I’ve recently noticed that when I talk to someone I’m just getting to know — a new classmate or coworker — and I tell a story that involves my boyfriend, I’ll refer to him as “one of my friends” or “this one guy.” It’s funny, and I feel a little strange after I say it, but it’s as if there’s a standard I can’t defy. This elusive standard keeps me in line with the expectation for young college women: Don’t appear too tied down, over-committed or like your relationship is the biggest part of your life.
Even writing that — that my relationship is one of the most important things in my life — makes me feel embarrassed. Ashamed, even. As a woman in college, there is the subliminal expectation that one should be unfettered, untethered and unencumbered. I’m supposed to be focused on school, friends, finding myself and figuring out what I want to do with my life.
If I was following this ideal, I’d be “playing the field,” exploring my options and would be unconcerned with serious romantic relationships. If I was adhering to the expectation, I wouldn’t have to worry about replacing “boyfriend” with a less antiquated identifier in casual conversation. If I was doing college right, I’d be single, because that’s what young, well-educated, driven women are supposed to be at 21 — at least that’s who they are in the media and, it seems, who they are in contemporary feminism. It’s hard to ignore the seemingly limitless Odyssey, Her Campus and Elite Daily-esque headlines shared on timelines that describe six, seven, 28 or some arbitrary number of reasons why you should stay single in college.
Before I was in a serious relationship, I tried all the things that I thought were supposed to make me feel sexually liberated and powerful: messaging with potential partners on apps, dating around and hooking up with different people. My closest friends had no problems doing it all — they even kept lists of former lovers on their phones in case any STI sourcing had to be done. But the more dates I went on and the more hookups I had, the lonelier I felt.
I eventually stopped and took time to just be with myself, but I still felt pressure to try again. Friends told me I should get back out there. We’d gloomily joke around about how long it had been since I’d last had sex. It seemed like the common mantra was that I was missing out on something — that I wasn’t fully embracing all my sexuality had to offer — but I felt better and steadier on my own than I’d felt when I’d been “exploring all my options.”
And even though I’ve been in a happy, healthy and loving relationship with a person I truly consider my best friend for over a year now (this, too, somehow feels like something I should not publicly admit to — a significant other should never be the best friend), I still feel like I have to prove my feminism when it comes to relationships and love. I still feel like I have to prove I’m as modern a woman as the next one, despite choosing to be in a long-term relationship at a young age.
Whether it be deliberately not mentioning my boyfriend in conversation or feeling hesitant to write about just how important our relationship is to me, there exists a pressure to be a certain kind of woman when I’m young, and ironically, that ideal woman and her construction has roots in liberation.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s, 70s and 80s formed the modern woman as we know her today. With widened access to birth control, the mainstreaming of sex in popular culture and the empowerment of women in education, careers and the home, women felt liberated from the former ideal of getting married at a young age and resigning themselves to life as a housewife.
Before the sexual revolution, post-war ideal womanhood involved marrying young, having and raising children and keeping house. Some 30 percent of women dyed their hair blond — which was considered more feminine — and department stores started to sell dress sizes three or four sizes smaller to match up with expectations that women have thinner physiques. Sex was reserved for marriage, and when it began to appear in the pop culture of the 1960s, there was widespread panic about moral upheaval.
But changes that began as freedoms have today narrowed into unattainable, unfair expectations for young women. That blooming sexuality of our parents’ generation has become twisted into a seemingly ideal image for girls: Being liberated and strong only happens when one invests wholly in herself — and that investment gets lower returns when it involves committing to someone else too soon. It sometimes feels like having sex has become a kind of currency: the more a woman has, the more sex-positive, progressive and feminist she is. She’s not held back, and her future is not jeopardized by commitment or, even worse, by a man.
Not only are these ideas not true, they’re harmful — to single women and women in relationships alike. But it’s hard to ignore their prevalence: In a 2012 article, Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic writes, “To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women — not men — who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their own success, always keeping their own ends in mind.”
In the same piece, she writes, “For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”
In a 2013 interview with The New York Times, University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong explained that “increasingly, many privileged young people see college as a unique life stage in which they don’t — and shouldn’t — have obligations other than their own self-development.”
In the same article, a young woman with a serious boyfriend told the Times that she felt “as if she were breaking a social taboo,” saying, “Am I allowed to find the person that I want to spend the rest of my life with when I’m 19? I don’t really know. It feels like I’m not.”
