While Robertson’s statement is clearly ludicrous, it’s not uncommon for a feminist to feel that she has to apologize for or somehow “tune down” her beliefs about women’s equality, especially when she is in a heterosexual relationship. Thus many women will start conversations by saying, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then finishing the sentence in a way that makes it clear that she is, indeed, a feminist. (For instance, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in women’s rights,” or “I’m not a feminist, but I think women should be paid the same wages men are paid.”)
Once a woman is able to get over the hurdle of using the word “feminist,” she’s still not free and clear as far as her relationship with a man goes. “Men of quality respect women’s equality,” states a bumper sticker offered for sale by the National Organization for Women (NOW), and in an ideal world that would be true. In this world, however, it’s not always so simple. Even men who support women’s rights in theory may feel threatened if their female partner makes more money than they do or is better than they are at a “masculine” activity such as sports or home maintenance.
This can put a strain on the relationship, especially if the man feels embarrassed by his reaction and tries to hide his feelings. Stifled feelings often manifest themselves in other ways such as snide comments or passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., “forgetting” to pass on an important work-related message).
At the same time, it can be difficult for a feminist to deal with double messages she is getting. Succeed, her lover seems to tell her, but not so much that you make me uncomfortable. Be as good as you can be…but not quite as good as I am.
The good news is that this combination of mixed messages and deeply embedded stereotypes can usually be worked out if both people in the couple are able and willing to communicate honestly about their feelings and issues. Some couples do well talking things out on their own, others may require the assistance of a marriage counselor to negotiate an equal relationship.
Another snag for a feminist in a heterosexual relationship is that there is some genuine disagreement about what equality and inequality look like. For instance, is a man who holds the door open for a feminist being a sexist pig, a gallant gentleman, or simply a courteous human being? Is a woman who enjoys pornography betraying her gender or expressing her right to sexual equality?
There are no easy answers to these difficult questions, and it’s important for a feminist to examine her—or his—own beliefs and come to their own conclusions.
Most people in this culture believe in women’s equality, even if they are not ready to use the term “feminist” to describe themselves. But deep-rooted beliefs about gender differences and gray areas in gender theory can be a challenge for a feminist couple. Working things out takes patience, honestly, tolerance, and sometimes some outside help.