Feminism–or at least the corporate-y feminism that’s so prevalent these days–encourages ambitious girls to plan their lives out through, what, age 35? The standard narrative for the girl who wants it all is: “I’ll graduate high school with these credentials, go to this prestigious college, work at this company/organization/etc. for two years (or not), go back to school, meet my husband in law/med/grad/B school, get married after graduation, work at this company/organization/etc. (or at least in this city because it’s the best for my plan), and get to this rank before I stop to have kids.” Then this Girl Power Feminism gone wrong makes us feel shame and guilt for abandoning those plans because life, even if that’s what we want to do.
I’m a planner. And I want(ed?) it all. My road map wasn’t much different from the one above except that I wanted to have kids sooner, knowing my mom had had eight miscarriages between her first and second children. I was off to a good start, too. I got into my ideal college, graduated with good grades (although perhaps not the most useful major, looking back), intended to go to a top 14 law school, and then, as I’ve mentioned before, basically become Amal Clooney. The thing about that plan, though, is that there was a law school bubble and the only way to realistically pursue a career in law now–especially non-corporate law–is to be willing to move whenever, wherever. By the time I was deciding whether I’d take on a house-sized debt, that was too risky a wager in my mind. You see, I didn’t meet Boyfriend in professional school; I met him at the end of college. He has been a grad student since we met, so he’s not been mobile thus far.
Though I had remained single through college–mostly contentedly, at least in retrospect–I’d also not met someone like Boyfriend. My friends used to joke(?) that I’d die alone because I had such high standards (though I’ve always thought them completely reasonable, at least with regard to the non-negotiables). Then, in a hilarious twist of fate, I met someone who even got most of my bonus points, but I met him at the “wrong” time. Girl Power Feminism says I should have ignored the odds and carried on with my Plan. It says, “Don’t consider that you’re happy now and for the foreseeable future if you choose this path; gamble that you might still be happy if you choose the other path, which is the morally right choice for whatever reason. Indefinite long-distance relationships will work if they’re meant to. And if not, cross your fingers that there will still be a smart, kind, pro-equality guy who is otherwise your match when you’re ready to slow down, even though that seems unlikely. But hey, online dating!”
We hear these GPF messages at the same time that Princeton Mom is telling smart women that they’re screwed once we step outside the Academy (which, to be fair, is where I met Boyfriend). Frankly, it feels that way, too. I was on a dating site for all of ten minutes once. It was one where you can choose the institutional affiliations of the people you’re willing to date. That sounds awful of me, I know, but after years of unintentionally intimidating reasonably smart males (which was almost certainly their issue and not mine), I couldn’t bear the thought of something like OK Cupid. After a couple of half-naked photos of strangers, accompanied by devastatingly witty things like “hey,” I deleted the account.
I’m thankful that I stuck around after college even though most of my friends were GPF-ing their way to the top (though, to be fair, it was mostly because I was too poor to move cross-country without completely winging my housing situation on the other end, which terrified me). I’m thankful that I found Boyfriend at all. I’m even thankful that I found him when I did, plans be damned, because I couldn’t have gotten through these last few months without him and the love we’ve built. What I’m not thankful for–in fact, what I’m rather angry about–is that GPF makes me feel like a bad woman because of my choices.
The modern incarnation of Girl Power Feminism is doing young women a huge disservice by ignoring reality and suggesting that sheer willpower will bend life to our plans. No part of my post-college life has gone according to plan, and it’s sure as hell not because I didn’t wish for things to be different. The economy was still in the shitter when I graduated, especially for young people and especially where we live. I was offered a job at my then-dream organization, quit my job, then found out my would-be supervisor hadn’t checked with the union first and had to rescind the offer. A dear friend of mine died and, self-centered though it may have been, I had an existential crisis because of it that only strengthened my resolve to put relationships first. The law bubble happened. I have a back injury that makes… most things more difficult. Because of my back, I had to pay giant COBRA premiums that prevented me from being able to afford the cost sharing on any actual medical care before Obamacare saved my ass from debtors’ prison. I tried to fix this by securing a job with benefits out in the suburbs, but it turned out they’d lied their asses off to me in the interviews and I had to quit for my sanity. My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and later died, leaving me to deal with almost everything that entailed on my own because her family is worse than useless. And while I may have learned valuable lessons because of all this about how to do things going forward, these things were not my fault. So why do I still feel like a failure?
