Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated, As a woman in her early 20's and an adamant feminist, I am having the hardest time balancing my feminist beliefs with dating. When is the right time to "come out" as a feminist without dragging certain negative societal connotations into the mix? I want a potential romantic interest to share my passion for the feminist plight, but how can you tell if they share that commonality without first putting oneself on the line?
The first thing that struck me reading your letter was the Freudian slip in it -- "the feminist plight." You didn't term it "women's plight" or "feminism" or "feminist issues" but framed it as, effectively, the unfortunate situation of feminists. I had to ask: What unfortunate situation are feminists in with which other women contending with the kyriarchy do not have to deal? (Obviously, some women face more overlapping disprivileges under the kyriarchy than others, but it's not really as a result of self-identifying as "feminist," I'd wager.)
And then I had to answer: I don't think about feminism -- even my own -- as a plight or an unfortunate situation. My belief that I am equal to men has shaped my life in a lot of positive ways, as has my beliefs that I should get fair pay and equal treatment in my professional life; not have my life or my future or my worth (self or otherwise) determined by my biology or physiology; and that my beliefs about my own equality need to apply to my personal life and how I conduct it. I also don't think of my feminism -- or, really, anything about me -- as something to "hide" while dating. I was, undoubtedly, "imperfectly" socialized to understand that one is supposed to reel in a potential partner by portraying a (patriarchal/kyriarchal) idea of perfection and have a long history of dating friends and acquaintances (which makes hiding fundamental things about my personality rather difficult). But my attitude about dating in general is this: I am myself, and I will not settle for someone who likes only a version of me or for whom the totality of me is off-putting or scary or what have you. (I did this once in my early twenties and not only was I vaguely unsuccessful at not being me, he cheated on me anyway because I wasn't not-me enough -- so lesson learned.)
I did a very unscientific and non-exhaustive survey of people I dated to whom I still speak and asked them if the fact that I self-identified as feminist came at a surprise to them at any point, and found that the answer was, unequivocally, "No" -- even if I didn't wear a "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" T-shirt on the first date. Some reasons cited: I asked them out; I flirted first; I paid without a feint and/or clearly expected to go Dutch and wasn't hesitant about it; I was clearly confident in our interactions; I talked about politics from a liberal perspective (given the understanding that most liberal women at least lean feminist); and that one time that I loudly heckled a comedian for telling rape jokes when we were on a first date. So, to a certain degree, even if I didn't wear a NOW sticker on my shirt, something about how I approach the world and potential dating partners doesn't and didn't exactly leave people guessing.
You've indicated that it's important to you that, at a minimum, the person you end up in a relationship shares an understanding or passion for the issues that you associate with the feminist movement. That's great -- but it can mean a lot of things from a basic understanding that, no, we do not live in an utterly sexism-free society in which women are just whining about being unequal, to a real, long-standing and grounded understanding national feminist politics or movements, to work with any one of a number women's rights groups (here or abroad), or even all of the above. What does "passion" and "commonality" mean to you (because, frankly, those are pretty different points on the spectrum)? And if you need someone who is actively engaged on a day-to-day basis in deconstructing the kyriarchy in a significant and quantifiable way... why are you dating anyone who you don't already know is doing so from jump? And if you are, why would it matter when you "reveal" you're a feminist? It sounds, however, like what you're saying is that you need, at a minimum, a feminist sympathizer, if not a feminist ally (or an ardent feminist) -- or at least somebody who could become one. And, again, if that's what you need, why are you dating people who you think might not be, or worried about telling them that you are? I get that we all want people to like us, but dating isn't about finding someone who might like some version of you, it's about finding someone you like in toto and who likes you back and with whom you can relax and have a good time.
At a minimum, you need to shake up in your own mind that dating is about you being accepted into a relationship and start to see yourself as someone with agency who is doing the accepting. There are a lot of dating conventions, starting with who asks who out, who pays and the idea that control stems from not putting oneself out there emotionally first, that come straight from the patriarchy but which many (even self-identified feminist) people don't question. These things, among others, are so accepted and so ingrained that, once you poke at one of them in the course of the date, even a date who isn't really listening to you is going to notice you did so and (rightly) assume you are a feminist. Again, when dating is framed around you maybe being liked and you maybe getting "picked" to be a part of someone else's life, you are ceding agency and letting relationships happen to you (or not) rather than choosing to get into one or not based on your own evaluation of the other person.
So poke at the conventions. Wear your "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" T-shirt, open doors, pick the place, pay the tab, ask out someone you like, get rejected, learn that it's really not that bad, ask out someone better. Argue about politics, heckle rape-apologist comedians, holla back at someone on the street, talk about what jerks clinic protestors are and generally act as though you are not on A Date as you have been socialized to believe dates are supposed to be. Believe me, if you do this stuff, no one whom you date is going to be remotely surprised when you drop the f-bomb. But, to answer the question more specifically: like anything else that's really important to you, you don't have to interrupt a flowing conversation to say, "I'm a feminist" explicitly -- good get-to-know you conversations aren't usually lists of self-identifiers, there are some pretty obvious signifiers you can throw into a good conversation, and there are things in the other person that you can and should be listening for. But if the people you date find you being a feminist weird or surprising (or negative), you probably are on dates with the wrong people, or people that aren't really paying attention to you. And, if you are, why do you care about "putting [your]self on the line"? If you want something specific in dating (a feminist ally) and s/he doesn't have it (any feminist awareness), it's so much better to get it on the table early and get on with dating someone else. And if, over and over again, the people you date can't deal, look to date totally different kinds of people. And if, over and over, they're surprised and put off because feminism seems so not compatible with the person you've otherwise seemed to be while you are dating, it might be time to examine your own date habits for signs you swallowed the patriarchal Kool-Aid in this area and didn't finish vomiting it up. Have a question? Email us with "advice" in the subject line. Anonymity guaranteed.
Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com