How to date a feminist

Dear Dad,

One of the things that comes up a lot in discussing feminism, and critique of feminism, is how women can have healthy relationships with men. On the extreme, you have Pat Robertson saying feminism turns women into lesbians, but in much more moderate discourse, many people talk about feminism weakening relationships between men and women, or upending healthy family structures. I know we’ve clashed some on the role of men in a relationship.

As women’s rights and feminism are experiencing a new spotlight, more attention is being given to the role of feminism in dating. I came across this interesting article about asking men on Tinder whether they’re feminists, for instance.

Now, throughout this discourse, the idea that feminism ruins male-female relationships is repeated again and again. You have men saying they lose power, and Women Against Feminism saying they need their husbands to open jars for them.

But I’m lucky enough to have started dating a feminist earlier this year, and it’s changed my whole perspective on relationships, so I thought I’d share with you how:

1. Consent is supreme. This started even before we were dating, when my now-partner asked if it was okay to flirt with me. He said he valued my friendship and didn’t want to make me uncomfortable. I’d come off of a string of guys who never asked what I wanted, so his straightforwardness stunned me at first. I dodged the question, and he told me flat-out that if I didn’t tell him I wanted him to flirt, he wouldn’t. It took me a day to respond, but I did decide I wanted his attention. Maybe this doesn’t sound the most romantic, but it totally was. And it’s created a foundation of trust and communication in our relationship that endures. Men such as Rush Limbaugh will have you believe consent takes the seduction out of a relationship, but it is really so much more romantic when you get to say “yes.”

2. Equality. The bf says, “It changes the way you do everything.” This doesn’t mean he can’t help me with a jar, should I need it. But it also means I can help him open jars (and I’m better at opening jars anyway). The roles we fill in the relationship aren’t dictated by our gender, but by our strengths and passions. So if I want to take him out for dinner and a movie, that’s not threatening (and believe me, I have dated guys who felt really insecure when I offered to pay for dinner). And he loves to cook dinner for me when we stay in.

3. Independence. He loves who I am as a person. He supports my freedom. My boyfriend also encourages me to spend time away from him, with my friends. He knows I am my own person and doesn’t want my other relationships to suffer because of my relationship with him. I’ve had women tell me they love when their boyfriend is jealous because it “shows he cares.” To me, it shows he’s possessive and insecure. I’ve been in jealous relationships, and they’re unhealthy. But in a relationship where the partners recognize each other’s independence, jealousy is unnecessary. He trusts me, and that means I am not afraid to be myself.

4. Shared values. This is true of any romantic relationship: Shared values are essential. With my partner, this means that he feels as passionately as I do about social justice. He loves the work I do on my blog and supports me in speaking out against gender inequality. Likewise, he is vocal in the fight against racism, for instance. We both care deeply about equality for everyone. I couldn’t be committed to a person who slighted my efforts, or didn’t believe that there is still work to be done.

So there you have it: Dating a feminist hasn’t ruined my love life. I haven’t emasculated my boyfriend and he hasn’t forgotten how to romance me. Instead, it’s given me the most loving, honest, healthy relationship of my life.

Love ya!
Victoria

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Lovin’ my new curves

Dear Dad,

I am the fattest I have ever been, and I totally love it.

What’s happened? Well, in addition to reaching that age where my teenage girl body has fully morphed into my grown woman body (which means becoming generally squishier in the thighs, butt, breasts, etc.), I am also in a fulfilling and healthy relationship, and have learned to (mostly) ignore media messages about being Barbie thin.

It hasn’t been easy. Our society idolizes thinness. Look at Rosario Dawson reflecting on how many compliments she received when she starved herself to play a drug addict. Or the teen and preteen models getting fired for gaining two pounds in the documentary “Girl Model.” And then there’s the quintessential icon of feminine beauty, Barbie.

I got a little junk in my trunk, and I’m not ashamed to flaunt it.

I didn’t have many Barbies growing up, and I didn’t consider myself weight-obsessed, but when I started to gain weight after high school, when my stomach stopped being naturally flat, I started to worry. I felt self-conscious and like everyone was staring at me. My self-esteem took a hit.

But since I began my journey down Feminist Lane, I’ve encountered much discussion of body positivity and fat positivity. What does this mean? It means taking a healthy approach toward our bodies. Not everyone is going to be a rail thin model. Some people are naturally very skinny (an extremely small portion of the population). Other people weigh more, have chubby tummies, and can still be healthy. Look at Prince Fielder’s great naked shoot for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue! Guy’s got a gut, but he’s also a professional athlete!

I am not a professional athlete. But I am also no longer embarrassed to say I’ve gone up a pant size. I like my new curves and I’m comfortable with my body, which I think is the most healthy thing of all.

Love,
Victoria

Abuse victims need our love and support, not blame

TW: discussion of domestic abuse

Dear Dad,

Sigh. I didn’t think it needed to be said, but apparently it needs to be said. I know I don’t need to say it to you. Your classes and experience in counseling have taught you that. But if the Internet is any indication, plenty of people don’t understand that the victim of domestic violence is not at fault.