GPF is supposed to be the antidote to Disney love stories, but it’s really just another harmful fairytale. We’ve traded the unrealistic royal wedding at age 16 after 24 hours of knowing each other for an unrealistic belief that we can pass on meaningful relationships until they’re convenient for us or necessary for our ovaries, and furthermore that we shouldn’t want or need them until we’re already successful. Even where friends are concerned, colleagues will suffice and it’s better to network than to invest time in strong friendships. After all, who has time for friends when you work 80-hour weeks like a good, inward-leaning 20-something? (Maybe that works for some people because they have really great relationships with family, but I’m not one of those people.) If you’re not doing these things, GPF tells us, you’re letting other women down. Society conditions females to take care of others at their own expense from an early age, and to care what others think. Am I the only one who sees the irony of using that conditioning to pressure us into chasing things we aren’t sure we want for ourselves?
So basically, I have no idea what I’m doing with my life or even what the proper motives are for doing or not doing a given thing. I am a GPF failure as of yet, and I may even stay that way. I didn’t really have a fallback if law school didn’t pan out, but I also believe going would not have had a positive effect on my happiness, current existential crisis aside. Boyfriend will be graduating soon and we’ll be mobile. We’ve talked a lot about wanting to move to a place that makes both of us happy and “settling down,” I guess you’d say. We can probably live comfortably in Boulder/Denver, Seattle, or Portland for the foreseeable future. Boyfriend will have no problem finding a good job and I could get my back fixed (though I’m still iffy on the surgery) and then manage our startups, which would give me more flexibility while I recover than working for someone else.
Neither of us thinks we want to do a 2-3 year stint somewhere like NYC or the Valley, even though now would presumably be the time, before we have kids. Nonetheless, I feel pressure to do just that, particularly because I don’t like that “managing our startups” looks a lot like “woman of leisure” from the outside, at least at first. Plus, what if Boyfriend architects a good product and then I mess up everything else? It’s not like any other company would let me have that much responsibility, with my qualifications. (He keeps pointing out that this is sort of the point of being a founder.) We’ll still be okay financially even if I fail, but doesn’t that just make me, like, a trophy wife?! I mean, even if I end up running a successful small business, will people think it’s just something to keep wifey busy? I feel pressure to go back to school in a place where we can’t afford to save much and certainly can’t buy a house with our own backyard in which to put a machine shop, though we both want that. And to get a prestigious degree with no real plan for what comes after it yet, just to prove I’m still smart and ambitious.
I don’t think it would necessarily be a mistake to go to business or design school, but I also want to think I’d be doing it for a better reason than societal pressure on my ego, especially because I’m not sure we’d be happy with our choice to move to one of those cities and our dissatisfaction with our current location has been a drag. At least if soft skills were quantifiable, I would be able to make a logical choice about business school. It would be so great to hear: “Oh, you scored a 90 on the Can You Manage a Company test. The average for people with elite MBAs is 110. Just work on these areas and you don’t need to go to business school.” Or, “Turns out business school only improves graduates’ Important Skills by some small percentage on average, so only go if you know how you’ll deploy the alumni network to your advantage.” Everyone in the startup sphere (who isn’t a brogrammer) has a business degree and says you don’t need a business degree. You almost never hear of women without advanced degrees succeeding in the startup world, but that could just be the rampant sexism and journalistic obsession with boy kings. Am I just lazy for not wanting this? Does it matter if I fail as a feminist but I’m happy? Will I be able to be happy if I take an alternate route or will I always feel inadequate? I haven’t been able to shake off GPF’s moral lessons so far and they tend to indicate that I’m a ‘bad feminist’… or even a ‘bad woman.’
What about you, Jumpers? Is it all in my head? Do you feel pressure like this, too?