education — not ignoring my love life but not putting it as a priority.

Now I have friends and family who are encouraging me to “get out and meet people,” use an Internet dating service, and just basically start searching desperately for a relationship. I just can not/will not do this. First, there is an issue of pride at stake. How can I be an independent, intelligent woman and start frantically searching for a relationship as some kind of fountain of fulfillment? Second, who says I need a man? I have wonderful friends I love and a nice life.

Why do I still feel conflicted about all of this? Why can’t I just let it roll off my back that my achievements seem to be disregarded by some individuals simply because I don’t have a man in my life? Why is it that it hurts that people no longer ask whether I am seeing someone (just assuming I am not)? And does it mean I am less of an independent woman because I let these issues bother me?

Conflicted feminist

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Dear Conflicted,

Being independent doesn’t make you invulnerable. You can still get your feelings hurt. Being independent simply means that you make your own decisions and take responsibility for them.

You’re not less of an independent woman because you have feelings. There’s nothing cowardly or submissive about being hurt by the petty stings of well-meaning friends and the deep nagging insult of veiled parental directives. When people are hinting around about what we should be, it feels like they don’t value us for who we are. Independence does not confer immunity from such emotions; nor does political enlightenment guarantee that all your strong feelings will be noble. You can feel just as outraged about your mother nosing around your dating life as you can about the dubious prospects for the U.S. rebuilding a stable Afghanistan. The U.S. said it would rebuild Afghanistan, and your mother said she wouldn’t pressure you about your love life. Governments and mothers are shameless liars. They’ll promise you anything just to see you smile.

Anyway, it sounds to me like what’s happening is you’re getting your feelings hurt, but the hurt is compounded by your own belief that you shouldn’t let it bother you. So my advice would be: Let it bother you. Because it should bother you. Let it drive you nuts. But then do something about it. Because it’s crazy the way people project; it’s like they’re shining their movies onto our bodies; you look down on your hand and there’s a wagon train heading west up your arm, there’s grandpa’s car dealership on your chest, there’s your uncle’s degree in sociology projected onto your forehead; we become maps of other’s hopes and dreams, and it’s a little surreal; and it may be that the more independent, i.e. the more un-anchored and undefined by caste, family, etc., we are, the more we represent the nothingness that makes them uncomfortable. Hence the more desperate they are to see us filing jointly, deducting mortgage interest and arguing about the babysitter’s piercings.

Let it bother you. Let it bother you enough that you take the time to sit down and analyze exactly what words or actions have hurt you or offended you. And then try to put into words what you believe the actual message was, and counter it. For instance, if your mother should say to you, “That boy you used to go out with, what was his name, whatever happened to him, wasn’t he in medical school?” you could translate that as “Because I am your mother, I love you and want the best for you and I’m afraid if you don’t find a good man you’ll end up an old crone alone in a Brooklyn pension eating Triscuits and Alpo.” And to this you might make a compassionate but firm response: Mother, I know you’re worried about me being alone, I know you want me to find a man, but I will always take care of myself whether I find a man or not. I’ll always be OK. Why? Because of what you taught me.