Monday, 1 April 2013

Find a Husband? No Thanks!

I will always remember my very first French class at university, though for entirely the wrong reasons. There was a mature woman in our group, who spent almost the entire hour ranting about how young people shouldn't go to university, that we didn't have the capacity to understand or appreciate it. She told the lecturer that I (yes, she singled me out for her tirade) ought to go and find myself a husband, have some children and go back to university when I had the life experience and dignity to accept the great privilege of education.The lecturer nodded, smiled and made affirmative noises, which got me even more irate.

My anger at this wasn't at any single point, rather the message as a whole. It was the assumption that age equals maturity, the idea that young people aren't capable of appreciating education, the assumption that I was heterosexual, the idea that I wanted a husband and children.

And I haven't entirely lost that sense of outrage and indignation, as the Susan Patton case (and Joanna Moorehead's article) shows.

I have absolutely no qualms in a woman telling students that academia isn't everything, that there is more to life than a career. One of the best pieces of advice in my life (so far) came from a wonderful man who told me, "You work to live, not live to work". In fact, I encourage that perspective, as over-competitiveness between women in industry is rife and I see it encouraged by some as a way of undermining any sort of solidarity.

What I cannot condone, however, is the societal attitude that we need to be married to be "complete". Whilst, as humans, we do crave interaction and relationships, that can be fulfilled by friendship as well as in physically intimate and romantic relationships. And, for some, the friendship is enough.

Our culture already places a disproportionate amount of pressure on women to settle down, find their "prince" and live "happily ever after". Just look at the social conditioning girls receive from an early age; fairytales, pantomimes, films, musicals, even pop songs. Every step of the way, they are shown that successful women get a man in the end, that only evil women end up single, that to be alone is failure. But it's not.

Yesterday, my grandparents were beside themselves because my younger sister has a boyfriend and I'm still single (I've had three fianc├ęs, it's not really worked out). They lamented that I have no hope now, because I'm too old, because I'm too independent, because I think too much. They were so upset that a relationship and children are not a priority for me.

But I have different dreams for my life. I want to make a difference to others, whether that's practically in education, or by inspiring others to take a step in things that I say or write. I want to do well in my career and make sure that future generations get the support they deserve whilst at school. I want friendship and fun. If I find someone who can accept that, and who can accept me, and we do click, then a relationship isn't off the table. Children are not off the table. But is it really so selfish and wrong for that not to be my number one aim in life?

Fundamentally, I agree with both Moorehead and Patton in their assertion that feminism is about equality and happiness in all areas of life, not just about career and money. But there is a huge difference between promoting that balance and urging women to find husbands, perpetuating a ridiculous societal pressure.

The thing is, we as women, we as feminists, we need to be challenging these perceptions, not encouraging them. We don't need to tell students to hurry up and find their husbands, we need to tell them that their career isn't everything and they need to think about friendships, networks, their support. We don't need to tell girls that they are failures if they don't find a man, we need to tell them that they are successes if they are happy. And we need to show them that happiness can exist outside the parameters of a traditional marriage.

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