Lisa Bonos is Outlook’s assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter: @lisabonos.
‘I find it really attractive how successful you are,” my date said, leaning in for a kiss.
Sure, it sounds like a line. But it also sounds like feminism. It certainly made him more appealing than the guy who said, “Wow, you’re really ambitious,” like he was surprised. Or the one who asked, “Why do you work so much?” and “Why would you want to work even more?” when I was angling for a promotion.
It didn’t work out with any of those men, but going out with them made it all the more obvious to me what I want a partner to be: cute, smart, funny and . . . yes, feminist. So go ahead, alert Susan Patton, Lori Gottlieb and the rest of the get-married-already crowd: A 30-something single woman, eggs unfrozen, is telling other single women that they should dare to want it all if they ever hope to have it all.
But how do you spot a male feminist if he’s not at an abortion rights rally wearing a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt?
It shouldn’t be hard. After all, as Aziz Ansari said on David Letterman’s show recently, everyone’s a feminist now. Unless you think Beyonce shouldn’t have the right to vote, should earn 23 percent less than Jay-Z and should be at home cooking rather than performing. And who would think that?
Few guys will proudly say no when asked if they’re feminists. Instead it’s a wholehearted yes, a lukewarm maybe or Can you define what you mean by “feminist,” please? As one 32-year-old put it to The Washington Post Magazine last month: “I respect the movement. I’m hesitant to call myself a feminist, but I guess I wouldn’t shy away from the term.”
In other words: Do we have to put a label on it?
The label isn’t everything; living it is more important than saying it. But it’s a good place to start.
Define what you’re looking for.
Is he a feminist if he proclaims, on a first date, that he could see himself taking his wife’s last name? (Maybe his own name is pretty generic.) If he insists on doing the dishes after you’ve cooked dinner together but proceeds to whip the dish towel at your ass, is that playful or objectifying? (Both.) Is he sexist if he cancels an Uber ride because a female driver is on her way to pick the two of you up? (Definitely.)
Does he need to believe that men and women, are equals and should be treated as such? (Uh, yes.) Does he need to be actively fighting for social, political and economic justice for women — and for all people, really — to identify as a feminist? (Not necessarily. But if he’s doing that, great.)
Here’s how I’m defining it: Feminist daters — male or female, gay or straight — aren’t constrained by gender roles. Anyone can do the asking-out, the feelings-confessing or the initiating of any kind. (As for who picks up the check on a first date, let’s obliterate the gender pay gap first, then put that one back up for debate.)
Of course, way too many guys think they’re feminists but don’t live up to it. A true male feminist is supportive of, interested in and enthusiastic about his partner’s career. He might not expect to earn more than his partner or think that his career trumps hers; a feminist couple might relocate for the woman’s career. Things are moving in this direction: A 2014 study by the moving company Mayflower found that 72 percent of millennials would move for a female spouse’s job, compared with 59 percent of baby boomers.
The challenge of breaking out of rigid gender roles isn’t limited to straight daters. “Both my partner and I have known butches who are so into being butch that it can be like dating a man who’s a bit sexist,” lesbian writer Donna Minkowitz, 50, tells me. “And I’ve known gay couples who are so rigid in their gender division . . . one man doesn’t want his partner to work, wants him to stay home with the kids.”
Minkowitz thinks that sometimes straight people fear that if they try to have an egalitarian relationship, sexual attraction will suffer. “That’s an unnecessary worry,” she says, “because you can still admire the way a person is masculine or feminine without buying into a whole socioeconomic package that goes along with that.”
When it comes to that attraction, a feminist man makes sure — verbally — that his partner is on board, rather than just forging ahead. “Never assume I’d like it there,” as Annie Werner, a 25-year-old who works for Tumblr in New York, says when talking about the importance of sexual consent.
“If you’re a woman who wants a man to grab you and kiss you because that’s what sweeps you off your feet, realistically, a feminist man is not going to do that,” says Rita Goodroe, a 38-year-old life coach in Northern Virginia who works mostly with singles. “He’s going to ask for permission.”
I’d rather have permission than confusion.
A feminist dater or boyfriend (and yes, feminists have boyfriends) is aware of the ways women have traditionally been held back, by others and by our own accord, and actively pushes against that. He’s sensitive to the fact that women’s bodies are frequently judged, abused and legislated, and takes no part in that. He gets it.
Singles have heard years of married-splaining from Sheryl Sandberg, Anne-Marie Slaughter and others about how you should “make your partner a real partner.” Yes, we know that couples who share housework have better sex lives and that the idea of a man down-shifting his career while his wife takes on more responsibilities at work is more rational than radical.
But you don’t just wake up one day next to a partner who’s enlightened because he grew up with lesbian aunts. First, you go on lots of dates. And you go online.
