When I wrote a piece called "Women Had It Better in the Sixties," I knew it would piss people off. I knew I would be called ignorant. I knew that I was walking straight into a sweat lodge and the heat was about to go up. Still, I didn't expect it to garner 600-something comments (roughly 590 of which seem to be critical) or that I would be the recipient of unintelligible hate mail (I may not have understood their specific points but I understood their main one, which is that they were mad).
To be fair, the essay I turned in was called "Why I Follow Helen Gurley Brown." Still, I understood why the editor went with the title she did. The point I was trying to make with the piece was that a lot of women call attention to how unfair certain circumstances are for us. I'm not saying that they're wrong -- that circumstances are, in fact, fair. I just think that rather than starting groups to, say, catalogue the way there aren't enough women in a certain field, we should be looking at where we can have an immediate, positive impact: by admitting that the situation is tough for women whether we're Fortune 500 businesswomen, stay-at-home moms, or single gals just trying to make our rent. And we can try to have compassion for all of us, no matter which group we're a part of, rather than perpetuating the idea that one group has it "right" and the other "wrong."
And I think that when we create a stink about how women aren't being paid enough or aren't being allowed the same job opportunities as men, we stay angry and are ineffective. I could be entirely wrong about the ineffective part -- for all I know people read these types of Op Eds or hear about these groups, wake up to how unfair everything is, and create new opportunities for women -- but I know that when I vent, I tend to only feel worse; it's when I try to find a solution that I feel better. And when someone who's angry vents at me, I cease to listen: I know they're enraged so I assume they're not being entirely rational. Either way, we don't have a lot of control.
Yet there are certain things we can control: we can, for instance, try to stop finding fault with each other. As a single woman, I can't tell you the number of times I've felt ashamed -- not because of the reactions of men to my situation but because of the reactions of women, women who have made different choices than I have and are clearly far better at navigating relationships than I am. Every time a married mother says, "Wow, you still haven't settled down?" or "Your mom must be disappointed that you don't have a family," I shrink a little bit. It would never occur to me to counter with questions about whether or not they're frustrated by the fact that their career hasn't moved at the pace it did before they had kids or, conversely, to ask how they feel about their kids being raised by the nanny.
So what can we do? Well, we can all try to curb those "concerned" comments that are really masking condescension. And in the professional world, when confronted with decisions like whether or not to put out the message that single women without kids are resentful, sad and bitter -- or to portray the lone single woman on a reality show as the "underdog" -- we could think about the cultural impact these messages may have.
I'm not saying I'm not a part of the problem. I am. I put married mothers with thriving careers on pedestals and am judgmental of the women who rely solely on men for their income -- especially when they make a big show of "working" when it's just some wacky pet project funded by said husband. If I'm being honest, I don't judge them for their lack of ambition (at least not entirely): I judge them because I'm jealous. Because I think they may know something I don't. Because I wish I didn't have to worry about my car and rent payments, because at least a small part of me wants to hear a man say, "Yes, honey, I believe in your dream of creating a business selling lanterns made out of dead flowers and want to help you get started with it."
I don't hate women, as I was accused of by some of my hate-mailers. And I don't hate men -- another accusation. And I wasn't saying in the piece that everything is worse for women today than it was in the 60s (the fact that I wrote "in many ways" seems to have resonated so little that if I could do it again, I might have put it in ALL CAPS). I wasn't saying that all women who don't want to be photographed in sexy clothes have issues with their body; I was merely talking about one.
But none of that really matters; when people are primed for a fight, they see what they want to see. And I was pleased that the article brought up a lively conversation, even if I couldn't bring myself to read a lot of it since my periodically thick skin has a way of crumbling into non-existence when attacks come below the belt. I was happy that Meghan Casserly wrote on Forbes that if I was at her desk, "There would have been some high-fiving happening." But I'm even happier that there seems to be an ever so slight cultural shift. Consider Sara Eckel's recent (and excellent) Modern Love in which she wrote, "Like single women everywhere, I had bought into the idea that the problem must be me, that there was some essential flaw -- arrogance, low self-esteem, fear of commitment -- that needed to be fixed." (The essay ends with the revelation that she didn't need fixing after all; she and her husband recently celebrated their six year anniversary.) The Zooey Deschanel show The New Girl celebrates -- at least sort of -- the single life. A writer in New York who was recently meant to get married ended up marrying herself. While I'm not sure that's the answer -- in my opinion, not that someone who recently received something like 590 negative comments should be in a position to judge -- marrying yourself makes the girl too easy to mock as an example of Oprah-like self love gone too far.
But I do think that loving ourselves -- and each other -- more is the answer. I think blaming the man who's done something wrong, rather than the woman who did it with him, would be a start. I think challenging our primitive instinct to see other women as competition, to be frightened that we've made the wrong choices when we encounter a woman who has what we don't -- could go a long way.
Because the truth is that I can do estimable work and complete myself all I want and still wilt in the face of a Smug Married Woman. Yet I could also at least try to love and understand women who believe different things than I do and have made different choices.
Even the 590-odd ones who think I'm an idiot.