At The New Agenda:
One of the best parts of my tiny, rigorous law school is the spiritual generosity of its affiliated community. Last year one evening I spirited myself away to a secluded restroom to freshen up before a late interview. I ran into my Property professor similarly composing herself; for a moment we leaned together towards the mirror over the sink and gossiped like sisters.
In that brief conversation my professor taught me two important lessons:
First, it is possible to be powerful and to be feminine.
Second, and perhaps more importantly: Women control the happiness factor in relationships.
When I say “feminine” I mean the way I’ve internalized the word. “Feminine” like my father’s mother, who rolled meatballs between her palms and kept her five kids tidy and respectful at the tail end of the Depression. “Powerful” then connotes the ability to command a room without being aggressive; without resorting to cheap ploys or wiles.
From time to time I am struck with the realization that we have bastardized the concept of femininity. Rather than appreciate and enjoy those fairer instincts to nurture, many women follow the Old Male Lead and assume Old Roles. Coquettish, apologetic, and cute. Or strong, aggressive, like our fathers. Finding balance proves difficult as each generation promptly outgrows our role models, and few female role models tend to bridge that generational gap.
Indeed my professor’s two critical notes of advice come hand-in-hand. The path to powerful femininity requires a woman to exhale, relax, and realize that she is already in fact powerful. No role playing necessary.
That exhalation becomes critical. We live in a time of gender flux. There is little need to burn our bras or march for suffrage, but this generation’s Lily Ledbetters do suggest that we are not yet accustomed to choice.
Choice represents a sort of responsibility conundrum. In this flux time women encounter glass ceilings only as high as we permit. We find statutory relief in equal pay for equal work. Key to that formula remains the requirement that we work as hard as we’d like to be paid.
Similarly, my professor suggests – and studies support – that both of a relationship’s parties’ happiness rests in the woman’s choice to be happy. Yesterday yet another study surfaced showing that not just a man’s happiness but his life span improve dramatically when a woman knowingly, intentionally determines that we will be happy.
Evidently a man’s education proves less determinative to his longevity than his partner’s education. This study’s authors postulate that the difference lies in educated women’s ability to sift through and find the best health messages available in our media-saturated age, or possibly that women’s greater responsibility for the household results in a cleaner, more livable environment for their men.
These hypotheses resonate, but I can’t help linking all of these case anecdotes together. Women, not men, initiate the lion’s share — more than 70% — of all divorce filings. Women, more than men, struggle with timely gender flux and a dearth of appropriate cross-generational role models. Greater even than the effect of tidiness on health lies the effects of stress.
That choosing an educated partner permits greater longevity suggests that powerful femininity leaves both partners happier in the long run. Indeed:
The general consensus of sociologists is that, whereas a woman’s marital satisfaction is dependent on a combination of economic, emotional and psychological realities, a man’s marital satisfaction is most determined by one factor: how happy his wife is. When she is happy, he is [happy].
Feminism isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about having equal opportunity in the pursuit of happiness. Powerful and feminine models ebb and flow; it remains to us to decide what will make us happy and then pursue it.
I, for one, would trade a fat male Ledbetter Act paycheck for flexible hours at home with my family. This choice may invite derision from the Winifred Banks types who marched for my choice in the first place, but here we are, and, frankly, I choose my choice.
And that is the interesting part. Flux comes not from external pressures, but from my generation’s own inner turmoil as we learn to exercise that grave responsibility, choice. Happiness, health, longevity. It may fail thresholds for both romance and sex appeal to choose a thousand times a day to remain powerful, feminine, happy, and yet that choice proves solid. Strong. Sustainable.
Employers pay women less because women seldom demand more. Failed relationships flounder at least as frequently in her restlessness as in his. Health, wealth, and longevity all rely on this simple co-dependence between women’s decision to exhale, to trust our instincts, and the less stressful, divorce-free environment (ideally) fostered by it.
I search frequently for a better word for equal opportunity than “feminism.” Until I find that term I’m grateful to my professor and to the female role models who remind me that the key is not to analyze, but to enjoy. There is something satisfying in accepting that the pursuit of happiness absent gendered caveats represents a profoundly noble goal, even as a young woman, even in flux, even for free.