A Wife and Husband Debate Feminism

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Via the hello@ address:

The other night my husband sent me a link to your thread on feminism. It sparked a debate between us, which I should thank you for. While we have very different educations (my background is in anthropology, he is a physicist), it had been a few months since we’d challenged each other intellectually, and it’s nice when we do. I feel lucky when I learn something new about him, or when we manage to teach each other about a different worldview.

I am a proud feminist, likely because I’ve studied a fair amount of feminist theory. When I was younger, I’d describe myself, stammering: “I’m a feminist but, I mean, I don’t, like, hate men or anything.” I was terrified that labeling myself a “feminist” would relegate me to the fringes, where nice boys wouldn’t like me or I’d be seen as “difficult.” Yet I wanted to be valued; I wanted to have opportunities.

The tricky thing with feminism is that, so often, we are so close to those who are discriminating against us.

It’s well-meaning Aunt Faye saying to a new dad: “Let me take your crying baby, the baby just needs a woman's touch!” It’s not negotiating for a raise with the boss you sit next to because you want to be a “nice girl.”

And it morphs throughout our lives; just when I was getting a handle on this “feminism in the office” thing, I started thinking about the “motherhood” thing. If I look at stay-at-home-moms doing crafts with their kids and think: “my God, how mind-numbing!,” and stay-at-home-dads doing the same and think: “How sweet!,” am I bad feminist? (Answer: yes. Because if feminism means we’re free to chose our fate, we are as free to choose a traditional gender role as a non-traditional one.)

I hope one day we live in a world where men and women don't feel pressured to live their lives a certain way because of an expectation of their gender. In the meantime, as a feminist, I’m going to keep plodding along, trying to judge the people around me by their actions and words rather than anything else. Or, as my husband put it: “By what’s between their ears rather than what’s between their legs.”

I asked the reader to detail the crux of the debate between her and her husband:

I said: “Wait—would you describe yourself as a feminist?” And he said, shockingly: “I don’t think so, no.”

When we started dating, I’d even given him a copy of How to Be a Woman, which I’d enjoyed, so I thought we’d covered the feminist topic and were on the same page. I knew he hadn’t liked How to Be a Woman as much as I did; he prefers more data-driven arguments (in hindsight, it wasn’t a great introductory text for me to choose). But I guess I had assumed he would have described himself as a “feminist,” because I see him as one.

When that Computer Engineer Barbie story came out—where she needs men’s help to solve some problem—he was pretty funny about it. He’s also very much a scientist and has a deep respect for life in and of itself: we are all just stardust. Ascribing social values (i.e. women=lower, men=superior) to different physical forms is a little presumptuous.

So we sent a few emails back and forth, which is unusual because we live together. He’d classified a lot of the things I see as sexual discrimination as just “asshole behaviour,” to which I said: “Yes, but women are more likely to be on the receiving end of asshole behaviour.” We talked about discrimination here, around things like pay gaps, and then discrimination in other parts of the world—like honour killings, child brides, and child pregnancies (in Paraguay, specifically).

Anyway, for me, it was kind of fun, to have our minds meet like that. I wanted to mention it for a couple of reasons: 1) when you put these threads together, people actually read them and have discussions in their living rooms, and 2) one woman, in a note published on October 5, wrote:

Worse, some of the proudest ‘feminists’ I know are quite vocal about their disdain for partnership with men. I quite enjoy the complementary features and qualities of the sexes, and whether feminism claims misandry as its own or not, there is a definite correlation between the two in my acquaintance.

That anecdote didn’t sit right with me. I suspect a lot of women are afraid to be labelled “feminists” because they’re afraid to be labelled “misandrists.” (I suspect there’s a little homophobia in there too.) I wonder if some of that is because there’s a fear that a feminist woman’s male partner is seen as somehow less “masculine.” The idea that there are “complementary features and qualities of the sexes” echoes an adherence to traditional gender roles, which is exactly what feminism challenges.

Maybe I wanted to mention that I was married, and that we had the kind of marriage where we actually discuss the world, because I felt defensive: I’m a feminist and I love and respect my husband. Both things can be true: to think that being a “feminist” means you can’t have a good marriage is not just sad, it’s illogical. One does not prevent the other.

I also invited the husband to respond:

I sent my wife the link because I have some arguments with those who self-identify as feminists. As many of your readers have said, the word seems to be hijacked.

I don’t like the hypocrisy I see. For instance, my wife mentioned the Caitlin Moran book, How to be a Woman. This is a celebrated writer who many look up to as a voice for feminists. In the book, though, she is dismissive of men, or: “the men.” At one point, she assures women that they don’t have to be self-conscious during sex because there are “men out there having sex with bicycles.” She describes gay people with stereotypes (“the gays are up for glitter, filth and fun”) that I would’ve thought a militant feminist would disagree with. She marginalizes minorities in the same manner that she finds abhorrent of how “the patriarchy” apparently treat women.

My wife mentioned that we talked about the plight of women and girls in the developing world. Comparing women’s rights in North America to the plight of women and girls in the developing world is like comparing apples to oranges. Rape as a tool of war, forced marriages, genital mutilation: these are repugnant. But these atrocities are on a completely different scale than the struggles faced by women here. It approaches offense when feminism offers both a) honor killings and b) the difficulties women have in North America achieving a “work-life balance,” as key issues.

Regarding pay gaps, Dr. Claudia Goldin is a leading academic studying this issue. An article in the NYT quotes her as saying: “The gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours.”

My wife and I discussed this at length. She says traditional gender roles push women into working less because they have to take care of their children, and if that’s true, there’s something to be changed there. But to me, it looks like women get paid less because they work less. If I were to take parental leave to care for our small children (as I intend to), I’ll be giving up my income for a time, just as a woman would. I’d make less because I’d work less.

Some arguments about pay ignore that many of us, male and female, are dealing with the trade-off of career vs. family. Rarely can both partners be completely successful outside of the home; someone’s gotta take care of the kids. Suggesting that the whole world change its work ethic and reward system to accommodate this “pay gap” is laughable.

So to have said all of that, am I a feminist? Yes, in my wife’s definition. No, in many others, including mine. I’m not a feminist like Caitlin Moran if it means deriding men, and I’m frustrated that so much attention is given to a “women vs. men” conversation, instead of being given to a more important social issue.