Is it hard to be a feminist in a heterosexual relationship?
Before my first date with my new partner, I’d resolved that I wasn’t going to try to impress. That isn’t to say that I meant to saunter into the pub in tracksuit bottoms and lounge wear, but I was determined not to doll myself up (which I enjoy doing on occasion). I wore a patterned dress, a denim jacket and trainers and I didn’t replace my glasses with contact lenses. If he was going to like me, I’d decided it would be for who I am, not for an image I created of myself.
For some reason, my plan worked. We hit it off on our first date and have been more or less inseparable since. The problem, however, is that my conviction to be true to who I am seems to have faltered. I have found myself increasingly ready to tend to his needs and in a selfless and sometimes self-effacing manner. What has happened to my former ranty, women’s lib self? Why isn’t she screaming at me to run a mile and escape before it’s too late?
The mental load
The situation I have found myself in is common to many women — we simply fall into gender stereotypes despite our best efforts not to. I, for example, feel I have taken on the role of housewife: I do most, if not all, of the cooking and as I enjoy high standards of hygiene, I spend more time than he does cleaning. (It is worth introducing, at this point, a slight caveat: I am currently also looking for work, which might imply a more pronounced tipping of the scales.) The question remains — have I conformed to this feminised position because society has subtly and coyly allotted it to me, or am I merely more inclined to caring for someone else?
I think the answer is perhaps a combination of the two, though greatly favouring societal expectation. On the one hand, women are accustomed to taking on what French comic, Emma, refers to as the ‘mental load’ of managing the household chores; in other words, when a man expects to be told what to do at home and therefore views his female partner as manager, he ascribes to her the ‘mental load’ of household upkeep. If this is the case, the fact that I have been socialised as a woman might lean me towards dedicating the extra time I now have to household maintenance because I consider it my responsiblity or duty to do so. The home is my area to oversee, so to put it.
On the other hand, I have been raised culturally to treat the house as a shrine and guests as priests who deserve reverence. This cultural variance between my partner and I might solve part of the puzzle as to why I have taken on far more caring responsibility.
So though I find myself desiring to be more carefree and casual, I am forced to accept that this is not within my nurture. Do I raise the issue with him? Yes, however…
Why being a feminist is so alienating
There is, I think, another, more deeply conflicting reason as to why we avoid representing ourselves as feminists in relationships.
Imagine being told on a daily basis that your habits are impeding upon the freedoms and emancipation of your partner and you must shift your entire way of being in order to fully comprehend the impact you’re having on them. You are forced to acknowledge that through no immediate or direct choice of your own, you have been awarded a position superior to your partner’s and it is now your responsibility to shed your gold and even those scales. You are then asked to rectify this imbalance and therefore be conscious of every step you make and every position you take.
When, as women, we try to raise awareness in our male partners about the vast impact that patriarchy has on our everyday lives, we are demanding the above of our partners. We are asking them to constantly re-evaluate the bond that we share through a lens that attempts to dismantle the world as society sees it. In so doing, we become crusaders to a cause that feels necessary, but we risk not seeing our partners as the person we love, but as men in need of education. Such is the burden placed upon women grappling with what being a feminist entails in a heterosexual relationship. Do we fall into gender roles to save our relationship, or do we stay true to our cause at the expense of it?
The burden of empathy
The irony of what I’m expressing, however, is that it reveals yet another load placed on women — the ‘emotional load’. As women, we are attentive to our partners’ wellbeing, so when attempting to find solutions to conflict, we may even set aside our own needs to ensure cohesion. I can think of many examples in my current relationship — after a petty argument with my partner when running late to meet a friend, I encouraged him to express his feelings despite my equal irritation at him at that moment; when my partner left me to clean the dishes because he was in a state of emotional turmoil, I again supported him to feel safe rather than verbalise my frustration at the uneven distribution of household tasks.
I have not observed men demonstrating the same situational empathy. When in a state of stress or emotional strain, the men I have shared relationships with have rarely displayed the foresight to understand how their behaviours are affecting those around them. Indeed, when in a comfortable and stable state, the men I have known have seldom pre-empted how I might be feeling after a long day of work or following a conflict with a friend.
So even in articulating the struggle I face to be true to my feminist cause in my romantic relationship, I recognise that this friction is inherently gendered — my thought-process itself is female. How do I escape gender when I have been socialised not as human, but female (to reference Simone de Beauvoir) and therefore have always been trained to consider others and accept the supporting role?
As women, we are entirely aware of the sacrifices we will have to make for the greater good. Men do not consider that their lives will entail any sacrifice. So where is the balance and how do we create one? And is there, indeed, a way to be a feminist and a good partner?