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.

My queer radical feminist peers are aghast that I want to marry

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 8, 2006

I’m only 21 but I’m itching to get hitched!


Dear Cary,

For slightly over a year I have been in a serious relationship with the best human being I have ever met. He’s principled, loyal, wickedly funny and just the right kind of twisted. We have friends and pastimes in common. We get along with each other’s families. We fight productively and civilly, have a cat together, banter, and crack each other up. I could go on and on, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one — we’re solid.

We’re best friends, and we’ve started talking about getting engaged within the coming year or so.

The inevitable wrinkle: I’m 21.

I know that a few decades ago I would be prime marrying age and a while before that I’d have been considered a spinster, but these days nobody gets married at 21.

Or, let me rephrase that. Liberal upper-middle-class university-educated alt-culture feminist intellectual daughters of feminists and intellectuals don’t get married at 21.

My friends have uniformly responded to any mention of marriage with either abject horror or resigned sorrow. (My best friend and honorary gay husband is a notable exception. He loves my partner and has cheerfully agreed to be my future best man.) My social circle at school is made up mostly of queer, radical feminist, and/or polyamorous hippies living in the most left-wing city in Canada. Discussions about marriage tend to focus on its insidious role as a tool of social control in the hands of patriarchs, religious extremists, capitalist whores, the family-values gang, right-wingers and other shadowy demons of the first order. Walking into the “Womyn’s Centre” with an engagement ring on to visit a friend (a room my partner’s Y chromosome disqualifies him from entering) would be a profound act of social suicide. My older friends, mostly 30- to 40-year-old teachers, poets and activists, are too enamored of my youthful freedom to bear talk about settling down. Even my mother, who is gagging for grandchildren, said she couldn’t believe I was her daughter when I said I’d give the hypothetical rugrats my partner’s last name.

Feminism aside, there’s the age issue. Another leap of faith I’m going to have to ask you to take is to believe that I’m not your average 21-year-old. Growing up as the daughter of two black sheep who called their parents on alcoholism and childhood abuse has left me with a very strong understanding of what it means to create and maintain healthy families as well as a lot of emotional and communicative skills learned from therapists and my incredible parents. I’m still changing, but I know myself. I’ve lived alone for three years, I’ve traveled, I’ve pursued education in an area I love passionately. My partner is a new and wonderful part of my life, not the end of it. But people talk like I’m going to join a nunnery or sacrifice my sense of self on the altar of matrimony to become a brood mare. OK, exaggeration. They tell me I’ll regret it. But it still makes me angry.

My partner, being male and 33 with no previous relationships and no children, is facing opposite pressure. After having been treated as somehow broken or defective for years, having a steady girlfriend has done nothing but help his social standing. He lives in a world of couples, and he’s no longer the odd man out. His family, god love ‘em, and especially his twice-married younger sister, are prone to making thinly veiled comments about us getting married and popping out spawn. As you can imagine, pressure to have kids is totally new to me, and hard to handle.

I guess my question isn’t whether or not I should get married. I’m pretty solid on that — I love him more than I knew I was capable of, and marriage fits into my values, my religion, my needs, my lifestyle. It doesn’t feel like a choice, it feels like an unimaginable blessing. My question is how to handle the pressure coming from all angles. Is there a way to filter the other voices and keep some clarity about the matter?

Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous: Is there a way to reconcile feminism and young marriage? A way that sounds snappy and can be used as a comeback the next time someone sneers, “I never thought I’d hear you talking like that”? How about a nice way to close the topic when his sister says, “Well, for at least one more year I can say I’ve made all the grandchildren in the family”? Is it possible to have the community involvement implicit in a public ritual like marriage without all of the judging, bitching and wheedling, or should I suck it up and get used to it?

Nesting Up North

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Dear Nesting,

I can’t think of anything more radically feminist than doing what you want. What else, fundamentally, have feminist women worked so hard for? Was it the dream of feminists that one day any woman who thought to make choices on her own would be scorned and shamed by other feminist women? Was that the idea?

I thought the idea was that women could gain the freedom to make their own decisions — on their own, when they want, regardless of age, social background or possible economic repercussions.

Social movements arise because of individual suffering. It is individual suffering multiplied many times, but it is individual and profound. When many people suffering in their own personal way recognize a set of external causes, then it is possible for them to work together to change the circumstances of their lives to benefit all of them. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement arose because individual people felt deep personal suffering and found the proximal causes of their suffering in social, economic and legal circumstances. They worked together to change those circumstances.

Working together requires individuals to sacrifice their individuality for the benefit of the group. But that is a practical necessity, not an ideal. The ideal is that social movements make it possible for individuals to do what will make them happy.

It doesn’t sound like your peers really understand that. It sounds like you are encountering the kind of in-group social pressure that arises after an oppositional movement becomes the status quo.

You may be too young to remember this, but there was a time when there were no mohawk haircuts in suburbia. Then one day some enterprising young man made it possible. He assembled the tools and materials and made himself a mohawk haircut in suburbia.

A bridge had been crossed.

That bridge has been crossed many times now. Young suburban men who wear mohawks are like docents in a museum, kindly reminding us of our heritage.

Similarly, certain orthodoxies that arose out of women’s struggles for freedom and equality were at one time materially significant issues. Women put off marriage and childbearing and in doing so broke new ground for other women. They changed society’s expectations. But now those new expectations have become entrenched as a new orthodoxy.

You may delay childbearing if you wish. That is an important freedom. But you do not have to.

It’s more complicated than that, I realize. Social struggle does not end with victory and a parade. But how can we be expected to make symbolic actions of self-denial when happiness stands grinning on our doorstep, jangling the keys?

