In our society, men go after what they want: careers, wealth, women. Men are the ones who are given license to take risks and to fail in pursuit of their goals. Women can be impressive and accomplished, but should not seek recognition for, or demonstrate an awareness of, their exceptionality. They are applauded if they apply their skills to the service of others, but it is alarmingly uncouth for a woman to attempt to capitalize on their skills for personal gain.
And if you question this premise, consider that in heterosexual relationships it is axiomatic that men should be the ones to initiate the first date, the first “I love you”, and the marriage proposal. A man’s bachelorhood is indicative of discriminating taste, while a woman’s “spinsterhood” is indicative of being undesirable. Because the man has not chosen, and the woman has not been chosen. A man peacocking around the bar has confidence, while a woman doing the same is desperate. I’ll never forget sitting at a Christmas work party, and I referred to my “partner”, and my boss very loudly and publicly suggested that if my boyfriend hadn’t asked me to marry him yet it’s because he wasn’t interested in marrying me, and that I couldn’t cover it up by calling him my partner. As though my partner was the only person entitled to define our relationship and its trajectory. It was so dismissive and degrading, and it was so acutely gendered. I remember thinking that no matter what I would have to get married to advance my career, because men wouldn’t take me seriously if I didn’t have the active endorsement of a man in the form of a marriage proposal.
I never bought into it. Or, more accurately, I always failed at suppressing my natural impulse to get what I want. And I rationalized that if a man didn’t like a woman who spoke her mind and took charge and went after what she wanted, then I was just finding out sooner than later that we weren’t going to work out as a couple. It’s not to say that the rejection didn’t hurt, and it’s not to say that I didn’t get discouraged by the prospect that there might not be anyone out there for me, but I knew that I couldn’t be anything other than who I was and that ultimately I wouldn’t get a better result by pretending differently.
As my father told me: you can either make your life exactly how you want it, or you can leave it to others to make those decisions for you, but you can’t be timid if you choose the former and you can’t be picky if you choose the latter. So, because I’m picky, I resolved that I was going to have to be brave.
And then I met my now-husband. I made the first introduction, because I wanted to get to know the hot boy in class. I added him on Facebook, because I wanted keep seeing him when our class ended for the year. I asked him out on our first date, because he checked every single box on the very real list I’d made of what I wanted in a man. I asked him to be my boyfriend, because I wanted that kind of commitment. I said “I love you” first, because I wanted to always be fully transparent in my feelings. I suggested that we move in together, because I wanted to see him every day. And so, when he asked me to marry him, I knew that he loved me for exactly who I am and that he would support me as I went after everything else I wanted in life. And sure enough, he works hard every day to make sure that I can have any life I want.
It’s not to say that we wouldn’t have gotten to the position we’re in if I hadn’t taken those first advances. My husband is always adamant that he wasn’t about to let me get away. But it’s a distinct possibility that, but for my gumption, we would have passed like ships in the night. And it makes me so deeply sad to imagine that there are women who have missed out on their chance with their dream-guy just because society told them that they were not entitled to take the kind of risk inherent to pursuing their feelings and their desires; that the rejection would be a definitive judgment on their character, their personal potential, and whether or not they are deserving of love. And I have to imagine that this message in dating extends to women’s thinking about risk and rejection in pursuit of their other goals. I wonder how many women didn’t start their own business or apply for their dream job or ask for the raise, because they didn’t feel entitled to assert their value or to risk failure.
On the other side of the same coin, men often feel entitled to the women they pursue. Women are deprived of so much agency in the dating realm that some men don’t feel that they need consent and/or they cannot accept rejection from women. And, once again, this thinking extends to the business world, and is apparent in the unwillingness of some men to be governed by women. Men’s castration anxiety manifests in the way men talk about “ambitious” women; the audacity of a woman who dares to compete with men in the hopes of asserting themselves over men.
I suggest that we must train ourselves and our girls to take risks, and to maintain their sense of self in the face of rejection. Women should be entitled to express what they want and to pursue happiness. And until a woman can ask a man to marry her without being accused of emasculating him, we cannot claim that we have realized this goal.
Second: we need to teach boys and girls alike to handle rejection in healthy ways, such that they continue to pursue their personal goals while respecting the wishes of other people. A rejection should not be taken so personally that it results in a woman losing all confidence to take further risks, or in a man physically harming a woman. And until we can learn to measure our value independent of the approval of others, we cannot hope to realize this goal.