You don't have to pretend to be needed to be happy. Photo: Getty
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Why are we still telling women that they need a man?

If you think women don’t objectify men, you are wrong. We don’t reduce them to a few choice body parts, but we make them bit-players in our narcissistic life plans.

My childhood ambitions were unoriginal. Like a million other girls, I wanted to be a pop star/actress/model and I wanted to get married. I didn’t care much for the details – the songs I’d sing, the films I’d act in, the man I’d wed. I saw the wedding ceremony in outline: there was me, thin, in white, and beside me a blank-eyed Ken doll of a man. I didn’t care much for who he was, although clearly I loved him, because that is how the story goes.

Although I’d heard of women who didn’t crave a husband as I did, I felt sure they were a tiny minority. The first feminist slogan I ever encountered was Irina Dunn’s “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. Of course it merely confirmed what others had told me about feminists: they were slightly batty, cruel to men and totally in denial. I never entertained the idea that the statement might have some truth in it. To me, a man might not be necessary in practical terms but he was absolutely essential when it came to the narrative of my life. Without a husband, how would I ever feel complete?  And then wasn’t there a whole cultural industry – chick lit, rom coms, self-help guides – based around reminding me of this? Forget fish and bicycles, I wanted my life to have that perfect moment of truth.  How can you be sure you’re a real person if there’s not at least one man who will endorse you in this way?

If you think women don’t objectify men, you are wrong. We don’t reduce them to a few choice body parts, but we make them bit-players in our narcissistic life plans. This isn’t a form of power – it’s not ours to exercise – but it is dehumanising, both to us and to them. Moreover, it merely perpetuates a game of pointless deception in which women are the ultimate losers.

In 2014, we know that heterosexual marriage – the real-life version, which lasts way beyond the wedding itself – does not benefit women in the way that it benefits men. We know that most divorces are initiated by women. We know that women can marry other women, and that women can have their own biological children outside of a relationship far more easily than men can. We know that, with effort – if we had the social imagination and the political will – we could create supportive family structures which do not reduce women to dependency either on men or on a judgmental, unappreciative state. And yet still we seek to inspire marriage panic in our young women. Why the hell are we doing this?

In a recent “controversial” (aka not all that controversial) piece for The Wall Street Journal, self-styled “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton exhorted young women in college to “smarten up and start husband hunting.” This was to promote Patton’s book, Marry Smart: Advice For Finding The ONE (her use of capitals), which warns young women that if they don’t act fast, they may have to settle for someone who’s not quite up to scratch. While this is perhaps a step up from Lori Gottlieb’s 2011 work Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr Good Enough, it’s still not great. Why, if the options are either settle for someone you don’t really love, or half-kill yourself trying to catch someone before it’s too late (Patton advises weight loss surgery, the de-prioritisation of your own job, even self-blame for any potential sexual assault), should any self-respecting woman even bother, especially when marriage itself is unlikely to work out in her favour? Are we that tied to the fairy tale that we’ll screw up our own realities for it?

In The Sceptical Feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards suggests that “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women.” She goes on to argue that our supposed “needs” may be being over-sold for a reason:

… although it is now generally believed that women have a stronger natural dependence on men than the other way round, it is far more likely that any such tendencies have been produced by women’s institutionalized dependence, and that in fact precisely the opposite is true […] it seems most unlikely that so much effort would have been put into making women artificially dependent on men if they had been naturally so.

The alternative to our neediness – Masculinity in Crisis™ – doesn’t bear thinking about. Hence, thirty-two years after Richards’ work was published, we have Keira Knightley on the cover of Red magazine alongside what’s apparently the most interesting statement from an entire interview: I love being married. And we have high-achieving women telling their younger counterparts not to complain about sexism, but that we need to stop “saying we don’t need men.” None of this is even considered a feminist issue any more. After all, we don’t want anyone thinking we’re misandrists, do we?

Well, I’m pissed off about it. I’m sick of the way “you’ll die old and lonely, without the all-healing approval of a man” is used to beat down any women who gets too close to independent thought. I’m tired of the way it’s meant to knock our confidence. We’re meant to be empowered (whatever that means), but not in a “man-hating” way. We’re dealing with a narrative which cares not a jot for our sexual orientation or desires, but which insists we can only prove our status with a man alongside us.

As a feminist I am frequently reminded that my misandrist ways will mean no man ever wants to go near me. It’s especially frustrating since I’ve been with the same man for fourteen years. I’m always conscious of having this trump card in my back pocket: HA! Well, actually, Mr Men’s Rights Activist and Mrs Princeton Mom, I’ve GOT a man! Who shags me and everything! So NER! These are not the terms on which I think it is possible to win a feminist debate. I’m not playing the game by those rules and yet I know that since I benefit from them all the same, I am complicit. I have the “partnered by a real, live man” stamp of approval, and it’s something which exists independently of the depth and value of my relationship.

At the moment it feels a terrible double bind. But if we were to treat each other as real, live human beings – neither as status symbols, nor as high points within a fixed narrative – think how much better it could be. We are worth more than our childish ambitions. We deserve relationships with the people we choose, not the people we pretend to need or by whom we pretend to be needed.

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.