In my book, any social movement that does not recognize that needs to do a little more criticism/self-criticism.

Somebody needs some consciousness-raising!

Um, so, go for it. Marry the dude. Have a ball. Sisterhood is powerful. So is love.

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Demanding the big rock

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 She wants her fiance to spend three months’ salary on her engagement ring. Is that fair to the man?

 Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JAN 28, 2005

Dear Cary,

About a year and a half ago, my husband’s and my best friends broke up. She was unhappy and disappointed with him; he was rejecting and cheating on her. We all got together and got married at the same time, and they had been together over 12 years. They have a son (whom the husband never wanted) who is now 3. Since then, he has been through a couple of new girls, and she has recently moved in with her boyfriend of about a year. He is the complete opposite of her ex-husband, and is a very good man. I thought he would be her rebound man, since he was the first one after the split and is not really her type, physically or culturally. She has said right from the beginning that she’s not really attracted to him or passionately in love. She has been honest with him about that, but he hung in there. She now says that she loves him, but not like the way she loved her ex. He is good to her, and is trying hard with her son, who is a willful boy, to say the least.

My concern is that she may be in this relationship for the wrong reasons, but maybe I think that because I was raised very differently from her. I never expected a man to take care of me or that I would be dependent upon anyone. My friend sees this man as a way out of a financial hole. While my husband and I were progressing in our careers, our friends were working low-wage, dead-end jobs, despite high levels of education and potential. My friend has had severe financial difficulty, particularly since the baby and the split. Her job is better now, but she still couldn’t support herself alone. Her boyfriend’s company pays their living expenses, and he has always saved his money — he doesn’t believe in living in debt. This support is enabling my friend to get back on her feet financially. Her boyfriend is very generous, and she takes good care of him.

They have a conflict, though — they have been talking about getting married and she is adamant that she wants an expensive engagement ring — worth three months of his salary. She says that she doesn’t want to be greedy, but after the split she told herself that her next guy would be fairly well-off and the ring is an important symbol of that to her. I tried to tell her that’s a lot of B.S. put out by the diamond industry, but her upbringing was more traditional and she wants this. She’s also starting to lobby for a new, more expensive house, which he would pay for. He doesn’t believe in spending money on rings, he would rather spend it on something more worthwhile — like a vacation or furniture or a house. He has also depleted his savings setting up their current home for her, and needs some time to recuperate, but my friend is working herself into a tiz over the ring.

My question — is this a normal expectation that women have? It seems very antiquated and unfair to me. Is it right for my friend to expect an expensive ring? I see a lot of women wearing them — am I the weird one for thinking it’s ridiculous? Actually, I think part of the problem I have with this situation is that I see her as selling her soul for material goods. She loves this man, but does she love him enough? I don’t know.

Feminist Friend

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Dear Feminist Friend,

My first thought is that your friend feels so strongly about the ring because it represents restitution, the righting of a wrong. “Wow,” she may have said to herself, “I was royally mistreated by my first husband, but I learned a valuable lesson. I’m going to make sure the next man treats me right.” I don’t just mean that the first husband didn’t give her enough jewelry, either. It’s about more than that. As women have achieved greater economic independence, some of the exchanging of goods between men and women has acquired an air of quaint antiqueness. So it’s important to remember that the exchanging of goods is about more than just the goods.

Social progress in private behavior is full of paradox, because as we become more “progressive” and “fair,” the remnants of feudalism and patriarchy retain a deep psychic pull, sometimes erotic, sometimes infantile and sometimes poetic. The magic of a ring, for instance, can work on many different levels. It can, for instance, convert to purposes of erotic narrative the politically objectionable facts of economic inequality between men and women. By sacrificing so much of his cargo for this ring, he is demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to satisfy her desires — which, you must admit, can be quite an attractive trait in a man. He is also performing a sort of quest, or contest: She sets for him this task, which he must complete to win her. He undertakes it willingly because he understands what the act represents: not that a woman is an object to be bought, but that, in an era of continuing economic inequality between the sexes, he is willing to sacrifice some of his goods on the altar of post-feminist reality. (Am I stretching it? Have I had too much coffee?)

We all know that in spite of social progress men still make more money than women and thus wield more power. So requesting that he buy this ring, although it sounds old-fashioned, may also be her way of asking that he recognize this continuing social and economic inequality; the act of buying the ring is a symbolic giving up of his unfairly derived power, a laying himself bare. It is also a symbolic sacrifice, much as one might spill wine or burn the flesh of sheep or goats. It makes ethereal beauty of a gross material good, as it were, much as the pressure of the earth itself over millions of years makes diamond of coal. It is a kind of alchemy, if you will: The man willingly transforms some of his economic power into a thing of beauty to adorn the woman. This could be a deeply satisfying ritual. It doesn’t have to be seen as a brazen and crass gold-digging.

On the other hand, such rituals can be practiced without any understanding of their underlying psychological significance. He may think that he’s buying her. She may think he’s just paying what she’s worth. Who knows? Once the man renders himself vulnerable in this way, it may be tempting for a woman who is still smarting from her former mistreatment to take advantage of his vulnerability, to enact her revenge on him as representative of men in general. He is piling his goods up for her, displaying them, hoping to win her. She may be tempted to take the stuff and run. So he is testing her as well: Can she resist the temptation? Can she accept what he offers and not become greedy? Can she absorb the meaning of his generosity and be satisfied by it, or has she some moral flaw, some bottomless hunger, some insatiable need?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope they are both capable of understanding the rituals they are performing. (Or at least that they respect their mystery. Part of a ritual’s power is that we don’t fully understand it in a literal sense; it retains a mysterious power over us, whence comes its peculiar satisfaction.)

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