An ex recently told me that, among my many flaws was my belief that, physical feats aside, there is no discernible difference in the capabilities of men and women. To be fair, I considered it a flaw that he did not believe the same.
To my way of thinking, it is completely illogical for a person reared in the age of Margaret Thatcher and MC Lyte to hold on to the fallacy that — matters of anatomy notwithstanding — there is anything a man can do that a woman cannot. Show me a man’s accomplishments, and I’ll raise you a woman who did the same or close to it while “dancing backward in heels.”
Whether we want to do those things is a different matter altogether, but the ability is there. Just as the ability for men to cook, clean and care for children is there, too. Much of what we assign to gender roles is a matter of skill and instruction vs. cognitive ability. It is conditioning, which can be undone. Which should be undone if we want to have authentic relationships with one another. Relationships built on the truth of who each person is vs. who they believe they need to be to make things work.
Women are capable creatures. Have been for a very long time, though we often downplay it. Still, should the apocalypse happen tomorrow, some of us will emerge as leaders. Others will be dead weight. But the same goes for the men. Deep down we all know that truth to be self-evident.
So why do we continue to perpetuate the idea that a man’s value in heterosexual relationships is tied to his ability to provide and protect when we know that women are perfectly capable of protecting and providing for themselves? Why have we not told men that their value lies in their willingness to act as an engaged, equal partner, promoting and supporting their own personal growth and the growth of those they love? Feminism might have expanded our idea of what a woman can do and be, but it failed to expand our definition of what it means to be a “man.” “Girl power” did not set the boys free, too. But it did make male-female relationships more nuanced than traditional roles allow for.
I see it all the time. Did it myself a time or two. We fall into our roles rooted in a different time and reality without regard for temperament or talent. Men, regardless of capabilities and opportunities, feel pressured to be breadwinners and judged if they fall short. Which is probably why, according to Pew Research findings, the more a woman out-earns her male partner the more she takes on in terms of housework and child care. Women in such situations are trying to be less “threatening,” researchers theorize. And with good cause. A recent Harvard Business Review study found conservative men become more conservative when they lose their breadwinner status. They double-down on tradition vs. working to create a dynamic that allows for a version of masculinity that does not revolve around finances and work.
Especially disheartening to me are recent findings that, while more than 90 percent of millennials supported gender equality in business and public services in 2014, 58 percent of high school seniors also believed men should be the outside “achievers” when it comes to earning a living. In 1994, only 42 percent of seniors held that belief. Theories about why that is abound — the Great Recession, work-life balance pressures — but what I take away from those stats is that by not truly addressing and demonstrating how gender equality works in a relationship, we set up the next generation to deal with this same angst, too.
Attitudes aside, the world has changed a lot since 1994. All those anti-discrimination laws and equal-access programs now at risk birthed a generation of women whose sense of self and priorities are radically different from any before. For eight years, the Obamas provided a public example of a marriage of equals. He ran the country, but we all know she had the brains, talent and tenacity to the same. Just as he has enough kindness, patience and endurance to run a household.
Yet we still encourage women to “let a man be a man” by pretending to be less than capable. And we encourage men to pretend that the woman he is “leading” through life could not just as easily find her way on her own. There is no authenticity in that. How can you trust someone you know is lying to you? How can you respect someone who needs the lie? Acknowledged or not, the truth sets heavy on many relationships I know. It breeds a dissatisfaction I have seen only the strongest relationships survive — usually by imploding and rebuilding.
I’ll give you an example: Longtime friends have been married for a long time. They met in college where both were campus leaders, “achievers” if you will. They married, had kids and settled into the traditional roles they both thought they wanted. His career became the family priority; the family became hers. And it worked — for a while. Until she expressed a desire to “achieve” in her own right and he felt blindsided. Because the truth is, even half a century after Gloria Steinem’s rise, when a modern woman decides a world provided vs. obtained is not enough (and many eventually will), it can feel like a personal rejection to a man conditioned to believe his worth is linked to his ability to provide. Except it is not. The shift is merely an awakening of self-knowledge. It took therapy, a separation and, in the end, a radical shift in how my friends saw themselves and each other, but today their marriage is one based on who each partner is rather than what tradition told them they should be. Their children get to see how a relationship based on each person standing on their own works. And from the outside, it looks pretty loving and supportive and honest.
Mine is the first generation of women encouraged to move through the world like men. Not as men, but like them: Self-reliant, ambitious, assertive. With aspirations beyond the family and the home. By the time punk band Bikini Kill published its “Riot Grrrl Manifesto” in 1991, we’d already lived through the 1980s, a decade that started with the gender-bending film “Mr. Mom” and ended with the empowerment anthem “Ladies First.” And do not forget the Spice Girls and their late-’90s “Girl Power.” We saw lots of images of empowered women but few images of men partnering with them in positive relationships.
There was one. I came into adulthood believing in the feminism of Claire Huxtable, which deemed submission in return for protection and provision archaic. We all wanted to be the Huxtables. We all wanted that life. And we can have it — once we free men from the burden of believing their value in a relationship is financial rather than emotional.