That is, if you look at the responses to Janay Rice’s statements about her assault. I have seen Janay called a “gold digger” and “stupid.” And that’s just in the first two comments on an article about her. I didn’t have the stomach to go any deeper.

Your work has taught you that leaving an abusive relationship is anything but simple. The abusive partner is controlling, and manipulative. Abusers use tenderness from time to time to hold their partner in the relationship, while at the same time taking away the victim’s ties to friends and family and cutting them down emotionally so they don’t have the confidence to leave. Abusers convince their victims that they are ugly and unlovable, lucky to be in a relationship at all. They create a power structure where the victim is more afraid to leave than to stay.

It’s a terrifying combination of fear, affection and reliance. Small violent outbursts are quickly followed by apologies and promises to never do it again, but those outbursts grow over time.

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I don’t know much about Janay’s relationship with Ray Rice, but it’s possible he used these same tactics, and that when he punched her in that elevator, it was not the first time.

Now, as to the victim blaming that is inevitably taking over the Internet: This is one of the most harmful responses to a person in an abusive relationship. I’m sure you know, Dad, that it is hard for a victim to leave their abuser. Part of that is because the abuser isolates them from their family, friends and anyone who could offer them support. By shaming a woman who has been abused, we prove to her that she doesn’t have the safety or support she needs to leave a man who could kill her.

Janay Rice is not stupid. She is not a gold digger. She is a victim in a terrible relationship, and right now, more than ever, she needs our support.

If you know someone in an abusive relationship, they need your support. If you know someone who decides to leave an abusive relationship, they need your support. Support victims of abuse, period. End of story.

With all my love,
Victoria

P.S. Readers, if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, you may be struggling with how to find support. Here are some resources:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s page on helping abuse victims
The Red Flag Campaign
Band Back Together

Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. I’m here for you, and so are thousands of other people who care.

Telling diverse stories

Dear Dad,

Last weekend, the boyfriend and I went out and had the nicest date. There was live jazz music, there was wine, there was in-depth discussion of the international politics of World War II. (I know, we’re romantics.)

The bf’s a history buff, and he talked about how England’s version of events, the version that most of world talks about, plays down the French role in fighting Germany. Most notably, he described the Siege of Lille, where French soldiers held the German army off for five days to buy their English allies time to escape at Dunkirk. These are the same French we deride for always surrendering in the face of a fight.

I told him about my time in France in high school, and how my class had studied World War I and II. I told him about the monuments in every tiny village, about how an entire generation had been killed in World War I, and about how, naturally, the French developed a very strong pacifist movement, which contributed in part to Hitler’s rise, but doesn’t make them weak or cowardly as a people.

“Okay, cool history,” you might be saying, Dad, “but what does this have to do with feminism?”

Well, I’ve been noticing a strong anti-non-American current on Facebook lately, Dad. I saw one friend I admired go on a tear about “illegals” while another friend derided a writer’s validity because they weren’t an American citizen. There seems to be a tendency to disrespect or distrust people who aren’t American, and in some cases, to even go so far as denying them basic human rights in this country. (Think of the way we’ve been treating all the child refugees from Central America. We’re in a humanitarian crisis and we just want to ship them back? Because it’s inconvenient for us to be compassionate?)

My belief is that feminism is not just about equality of sexes. Certainly, as a woman, that piqued my interest in feminism. But feminism, good feminism, is about fighting for all people, making sure that every human being has a shake at life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, safety, a voice. As someone who has faced oppression because of my gender, I hate to see anyone be derided or discriminated against.

And after all, I’ve been an immigrant. I was a stranger in a strange land where I had to learn the language and the customs. I was an exchange student, so I was welcomed with open arms, but not all people receive that treatment. In France, for instance, where people delighted in my desire to learn the language, black people are called names and routinely stopped and searched by police. One of my host mothers even believed that all black people are polygamists.

My time in France, though, didn’t teach me to discriminate against foreigners. Instead, it showed me the humanity in all people, that different races, cultures, languages and histories all have something wonderful to offer. I learned that human history is not always as simple or straightforward as what I learned in an American classroom. I discovered that stories have many sides, just as our history of World War II differs from that of the French.

I made friendships with people from every corner of the world, learned a little bit about their cultures and their languages, and learned that differences aren’t insurmountable barriers.

If I could, I’d make every American do a year of exchange the way I did, to get to know another country and culture intimately, and to realize that there are many sides to a story.

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When we all start to tell our stories, and when we begin to listen and cooperate together, beautiful things happen. Misunderstanding, suspicion and intolerance are destroyed,and we can start working together to create solutions to the real problems that our prejudice distracts us from, such as poverty, sexual violence and war.

We create better communities, and we lift everyone a little bit higher.

Love,
Victoria

Dress codes redux

Hey Dad,

Did you see that story in the news about the 15-year-old who was forced to wear a “shame suit” at school because her outfit was deemed to violate school dress code? The story is absolutely disgusting, and I almost cried when reading it.

