Why empowering girls isn’t working

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, June 14, 2012 19:47 EDT
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Cassie at Jezebel has a post up about Helen Fraser, the chief executive of the UK’s Girls’ Day School Trust, arguing that schools should have lessons in husband-hunting for girls. But it’s not as bad as it sounds! The idea is to teach girls how to find a partner who respects them and their life goals and isn’t, as Michael Lewis put in a kind of self-deprecating I’m-a-pig-but-an-honest-one article, looking for an intelligent, ambitious wife they can then put out of business. My initial response was knee-jerk: “Ugh, compulsory heterosexuality is still with us in the form of feminism.” But then I thought, you know, a lot of women do want marriage and babies and don’t know how to get those things without hooking up with a man that’s quietly going to make it hard for her not to compromise her career goals, often while claiming all the way he’s a big ol’ feminist. And this also opens the door to a real sex education curriculum that looks at not just how contraception works, but how to maintain your autonomy within relationships. So I was mildly leaning towards it and then got to this:

But even if all girls were trained in the art of marrying well and having it all, there’s still the other side of the equation—i.e. where are they going to find all of these super supportive men?

Yes, good guys do exist, but as anyone who has ever been out in the dating world can attest, they’re not easy to find—no matter how well trained you are at sniffing them out.

And all of a sudden I realized why this made me uneasy. Once again, we’re putting the entire responsibility  of fixing sexism on the shoulders of women. And even in a case where men are often the direct cause of the problem, because when things get stressful (such as when babies are born), they start to take the easy route of letting their wives make all the sacrifices. In many cases, they do this because they don’t really have a model of how not to do that, even if they have good intentions. Cassie is even more optimistic than I am on this front. Since most mainstream feminism focuses on “empowering women” and not challenging male privilege—mostly for the understandable reason that challenging male privilege creates a much more negative reaction than empowering women—we’ve created a generation or two where the number of women who feel empowered way outstrips the number of men who are truly ready to relinquish privilege. That’s why the dating market is hard.

More importantly, that’s why women often make compromises and accept little inequalities from male partners. It’s not that they’re ignorant. That’s why I suspect creating a class that starts with the assumption that women date men who won’t relinquish privilege because we don’t know any better is barking up the wrong tree. This strategy reminds me of focusing all sexual consent efforts on teaching girls to say no loudly and clearly, while offering no counter-programming to boys telling them to seek affirmative consent before proceeding. We do this because attempts to address the ways that men directly contribute to the oppression of women is immediately met with a chorus of deafening screams of “MAN-HATER”. For the same reason, there’s a tendency not to talk publicly about the disparity that many women are experiencing between their entirely reasonable expectations of an egalitarian relationship and what’s actually available. There’s a fear that if we tell women about this problem, they’ll reject feminism, even though it’s not like lowering your expectations makes you any happier with guys who expect that women put more into relationships than we get out of them. But privately, I hear it and see it all the time, both women who are holding out for equality and feeling like they’re not really getting anywhere, and women who decide that the chance of getting that egalitarian relationship in this lifetime isn’t possible. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; they’re often with guys who are pretty great, and don’t exploit their privilege to the max. Often they’re liberal guys who don’t even realize how many more decisions they get to make in the relationship and how much domestic labor they get out of. That dynamic is often easy enough to balance with a career until babies come, and then it all falls apart. 

I don’t see how teaching a class to girls about this solves that problem. I think the kind of women I’m talking about already know everything they need to know. But while I push back against the sexist message that women should “settle”, all relationships are a compromise at some point. A guy who you love who is reliably liberal and does 50% more than most men around the house but still pulls rank on you, often subconsciously, isn’t really a bad thing to settle for when you have reason to believe the dating market isn’t producing many of the totally feminist guys. (Many of whom, in my experience, aren’t really into having kids anyway, which makes it a lot easier for them not to lean on their privilege.) I’m sick of putting women in a situation where we’re expected to defeat sexism by giving up on other important goals, such as finding love and partnership, or enjoying sexual game-playing, or having families, though that’s not my thing. I just don’t really see a way out of this dilemma, except by putting more pressure on men to relinquish privilege. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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