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Friday, April 11, 2014

What Does a Feminist Relationship Look Like?

Love and Feminism

                The feminist fight takes on many forms, politically, globally, and personally, but I feel as feminists, we forget to take care of the home front. What I mean is our romantic relationships.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the issues that garner the most attention and publicity like reproductive  rights, marriage equality, and the gender wage gap—all very important and necessary—but are we failing to challenge patriarchy and oppression in our homes? Are our dating, mating and marriage practices in alignment with our feminist principles of equity, collaboration, and the dismantling power and privilege? What I hope to examine in this blog is what a romantic relationship look like when we practice feminist principles. My disclaimer is that I can only speak from my own experiences in a heterosexual relationship with a male identified man who also is a feminist. I am sure I will not be able to create a complete picture of what a feminist relationship is but I do hope to at least begin by sketching out what I have tried to achieve in my own partnership.

                Acknowledgement of Sexism and Patriarchy

                I think we can all agree that sexism and misogyny is a huge problem in our society and in the world. Nothing gets me as a feminist and as a woman more frustrated and dare I say angry when people—men and women—deny that sexism is a problem. That sexism as a systematic whole doesn’t really exist and that it’s some people who may have sexist beliefs but we as a society are not oppressive to women. A feminist relationship acknowledges that we are in a patriarchal society that values one gender over another, that rape culture and the wage gap does indeed exist. That this society and most of the world holds patriarchal values that keeps masculinity and men’s experiences as the standard or norm and anything else as other.  Without this acknowledgement, a relationship cannot be based in feminist principles, nor does the partner align with feminist values. And sometimes, the hard truth is we may be feminist and fighting the good fight, but our partners can be ambivalent non-feminists or worse anti-feminists who find the women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights movement a threat to their core values.

                Commitment to Equity and a True Partnership

                I believe everyone has a “list” of what characteristics they want in a life-long mate. My deal maker and deal breaker was the fundamental ideological belief that I as a woman was the equal to my partner.  This seems simple enough and maybe obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many nice young men I’ve dated who balked at the idea that I was equally accountable, important, hardworking, smart, deserving etc. as them. I can’t really blame them with the way we raise boys and girls to devalue everything that is associated with being female. Of course, my insistence on equity was going to blow their mind and threaten their long held beliefs. And for clarification, when I say I demand equity in a relationship and in society, I am NOT saying I am the same as a man. I am saying I deserve the same respect, value and opportunities as a man.  And maybe that’s where many feminists get snagged in these types of conversations with family, friends, and strangers is because  people assume feminism is saying women are better than men (which they aren’t) or by having gender equality under the law and in practice is saying women and men are the same. A feminist relationship acknowledges women’s value as just as important and significant as men’s. A feminist relationship is a true partnership of equals. Not a parent/child relationship or any of the pretty metaphors we have heard to justify placing men as the sole leaders and controllers of relationships; remember My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s famous line “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” Sure it sounds empowering but it still supports the hierarchal component of patriarchy. If we as feminist want to end hierarchal oppression of groups with privilege over those without we need to confront the hierarchy that has been traditionally structured our romantic relationships.

                Confronting Privilege (In Ourselves and in Our Partners)

                As a white, cisgender, college educated, able-bodied woman, legally married to a white, educated, able-bodied man we have a lot of privilege. As feminists it’s our obligation to acknowledge our privileges, as uncomfortable as that may be, and use our privilege to help those who are not privileged like the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, the disabled etc. Confronting privilege takes the form of calling out our use of language. Saying “that’s so gay”, “that’s retarded”, “That test raped me” or the use of the “N word” in jest are all products of privilege. This could be hard, nobody likes to be corrected by their partner, and it could be interpreted at criticism. It could have easily been a slip, but it’s so important that we as feminists keep ourselves and our partners accountable. I have been called out by my partner and I have told him to “check your privilege”. This can be done in a gentle, joking manner without berating and lecturing your partner. Male privilege can make it especially hard for a male identified partner to understand or see the struggles of sexism and patriarchy, there may be defensiveness, denial, and maybe guilt that comes with being part of a privileged group. This is where the work of feminism and relationships can be especially frustrating but ultimately, if he is willing to listen, and if she is willing to speak of her experiences with sexism and discrimination, rewarding. There can be understanding even if he still doesn’t agree with her completely.

                Negotiating Gender Roles

                This I feel is going to be super obvious and some feminists may wonder why this is it even being addressed. As feminists we know that gender is socially constructed and we know that women should be able to work outside the home and men be stay at home dads, without their gender being compromised and yet, the reality is that gender roles in hetero relationships play a huge role in the way couples interact with each other.  A real world example would be the division of labor between men and women.  Women are working in the labor force, at the same hours, doing the same things, yet they are still doing most of the housework. Some women still expect men to not express too much emotion, or to communicate about their feelings. A feminist relationship isn’t asking that women not stay at home with their children and do domestic work or men to not be the bread winner; it is also not keeping people in these confined boxes. A feminist relationship requires us to question are own motives and expectations of our partners. It could be the expectation that your male partner will take out the trash, not because you asked him or he volunteered but because that is the traditional male chore. Having conversations and collaborating together about how the house should be run and what kind of expectations, while being aware of how gender is influencing these expectations is important in a feminist relationship.

                Valuing and Celebrating Each Other’s Contributions

                A feminist relationship, however the division of labor is arranged, who works, who makes more money, who cares for the children, all the contributions to the relationship are celebrated and valued. We have a tendency in this society to put a higher value on contributions that have monetary value. That’s why childcare and domestic work is undervalued but not because it is less work. It doesn’t make income and is easily dismissed. Any good relationship values the partner and their contribution and that is especially true in a relationship based on feminist principles. When we value the work that doesn’t bring in the cash we are redressing the balance of power that tends to give the partner who makes more money more control in the relationship. Celebrating a partner’s contribution is one of the best ways to demonstrate love, and by loving and valuing a partner we have a healthier, happier relationship. 


                Relationships are hard and a lot of work, and trying to root a relationship in feminism will be a lot more work; but if we expect our homes and relationships to be based on equity, respect, dignity and value, we start a precedent for our children and these principles will no longer be a theory or a lip service, but will be an actuality. We will then be paving a way that will lead the future generations to social justice and reproductive rights, marriage equality, and the gender wage gap won’t be these massive battles for our children to fight, or if they are, they are equipped with the tools to continue our work.   


  1. yes. love this. i definitely agree that heterosexual feminist relationships can be difficult to maintain because of inherent power imbalances. i think the same could be true for any difference in privilege among partners (in race, ability, etc). it is definitely necessary to constantly be reexamining our beliefs and having open dialogue about such issues in a way that makes both partners feel safe expressing themselves. thanks for sharing your experiences liz! it is nice to hear how some people can make it work. :)

  2. This blog is so amazing. Really creative to target feminism in relationships because I think it's often overlooked in discussions but so apparent in day to day lives. I have a hard time understanding how someone who strongly identifies as a feminist can be in an intimate relationship with someone who goes against and/or perpetuates values and stigmas that go against feminism; seems like a nasty headache to me. I agree with Brooke ^ having open waves of communication are extremely vital in fostering a healthy relationship. Great blog.