Margot Libertini: Feminism, love and happiness

Thursday, February 8, 2018 - 4:40pm

This past week, one of my favorite podcasts, "Stuff Mom Never Told You"  discussed a topic I have experienced but never found a way to articulate. The hosts sat down with Jill Filipovic, author of “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” In essence, she spoke about the importance of prioritizing women’s fulfillment and joy in the feminist movement. After all, isn’t that at the core of what we all want?

Their discussion was centered on happiness within marriage. They discussed whether there could ever be a feminist marriage, given the sexist nature of the institution. I’m only a junior in college, still four years out from entering the post-law school real world, so I won’t feign authority on that subject. However, I do feel that an emphasis on happiness, and especially happiness within romantic relationships, is lacking in the feminist conversation. Personally, it is much easier for me to write and talk about my pain when I talk about my romantic experiences. This is for good reason—my first serious relationship ended in a courtroom, with me pursuing a Personal Protection Order.

I was 17, prying myself out of a toxic and confusing relationship with a person I met at 14. Making sense of the three years I knew him, of the seven months we dated and of how I ended up in Oakland County Circuit Court led me to a variety of conclusions. I learned about gender-based violence, about rape culture, about systemic problems that throw young women into terrifying situations with no knowledge of how to get out. It was this feminist awakening that has guided me through life since.

I am eternally grateful for the path I took to pull myself out of that pain. Feminism and the pursuit of social justice have come to dramatically shape my friendships, intellectual interests, self-image, professional path and even my eating habits. However, the personal manifestation of feminism I used to pull myself up and out was defined by an urge to be strong, unbreakable and impervious to any hurt that could send me back there. I see this among many survivors; it is an understandable way to heal. It does not eradicate the pain of abuse though; it merely silences it. So, I spent my first year of college drinking pink moscato (cringe), lecturing my friends about how manipulative and toxic all of their relationships were and swerving from any man who dared to reveal a bit of feeling.

I truly believed that all of my friends were in relationships that undermined their autonomy and hindered their growth. Today, I would hold that some of that was true. The nature of so many romantic relationships is toxic and controlling, and I think that is a truth we need to focus more attention on. Your partner should not tell you what to wear, who to see, what to think; they should not belittle or threaten you, should not ever make you feel less. However, there must be some good to be found in love and romance. If not, why would we continue to seek it out? But are there feminist relationships, or is the nature of heterosexual romance always going to lead to a situation in which the man is advantaged?

Jill Filipovic said she never thought she’d marry until she met her fiancé. I never thought I’d date after my first experience until I met my current boyfriend. I was quite head over heels at our first encounter, but I was also cripplingly anxious about the prospect of investing myself in another relationship. Yet, I discovered that while it was possible for a toxic relationship to eradicate my sense of self and esteem, it was also possible for one to do the opposite. The very reason I’m writing this article is because my boyfriend has read, revised and praised so much of my writing that I felt confident enough to apply to The Daily. A year ago, that comment would have made me uncomfortable, as if I was crediting my own accomplishments to a man. But I don’t want to be cynical about love anymore. I don’t want to give any more to a man in the past who tried so hard to ruin joy for me. I want to feel liberated from that time, and the best way to do that has been to love without caution or restraint or especially the feeling that I’m somehow undermining my feminist philosophy for simply choosing happiness.

I’m sitting in bed writing this next to my boyfriend with respiratory flu and a fever of 103. We are surrounded by a mess of tissues, Tamiflu and lentil soup. I’m thinking back to when I had mono last year, and he came to my parent’s house with me every weekend and sat in my living room with my mom while I took eight-hour naps. I am growing more comfortable accepting and giving care. I am learning and re-learning how to be vulnerable, to act selflessly, to not worry that my mind, soul or body are being taken advantage of. I deserve that peace, as do all women and all people who have had it ripped from that in prior experiences.

So, this Valentine’s Day, if you are also feeling scared, anxious or cynical about the prospect of romance, I encourage you to embrace vulnerability. I encourage you to resist the horrific world we live in by choosing love and joy, whatever that may mean for you.

Margot Libertini can be reached at mliberti@umich.edu