All too often, supporters of gender equality end up degrading traditional femininity. A new memoir falls into this trap.
Alisa Valdes's memoir, The Feminist and the Cowboy, is presented as a story of personal transformation. Valdes, a best-selling chick-lit writer, grew up in a Marxist household, where her parents demanded that she be independent, assertive, and feminist. After a failed marriage and much dating unhappiness, she finally meets the titular cowboy (called, throughout, "the cowboy,") a conservative, six-foot-two, achingly handsome man's man who teaches her to embrace her femininity, give up the man-hating, and submit. Or, as she puts it, "I'd win this game through softness. Through relenting. Through yielding. By giving, and giving, and giving until it hurt."
The move from second-wave ball-breaking feminism to "difference feminism," in which women embrace their biological destiny of relenting and yielding, is supposed to be a major life change for Valdes. And yet, reading through the book, pre-cowboy Valdes and post-cowboy Valdes don't actually look all that different. For example, Valdes notes that she put an anti-Fox News sticker on her car because she was trying to please her controlling, liberal father. She then takes the sticker off...to please the controlling, conservative cowboy. " I wondered if a part of me wasn't just repeating old patterns," Valdes muses, but then decides it couldn't possibly be because her intuition says it couldn't. Which, really, doesn't seem like a very good reason.
The continuity isn't just about her willingness to be controlled; it's also about her attitudes towards gender. Valdes discusses how her academic Cuban father and her mother insisted verbally on the absolute equality of the sexes—when she made the freshman cheerleading squad, for example, her father discouraged her from participating, because he felt it was demeaning. In practice, though, her father demanded her mother fulfill traditional gender roles—watching the kids, making meals, and even editing his manuscripts without credit. Finally, her mother rebelled, abandoning her children, and "fell into bad company," as Valdes puts it. Thus, Valdes's family, in both words and actions, pushed Alisa to reject traditional femininity, which her father (verbally) found unacceptable and her mother (through action) had found intolerable.