This week I read a wonderful article about our generation’s search for meaning by fellow Role/Reboot contributor Kerry Cohen. It spoke to me so deeply that I went out of my way to read the article that had inspired Cohen: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s recent meandering confessional. It made me so angry my hair nearly caught fire.
I had been primed by Cohen to be compassionate and thoughtful about what Wurtzel was saying. So I took off my judgmental hat as I read about her life. I tried to see the world through the eyes of someone who has lived a life so foreign from my own I could barely wrap my brain around it. When she wrote that she was proud to have never kissed anyone for any reason other than desire or written anything that she did not feel like writing, I questioned my own ideas about kissing and writing rather than immediately assuming hers were perhaps a bit shallow. I decided that she could have done far worse things with her life, like becoming a parent who is a narcissistic dilettante.
That is why I felt like I had been hit upside the head with a 2-by-4 when she called me a “prostitute” and worthy of “disdain.” Of course, she was not singling me out. She slapped the label of shameful slut on every woman who has been financially supported by a man. With a couple of sentences that seemed to be bragging about her feminist credentials, she managed to label an entire class of women, many of whom are professing or practical feminists, as prostitutes. The category of women she called sluts includes stay-at-home mothers and women who are paid a pittance for doing important work.
I did a quick Google search, expecting to find a ton of feminist articles denouncing her for that remark. I did not find a single article that called her out for slut-shaming an entire class of women. When I posted my concern to the Facebook page of a rather well-known feminist, who is always quick to defend women who are being slut-shamed, the silence was deafening.
Wurtzel has pushed one of my very big shiny red buttons: how people in our society view women who are supported by men. I expect to see this sort of thing from Men’s Rights Activists who rail against gold-diggers and claim that women who are married have an obligation to have sex with their husbands. It was distressing to see a woman claiming to be a feminist turn all heterosexual relationships in which a woman does not earn a salary at least close to that of her partner into a simple sex-for-cash transaction, one in which a man has the reasonable quid pro quo expectation of sex. And even if we had all agreed that being a stay-at-home mom or a wife being supported by her husband in graduate school was another form of sex-work, since when is it OK to slut-shame?
When I posted a small rant on my own Facebook page, many people wondered why I would allow something Wurtzel said to bother me so much. I had to think about that for a while. What I came to realize is that I worry she might be articulating what a lot of other feminists believe but are too tactful to say. I have felt very insecure about sharing the marrow of my personal history, that just about everything good in my life has been made possible by the kindness and generosity of my husband.
I married a man who worked as a software engineer for Microsoft back in the days when such a job was thought to ensure you would become a millionaire. He was considered a veritable gold mine, and I, with my two kids and menial jobs, was automatically labeled a gold-digger. I suppose by some people’s standards that is exactly what I am. My husband’s line of work has turned out to be more of a coal mine, and we have had some very lean years. But he has financially supported me through undergraduate school, grad school, and even now as I work for virtually no pay. He has done this not only out of love for me, but also because he believes in me.
My husband has never demanded anything from me in return for his support, least of all sex. He certainly has never made me feel like a prostitute or even like a kept woman. But other women, most of them claiming to be feminists, have made me feel that way. Some have suggested that I take measures to create a marriage that they would see as more equal. I find that offensive since our marriage is more a relationship of true equality than most that I have witnessed. Others have suggested that I should frame my husband’s support as the least that men can do after years of oppressing women. I cannot agree to that either. While women as a whole deserve more opportunities, my husband owes me nothing. His support is a cause for gratitude, not a sense of entitlement.
I don’t like the fact that I have had to be “dependent” on a man all of these years as I have tried to become something other than a really crappy secretary. I would rather have risen out of poverty and obtained an education while raising children and dealing with physical disabilities all by myself. I would also like to climb the face of the Grand Canyon and win a Nobel Prize for literature. None of those things are strictly outside of the realm of possibility, but all are highly improbable.
I think that Wurtzel’s article should remind us that it is a privilege to remain immature. In the past that privilege has been mostly the purview of men, and it is something of a success for feminism when a woman can avoid growing up as doggedly as Wurtzel has.
But it should also remind us that privilege often blinds people to what life is like for those who do not have it. Wurtzel feels free to hurl judgments at women like me for the same reason as Men’s Rights Activists do: She has no idea what it is like to live with few options and little privilege. I have no grudge against her for being the Peter Pan of modern womanhood. In fact, I think it is an important step in giving up the idea of women as the more nurturing and responsible gender. But we cannot be silent when she calls for the derision of women who have had to do the hard stuff and make the tough choices of being a grown-up responsible for the lives of children. I am not suggesting a take-down, but a gentle reminder that grown-up or not, it is not OK to call women sluts.