There is certainly an element of privilege in being able to write this: I am able to choose whether I want to be in a relationship or not. I am able to choose who I want to share myself with, whether that be in a long-term relationship, a hook up, a date or with no one at all — choices that were all afforded to me by the work of the feminist movement of the 20th century.
But those choices fail to erase the feelings of guilt that sometimes bubble up when I spend a Friday night with my boyfriend instead of my girlfriends. They fail to explain why I feel like I’m somehow outside the range of good, liberated, feminist behavior when instead of giving the guy at the party my number I unintentionally apologize to him, saying, “Sorry, I have a boyfriend.”
I am not desperately searching for a space to complain, nor am I questioning my decision to be in a relationship. Instead, I’m looking for a way to explain how frustrating it feels to have my decisions questioned for the supposed sake of my own womanhood. Am I not capable of choosing a life and a love for myself? Am I not a well-educated, driven, intelligent, young and modern woman who is able to decide for herself what her sexuality should entail?
These are not isolated feelings. I spoke to three other women at the University of Michigan who are in long-term relationships. The final question I asked each of them was this: Do you ever feel excluded from the feminist ideal of a woman because you are in a relationship? I let them individually define what they viewed as “the feminist ideal of a woman,” and as might be expected, they each had a different answer. Yet all three shared a similar feeling that they might, in some way, be dismissed because of their relationship status.
LSA senior Daija White, who met her significant other the first weekend of her freshman year, told me, “No, not at all. I am confident and capable on my own, I know what I want, and I am capable of achieving it with or without my partner.” She emphasized her own choice of being in a relationship, as well as her respect for every woman’s choices, but in the last few lines of her email to me, she wrote, “Maybe other women might think I’ve sold out or something, but that doesn’t matter much to me.”
Recent University alum Melissa Murray said she was unsure if she was excluded from the feminist ideal. She has been with her current partner for a little over a year, and she told me, “I think a lot of the feminist ideal of a woman seems to be aimed at a very vocal, active go-getter, especially encompassing the idea of a woman ‘who don’t need no man.’ ” She admitted, “Sometimes the (feminist) movement feels a little antagonizing if you’re not out there in rallies, protests or the like. Or that I’m not a true feminist because I’ve found a successful relationship.”
LSA senior Alexis Brewster, however, answered that she does feel excluded from the label of “feminist” due to her relationship. Brewster, who is 20-years-old and has been with her partner for over two and a half years, is engaged. As a full-time undergraduate student who lives with her fiancé and commutes to campus, Brewster wrote me that she always feels outcast for her choices.
“A lot of my friends changed once I moved in (with) and got engaged to my significant other. Many never ask me to hang out or even text me from time to time. Anyone I meet on campus in classes or at work practically cringes when I tell them I’m engaged at a young age. I don’t see anything wrong with that — I know what I want.”
Brewster said, “Many female peers at school think (my fiancé) forces me, or as though I’m unhappy (when) I’m actually very happy.” Despite the cringing, the assumptions and the skeptical looks, Brewster said, “I honestly feel very comfortable in my relationship, and I feel as though other people and females around me do not understand. That’s okay — I just wish it wasn’t criticized as much as it is.”
That’s the root of it: young women making their own choices, yet still being questioned and criticized for being forced into them somehow. Is that not the most antifeminist part of it all? Is that not the same place we thought we left behind when Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, when the birth control pill became legal in 1965 and when women could finally get credit cards without their husband’s signatures with the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974?
We were supposed to have been led out of a bleak, oppressive past and into a promising, self-determinable future: one where we can sleep with who we want to, when we want to and where we know what we want and we can get it. We can certainly do those things today, yet when our decisions are considered not progressive enough, we are described as unliberated young women gleefully and subversively calling for a return to the dark ages.
It’s a remarkably short span of time that separates us from that past. I am thankful that the freedoms women won in the 60s and onward are ones I don’t even think about now. I wonder when that freedom to make a choice — without fear of measuring up to a certain ideal, of being ridiculed or of being questioned — will be awarded to young women.
I look forward to a world where the decisions I make are not stacked against the height of an unattainable, imagined womanhood — a world where a woman can choose to be in a committed relationship, to be single or to be somewhere in between without being condemned as old-fashioned, as a slut or as indecisive. To say it simply: We’re still damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
It may come as a shock, but all that we’ve chosen, we’ve chosen for ourselves: with intention, with thought and, yes, with a woman’s touch.