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The Old Fashioned Things We Do

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about having a heterosexual, feminist relationship.  My boyfriend identifies himself as a feminist and I’m quite proud of that. It made me wonder how that might affect the practicalities of our relationship.

I do believe that we have a ‘feminist relationship’ despite that we do navigate issues like ‘who pays for dinner?’ in ways that can be construed as ‘old fashioned’. It’s difficult to define, however, what a feminist relationship is. Does it mean that we necessarily have to stray from old courting and marriage traditions with clearly defined gender roles? Or does it merely mean that we respect each other as equals? In this article I’m going to explore some old fashioned things people in relationships still often do and whether it can be compatible with maintaining a feminist relationship.

Holding the Door Open

If a man holds a door open for a woman, some think that it supposedly symbolises that the dainty woman is not able to do it for herself and requires ‘rescue’ from such a daunting task. However, I think this is a rather extremist view on the phenomenon. It’s likely to just happen out of politeness. I also believe that it is getting less and less gendered in practical use. I am known to quite often hold doors open for men or other women because it seems like a nicer thing to do than shoving a door into their face. As long as he shows respect for whomever he opens the door for, doing so does not preclude a guy from being part of a feminist relationship.

Letting Him Make the First Move

This is highly contentious ground. If you like someone, it seems to be in everybody’s best interests to just say so, whether you are male or female. If they like you back, you have a potential awesome relationship. If they don’t, well, you can quit wasting your time.

In the book-turned-movie, He’s Just Not That Into You, the authors suggest that women wait for the man to ask them out because it means that you don’t have to worry that they are only with you because they didn’t want to hurt your feelings and you know that you aren’t wasting your time with someone who doesn’t like you. However, I don’t think this is quite fair. Surely men have to face the same doubts and fears in a budding relationship as do women.  In addition, just because a man hasn’t noticed a woman, doesn’t mean he won’t be ‘into’ her once she demonstrates her bravery and confidence in taking that first step.

There’s nothing wrong with the guy making the first move, but there is something wrong with waiting on the grounds that he ought to control the primary stages of the relationship. Both men and women need to have equal say in suggesting or initiating all the ‘firsts’, whether it be the first move, first kiss, first sexual interaction, etc. If a woman in a relationship feels as though she can’t do this from fear of rejection or simply because she needs the man to take control, they are not in a feminist relationship.

Letting Him Pay

Many feminists contend that allowing a man to pay for a meal is akin to a kind of transaction. If a guy pays for a meal, you end up ‘owing’ him something in return. This could be sex, or it could be something else. Supposedly, it creates the feeling of obligation and a kind of unevenness. Some men supposedly also use it to assert their ‘bread-winning’ status. He wants to show that he can support her financially and also shows that he earns more than she does. Or it could just be because he invited her out and therefore feels obligated to pay the bill. Or it could be because he feels like giving his girlfriend a gift of a meal. Or it could just be that she doesn’t feel like paying and he is willing!

There is the trap that people fall into thinking that if a man buys a woman gifts, this can replace expressions of love or it means that she ought to stay with him as he has invested so much money. If a woman does let the man pay, falling into this kind of trap is not conducive to maintaining a feminist relationship. With these matters, when making decisions about a relationship or in a relationship, if money creates uneven psychological ground, then it can’t be a feminist relationship.

Having Engagement/Wedding Rings

Used to signify ownership of a woman by a man? Signify that other men need to back off? A declaration of financial security? A token given to a woman for which she exchanges the concept of being with this person for the rest of her life? In the past, rings did denote these things. To some extent, they probably denote them still, and there is certainly a symbolic aspect to it. Otherwise, why would everyone need to see it (and evaluate it) whenever a woman is proposed to? It is a huge indicator of financial status as well as romantic commitment.

Can it be part of a feminist relationship? Yes, I believe so. If you view it as a gift, not a promise.

Getting Married

Germaine Greer once said that marriage was institution which essentially legalised the rape of a man’s wife. Possibly this has changed a great deal since it is now technically possible for women to accuse and convict their husbands of rape in Australia. But realistically, how many people would do this, or identify unwanted sex with their husband as rape in the first place?

That said, it is clearly possible to have a loving marriage that does not feature the existence of rape, where two people mutually respect each other and decide on the particulars of their lives together. Certainly, this is also legally convenient since marriage gives both partners rights when it comes to assets, children and inheritance.

However, in most jurisdictions around the world, this legally convenient institution has a very limited view in that said jurisdictions have outlawed gay marriage. Is it feminist to embrace the privilege of marriage and support such a narrow institution?

If feminism is about promoting choice, then certainly, if you want to get married (and someone wants to get married with you) then you should! At the same time, you need to be open to trying to ensure that others have the same choices and the same ability to participate in those institutions. If you have an open-mind about what marriage could mean and are active in opening that up in a practical sense, then marriage can definitely feature in a feminist relationship.

Changing Your Name

One of the problems many people who enjoy tracing their family heritage encounter is that because their female ancestors more often than not have gotten married and changed their names, they have literally disappeared. They become no longer identifiable on their own merits, completely subsumed by the man they married.

And indeed, why should any woman have to change their name? As with male names, female names serve to be part of a woman’s identity and is one of their oldest possessions. And indeed, any relationship where a woman does not have the choice to keep her name cannot be said to be a feminist relationship.

However, it is not anti-feminist for a woman to decide to take a new name. For some, it’s a welcome change from a life of having to spell out their name every time someone asks what it is or it can be an interesting addition to one’s otherwise dull, ‘Smith’-clad office door. Some women like to change their names simply because they like the idea of their new family all sharing the same name. The reasons though aren’t important. As long as the decision as to whether or not to change one’s name remains the woman’s, she is not precluded from being in a feminist relationship.

It’s all about intention and choice

In the end, it isn’t necessarily anti-feminist to do any of this stuff per se. Instead, a good rule of thumb for these matters is thinking about the intentions and beliefs of the people involved. Chances are, if a man opens a door for a woman, it’s probably not because he thinks that she is incapable of doing it herself, he’s probably just being polite. Likewise, it’s very possible to marry someone and be actively campaigning for more inclusive legislation on marriage. An engagement ring can also just be an expensive gift rather than a symbol of ownership. It all depends on the people involved.
Always preserving choice for both partners and always having mutual respect regardless of the presence of money or of traditional roles, that’s really what is important in maintaining a feminist relationship.

(Image Credit)

3 thoughts on “The Old Fashioned Things We Do

  1. Pingback: Some shameless promotion « Think of pretty things

  2. Fantastic article (yes, I only just found it!) I’m always thinking about the implications of marriage on a feminist relationship, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I won’t change my name when/if I marry but I’ll probably adhere to other traditions, because I don’t view them as being anything other than traditions – I don’t believe I’ll feel objectified or ‘owned’ if I’m given a ring.

  3. In a feminist relationship I would not expect her to change her name. Likewise, she would fully support my choice to not purchase an engagement ring for her or wear a wedding band myself.

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