Ask for what you want.
As an experiment, Megan Downey, a 24-year-old social marketing specialist in Washington, has a very succinct Tinder profile: a few pictures of herself and the word “feminist.”
“I was just wondering if there were men out there who were not afraid of the word ‘feminist,’ ” she tells me.
Downey says she heard from one or two guys who wanted to fight about what the word meant. And then she found one who wasn’t afraid of the F-bomb: A man wrote to her that it was “great to see a feminist on Tinder” — he self-identifies as a Marxist feminist and has studied the history of gender inequality and how it has affected the economy, she says. They saw each other for about three months.
Downey may be on to something. The day before we spoke, I was going through my daily batch of profiles on Hinge — an online-dating app similar to Tinder — and I clicked “yes” on a man whose profile listed “feminism” as one of his interests, right after “foreign policy.”
Laurie Davis, the founder of eFlirt, an online-dating consulting company, says there’s been a shift in how people refer to their ideal partners in online profiles. “I see people allude to feminist traits in their profiles,” she says, such as men seeking women who are “independent or similarly successful” — or listing “Lean In” as a book they’ve read recently.
Sometimes the signs of a person’s worldview are more subtle. When I spoke to Samhita Mukhopadhyay, a former executive editor of Feministing.com and the author of “Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life,” she complained about men’s online profiles that list their favorite musicians and writers, but don’t include a single woman. “Everyone loves Thomas Pynchon,” she said. “It’s like: Do you know that women make art, too?”
Don’t wait around for someone else to make the first move.
I’ve long believed that dating like a feminist — which often involves making the first move — will weed out many of the guys with more rigid ideas about gender and relationships. It might also help identify the feminist man who doesn’t want to come on too strong or who feels it isn’t necessarily his responsibility to signal interest.
Downey, for example, asked her Marxist feminist out on their first two dates. And I interviewed two 24-year-old men — they consider themselves feminists — whose girlfriends either asked them out first or sent the first message on Tinder. “I’m not good at reaching out,” one of them told me.
For years, Davis has been nudging women to send the initial message in online dating, and now she’s getting less pushback on that advice. “I’ve been encouraging women to be proactive with their dating lives . . . and now I feel like I don’t need to preach that any longer.”
My feminist dating story starts in my sixth-grade classroom, as I watched my first major crush, Chris, ask my best friend, Erica, if she would “go out” with him. (Not on a specific date, of course; this was just 1990s low-key lingo for “Will you be my girlfriend?”) She said yes. The whole class was watching and cheering him on, probably because none of us had seen a boy ask a girl out before and wanted to see how it was done. But I was devastated.
I resolved right then that the next time I liked someone, I was going to make it clear. I’ve refined my approach over the years, so I’m not haphazardly confessing crushes. But if I want to spend time with someone and see if there’s something there, I’m comfortable initiating a first date — or a non-date date, depending on how bold I’m feeling.
In fact, I was so bold when it came to love that when I was having trouble mustering the chutzpah to apply for a promotion a few years ago, a friend said to me, “Lisa, if this job were a guy, you would’ve gone on a first date already.”
That was all it took for my workplace assertiveness to kick in. For other women, though, it might be the other way around.
He’s not the only one who should be strong and sensitive.
Sometimes expressing feelings doesn’t feel “brave” or “bold,” but stereotypically girly.
When Annie Werner tells me about her recent breakup — “I was dumped because my self-assuredness was unrelatable” — her indignation is extremely relatable.
“It just never seems like you were open to self-doubt,” Werner said her ex told her, a critique that she says came out of nowhere. “There were never moments of vulnerability, which are often moments that lead to real intimacy.”
At first she thought this breakup rationale was ridiculous. But once she thought about how she — and other women like her — has built herself up “as this feminist, this self-assured woman, this strong person,” she realized that “it becomes harder to access the more feminine parts of yourself that could be more positive.”
“There’s this persona we create for ourselves that doesn’t compute with vulnerability,” she added.
Exactly. Because a woman at her most vulnerable could be taken advantage of. And that’s no one’s feminist fantasy.
But the opposite — showing little emotion in budding relationships — could be the “cool girl” trap. Mukhopadhyay talks about the subtle sexism she sees in the way women avoid talking about their feelings in relationships, so as not to be cast as a stereotypical woman who gets too emotional.
“I might be cool with casual sex, but that doesn’t necessarily make me this ‘cool girl’ who’s detached from emotion,” Mukhopadhyay says.
Which brings us back to that elusive feminist boyfriend. If the feminist man is all about blending strength and sensitivity, balancing traditionally masculine traits with traditionally feminine ones, it’s a balance women are also trying to navigate.
And that’s a concept that doesn’t fit on a T-shirt.
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