Sexism is far from obsolete. And yet in the last several decades we women have made tremendous progress. We can go to school almost anywhere, work for pay in almost any job, purchase and own property, choose to have children or not, choose to marry or not, and have sex with just about anyone anywhere anytime. We can vote, fight back against assault, use the legal system, and conceive and raise children by ourselves. We can drive cars and trucks, go to the movies or a restaurant alone, travel by ourselves, run companies, start businesses, live alone, publish writings under our real names, take on political office, run courtrooms, repair vehicles, fight in wars, play in rock bands, direct films, teach graduate students, and launch into outer space.
Of course, this progress is not enjoyed by all women in all social classes in all parts of the world — even in the USA. There is still much work to be done to create a world where the humanity and full potential of all women and girls is fully realized; where women and girls everywhere live free of violence and discrimination, free of external controls on our bodies and reproduction, free of pay inequities and barriers to our full representation at all levels of democracy and industry.
Middle-and upper-class USian (especially White) women today may enjoy the greatest level of freedom and equality women have ever known. While it’s no picnic to be trailblazers with few role models, navigating a world of abundant choices on top of the unfinished business of dismantling sexism, we have much to be grateful for. But there is one sphere we have yet to master (mistress?) on a grand scale: being in juicy, fulfilling, joyful love relationships with men who are our equals.
I tire of watching brilliant, accomplished, funny, generous women enter into relationship, marry, and have children with men who are nowhere near their equal in mind, body, heart, or spirit. I tire of seeing smart, strong, beautiful friends of mine struggle to find suitable mates who can meet their most basic relationship needs. I weary of watching women who are bright, healthy, self-assured and resourceful in every area of their lives throwing these qualities out the window when it comes to love, turning into the nagging, insecure, neurotic partner of a man-child.
What internalized oppression and deep beliefs of inferiority or scarcity have we inherited from our mothers that we tolerate less than mediocrity in this one area of life?
Not all women want relationship, and not all want it with a man. But many of us do, in spite of ourselves. Many of us (my past self included) struggle to believe the untruth that to be fully a person — fully a woman — is to be completely independent and autonomous.
But human beings didn’t survive and thrive as a species because of our autonomy. More than many species on earth, we are wired for connection. We need each other to live meaningful, joyful lives. Community has kept us safe for thousands of years and there are few things in life better for our physical health, emotional well being, creativity, productivity, joy, and meaning than being in relationship with people who are good for us and meet our needs.
Iconic feminist Gloria Steinem popularized Irina Dunn’s quip that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. In 2012, I had the privilege to meet Ms. Steinem and hear her speak. It was quite moving and profound not only to interact with someone so historically significant, but to personally experience her wit, intelligence, vitality, and…softness. I was completely unprepared for her unassuming, elegant, kind demeanor. She is indeed a force, but not the intimidating fireball I expected her to be, based on how she has been portrayed over the years.
When we met, I didn’t get to ask Ms. Steinem about the bicycling fish metaphor, but I was aware that at age 66 she did marry (a man seven years her junior) and was a wife until he passed three years later. I don’t know if she or Irina Dunn meant that women don’t — or shouldn’t — need men at all, or if women don’t necessarily need men to survive. If the latter, then I agree — fish certainly don’t need bicycles to be fish, but if a fish decided she wanted to bike around the sea for whatever reason, I (and I suspect Ms. Steinem) would say, “you go, girl!”
I’ve never particularly wanted to bike around the proverbial sea myself (although I have taken the underwater bike out for a spin a few times…just because I could!). Nor have I been especially keen on doing superfeminine things like playing with dolls or having kids, nor doing superfeminist things like becoming a political or corporate leader. I’ve only wanted two things since I was a child: a way cool and interesting job, and a male love-of-my-life-BFF. I’ve been much more successful in making the first dream come true — even more wildly than I ever imagined — than the second. For a variety of reasons, I made dismally poor mate selections throughout my twenties and thirties. I married once at 30, to the high school sweetheart I thought was the only person who’d ever truly loved me, and spent the worst 2 1/2 years of my life as his wife.
