I’m pretty sure I’ve always been a feminist, just like I was always a critical thinker, and was always secretly okay with people being gay despite what I was told I should think by the tradition in which I was raised. Unfortunately, I’ve also always been a rule-follower. Not out of any sense of righteousness, really; just because I was (and am) deathly afraid of being in trouble with the law. Now, the law could be a cop, or it could be my dad, but it was definitely, always, God.
According to “God”--at least the “God” under whose gaze I grew up--being gay was unnatural and wrong. According to “God”, my human mind was flawed and in need of saving. And according to “God”, women, while ‘spiritually equal’ to men, were meant to be led by and deferential to them in this earthly life.
Figuring that the church knew better than I did, I decided at a fairly young age to acquiesce to the notion. It wasn’t that difficult, actually. One of the thing that makes Evangelicalism--or perhaps any kind of fundamentalism--attractive is the way in which it removes the responsibility of growing up from a person. Complementarianism (the belief that men and women have gender-specific, rigidly defined, and implicitly hierarchical roles in life and relationships) does this for women, in a way. A way that is totally patronizing and oppressive, but still--there isn’t a whole lot to worry about when someone else is making all the decisions and you agree to agree.
I chose to have faith that bowing to the plans and decisions of whomever it was that wanted to marry me was the righteous and beneficial tack to take. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well. In a stunningly awkward and remarkably quick implosion, the courtship that I bought into at the age of twenty-five--the one I was absolutely sure God would wrap up in marriage--fell to pieces, partly because of (I think, in retrospect) our buying into the complementarian strategy. The whole thing was an unnatural pantomime. Yes, I was into him, but I was no housewife in the making. I am no conformer. I became a nothing in the relationship, really, always waiting for him to make a move, start a conversation, explain what was going to happen next…. I could not figure out how to be in that way.
Because I had invested so wholeheartedly in the traditional gender roles despite my inherent inclination to the contrary, I was extra bitter when that relationship broke up. I was starting to be done with God, and I was most definitely done with assimilating to the patriarchal way of life. As such, you can imagine my disorientation when the next relationship in which I saw a long future--the one I came to as a non-believer and an adamant egalitarian eight years later--required that I quit my job in order to be with the man.
Okay, that’s an incomplete and unfair description of the turn of events. Let me give you some context. I met this guy when I was living in the LA area and he was living in San Diego. In other words, it was a long-distance relationship. Not a terribly long “long distance”, but enough of a trek that we could only see each other on the weekends. We knew that if the relationship developed into something serious, this matter of geography would require some sort of compromise eventually. And it did, which was both exciting and confusing.
Exciting for obvious reasons; confusing because, despite how happy and comfortable I was with this man, I feared I was slipping into that secondary role again. I was doing everything in my power to remember to see myself as an independent and equally valued member of the relationship, and yet here I was considering letting go of this chapter of my career in order to be with a guy, which felt like the most un-feminist thing ever. I was determined not to relive my past; at the same time, I was wary of sacrificing a beautiful future on the altar of that backward-facing commitment.
For various reasons, it actually did make the most practical sense in our particular situation for me to be the one to move. Practicality, however, has never been my strong suit. I was not a woman who was happy to prioritize a man--not anymore. I was still uncomfortable and torn despite most signs pointing to “move”. I asked myself over and over again if it was worth it--if he was worth it--the giving up of a job I loved. On the other hand, I also had to ask myself: was clinging to what I was defining as my feminist independence worth losing this man if it turned out he wasn’t able to move to me (which he did offer to do, by the way)?
The answers I came to were “yes” and “no”, respectively. Not that I wouldn’t have found another person to partner with eventually if I had decided that my highest priority was to stay at my job. It’s just, my highest priority wasn’t to stay at my job. My highest priority was my personal desire, and my personal desire was to continue to be with this person. “This person” happens to be male, so unfortunately the context surrounding the decision changes (thanks a lot, patriarchy) and one's independence and self-sufficiency as a woman must be considered with extra weight; but what I myself wanted was to do life with him, and so that is what I chose.
There is no such thing as full independence in working relationships, I don’t think. People remain--or should remain--separate as persons, but there is give and take; there are risks, and yes moments of submission and sacrifice, that each person must bear at different points over the course of the partnership. Some choose full independence over committed relationships because they would prefer not to do those things, which I totally understand. However, I prefer being in a relationship to not, so I suppose I just have to live with the complicated nature of the combination of my complementarian upbringing, my attempts at feminism, and the undeniable fact that men happen to be the people to whom I’m attracted sexually and romantically.*
Maybe the problem is not that I might be a bad feminist, but rather that I’m so worried about being a bad anything. I mean, if feminism is about equity across genders, in every context, for every woman, then isn’t the point, in the particular situation I described above, that I should be able to make whatever choice I want? And if the choice I ultimately wanted to make (despite the fact that it was heavily bittersweet) was to blaze a new trail in my life with the partner I love, then shouldn’t I maybe be celebrating the freedom I have (personally, politically, socially, and economically) to make that choice, instead of feeling worried and insecure because it looks like I moved “for a man”?
If I chose not to move simply because I’m a woman and my partner is a man--for that reason and that reason alone--I would not be living in freedom. I would be living for other people, in fear of what other people would think. In desperation that I walk and talk and live like the feminist I say I am. And I’m pretty sure I decided I was done with that kind of life when I left the church. So what if I’m an imperfect feminist? Who, ultimately, is going to judge me for it in a way that will affect my life? Not God, certainly. What is the consequence if I screwed up? I learn a lesson, and move on. I do better. What more can we ask from ourselves than that?
*To be clear, being heterosexual is an ENTIRELY privileged & centered identity in this society; I hope my statement does not imply otherwise.