It’s just another example of dress codes being used to target women and shame them for having the bodies they have. If her outfit was truly deemed to be distracting (and that’s the excuse schools give for making dress codes) then how does an ostentatious outfit advertising her rule breaking create a productive study environment?

The fact is, it doesn’t. It’s not about helping kids learn. It’s about remind women and girls that their bodies do not belong to them in public spaces, that they are always on display, and that they should be ashamed.

Until next time,
Victoria

On female traits

Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.

—Jay-Z, “Heart of the City”

Dear Dad,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a woman a woman. You and Mom have both talked with me about the innate differences between men and women, differences that make the genders special. Mom’s even asked me to dive into those differences here and explore positive variance between genders. But then I got to thinking, what are those differences, exactly?

A black-and-white, vintage photo of a father helping his child with their homework. In the background, mother knits in her sitting chair.

Maternal mother knitting? Father-knows-best helping with the book learning?

The first “female traits” that come to mind are negative stereotypes, like the one Jay-Z names above. I think of cliches that made me want to shy away from being female as a child: cattiness, vanity, squeamishness and a fear of spiders. These traits are weak, and uncool, and traditionally thought of as feminine, so I told myself I was “not like other girls” and gallantly picked up the spiders on my own and put them outside, disavowed fashion and makeup, and avoided most female friendships.

You might be saying, “Those aren’t the female traits I’m thinking of!” Certainly, when you and Mom talk about differences between genders, the woman is the nurturer, the man the problem-solver. But these roles are neither consistent nor guaranteed across genders. Is a woman who is not maternal not then a woman? Or just a failure to her gender?

Even you and Mom don’t fit into these roles! When I was a child, I turned to you for comfort, because I knew if I went to Mom with a problem she’d say, “Well have you tried x, y and z solutions?”

And these same “positive” gender traits feed into the negatives. A man being a protector necessarily needs a weak, squeamish woman to defend, for instance. And, in a world where we’re at the top of the food chain, that strength and protection is often used to guard women against other men, instead of addressing the societal root of the problem and ending gendered sexual violence. Katherine Bushnell and Elizabeth Wheeler Andrew break it down quite nicely in their 1907 (1907!) book “Heathen Slaves and Christian Rulers”:

What charm this word ‘protection,’ and the title ‘Protector’ has held for certain persons, as applied to the male sex! ‘Man, the natural protector of woman.’ Forsooth, to protect her from what? Rattlesnakes, buffalo, lions, wildcats no more overrun the country, and why is this relation of ‘protector’ still claimed? Why, to protect woman from rudeness, and insult and sometimes even worse. But from whence comes that danger of rudeness and insult or worse from which man is to protect woman? From man, of course. Man is, then, woman’s natural protector to protect her from man, her natural protector. He is to set himself the task of defending her from his injury of her, and he is charmed with the avocation.

Kelsey over at Peak City Life has a lot more on this book, if you’re interested.

I suppose what I’m saying is, I learned to like fashion, and I learned to have female friendships, but I also still put the spiders outside for myself. Mom taught me how to approach my problems, and you showed me that a shoulder to cry on can come from anywhere. Ascribing values such as “female” or “male” to certain traits limits the possibilities available to us, and limits us as human beings. It prevents us from becoming full-fledged individuals.

I’m still growing, but I recognize that I don’t have to behave in ways that are necessarily female. I am a fearfully, wonderfully made unique person, and you and Mom helped show me that.

Love,
Victoria

P.S. I realized that I started this post with a rather sad, sexist lyric that upholds gender roles, so let me end it with a song that explores gender roles and their impact on our lives in a more nuanced fashion:

“Free” and “fair”

Hi Dad,

I think we’re having a problem with semantics: You say that the right to vote was “free and fair” when it was given to women by men. But you also agree that the ratification of the 19th Amendment was the culmination of a long and difficult fight for equality.

As I pointed out, women were ridiculed, imprisoned and force-fed for asking for the right to vote, this by their government. Is it really free if it takes 70 years of protests to attain it? If I bake you a cake and say, “It’s free! But first I need you to clean my room and make me dinner,” you’d probably say that’s not free at all.

Second, both you and Tammy Bruce seem to believe that men deserve some sort of praise for the 19th Amendment. But it’s preposterous to demand praise for something that should have been in place to begin with. A voice in one’s government is a basic right of a citizen. It was shameful that women didn’t have it before, but I’m not going to thank men for a right that I should have had in the first place.

Another hypothetical: Remember the blocks my brother and I used to play with as kids? Imagine if I claimed those blocks all as my own, and said he couldn’t have them. Imagine he screams, cries, stages a protest, writes multiple well-reasoned letters to the newspaper, begs for you to intercede. For months, I refuse to let him play with the blocks. They’re mine. If, eventually, I decide to share, do I deserve to be rewarded for “freely and fairly” giving him the blocks? Absolutely not! They were his blocks too. I just kept them from him. There was nothing free or fair about it.

And that’s the problem I have with your argument.

Love,
Victoria