While I travelled on three continents, moved to exciting new cities, worked in numerous way cool and interesting jobs creating positive change, maintained my own car, set up a retirement account, bought and fixed up my own home, published articles and earned two degrees, my love life remained stunted, immature, painful and drama-ridden. My standards and self-esteem were too low and my tolerance for lies, irresponsibility, ambiguity and disrespect were too high.
Consciously or not, I believed that feminism had left men little more than the choice to be controlling, chauvinistic macho men or sweet pansy doormats with no real goals and no real job. I drank the Kool Aid that my expectations were too high, and good men too scarce. I bought into the narrative that I needed to be more tolerant, more forgiving, more flexible, more indirect, more passive and more understanding. I even felt badly about myself at a deep level for wanting (needing?) a good man in my life. Wasn’t I a strong, modern, independent woman? Wasn’t I a fish?
In my forties, I woke up. I faced the truth — that I really wanted a juicy, fulfilling, joyful love relationship with a man as an equal partner. That I couldn’t heal much more alone, nor take my creativity and work much farther without supportive partnership. That just because I was capable of travelling, dining, buying, fixing, working, and experiencing alone didn’t mean I wanted to. Nothing more to prove. No more flings. No more cougar cubs. No more pretending, settling, or making myself smaller or less than.
I did my personal work. I looked at all the false beliefs I carried about myself, people, men, and my worth. I faced my history of trauma. I journaled, took classes, got therapy, did exercises, read books. Shocked to discover I had a moderate case of victimhood, I learned to take radical responsibility for my choices, the quality of my life, and the people I let into it. The immature parts of myself started to grow up.
I got serious about discerning the difference between what I need and what I want. I figured out what I really, truly need in relationship. I vowed to no longer compromise on my needs and to give a chance to any man who seemed he could meet them, initial chemistry or not. I committed to parenting myself the way I’d never been parented — to be my own dad and maintain fierce boundaries, and be my own mom and nurture my sensitive, tender heart. I committed to asking the tough questions and having the difficult conversations early on in relationships with men.
In essence, I applied the same savvy, resourcefulness, clarity, honesty, thoughtfulness, confidence, and abundance I’d used to successfully choose jobs and projects to take on, people to hire, cities to live in, cars to drive, and a house to own. I used what worked in making inroads into territory where my female ancestors couldn’t even walk to find fulfillment and healing in the main area of life they inhabited and often suffered. I brought the circle of back home.
At age 44, I’m in the happiest, healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in. He’s not perfect, and neither is our relationship, but he meets my needs and then some. We’re scary compatible in everything that matters, have sizzling chemistry, and are willing and able to have the tough conversations. We’re smart and funny together. He is kind, protective, capable, responsible, creative, and oozing integrity. We’re a team, each with different strengths and weaknesses. We listen to each other. We trust and respect each other, and genuinely like each other. We’re both grownups.
Gloria Steinem said that we should become the men we want to marry. I think many women still need to remember this advice and stop hoping for a white knight to ride into town and solve all their problems or finance their dreams. But after spending decades trying to be a man, and being more of a man than many of my mates, I’m excited about entering a new phase of life where I can be more balanced and feminine. I’m thrilled to say that true partnership is possible between men and women, and that there are lovely, evolved single people of all ages floating around the world looking for a place to fit. We are wired for connection. Dependence may be toxic for women — indeed, for people — but healthy and fulfilling interdependence is nothing to be ashamed of. Indeed, it may be the missing piece to our evolution, since there’s only so far we can go, so much we can accomplish, and so much we can experience on our own.
Ms. Steinem turned 80 last Tuesday. To honor her legacy and her example, and the final day of Women’s History Month, let us women recommit to our own equality, freedom, growth, and happiness. Let us who are the privileged trailblazers break down the walls of one of the last bastions of sexism — our own beliefs that excellence and fulfillment await us in all areas of life but our hearts. And let us collectively hold the bar sufficiently high for men, and more of them will meet us there.