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Cristen Conger

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Do Feminists Make for Better Girlfriends?

Posted: 10/07/10 04:24 PM ET

You know what's a fun topic to bring up on a first date with a guy? Feminism. Once you get hard-lined religious and political beliefs out of the way (preferably first thing in the car, or during the appetizer if you must wait that long), toss out a couple of Betty Friedan or bell hooks quotes, and see if the gent picks up on it and responds with an appropriate Simone de Beauvoir reference. Or maybe just ask how much money he makes as a good segue into discourse on the gender pay gap or a nuanced debate on whether the "glass ceiling" still exists for today's young women. Awkward silences -- not gonna happen, guaranteed.

Sounds crazy, right? What heterosexual woman in her right mind would dare broach the topic of feminism on a first (or second, or third...) date? Somewhere along the way, it seems mainstream society collectively misconstrued the fight against unequal gender roles as an argument against romance. So while feminism encourages women to develop quite possibly the most attractive traits people can possess -- confidence, intelligence, self-sufficiency, etc. -- we're encouraged to tuck it away, lest we risk frightening some poor fellow off. As a result, plenty of men and women alike embrace feminism's basic tenets of gender equality, yet fear identifying with it directly due to its negative stigma.

Rutgers psychologist Laurie A. Rudman understands this pattern well. In her 2007 study, results showed that young women who wished to be seen as attractive and highly dateable distanced themselves from feminist labeling. While her research also found no legitimate basis for feminists being any less attractive and likeable than their more gender-traditional peers, both male and female participants tended to falsely stereotype feminists as unappealing romantic prospects.

But Rudman's follow-up research indicates that closet feminists playing the dating game might be shooting themselves in the foot by not letting that light shine a little brighter. The second study concluded that feminism benefits women in romantic relationships as well as the men. And for an added bonus, equality lovin' couples also reported more satisfaction between the sheets. Win-win!

She polled roughly 600 heterosexual undergrads and older adults to compare participants' beliefs about feminism and their relationship health. For starters, feminist-leaning men and women were more likely to pair up with each other and also appeared to enjoy more harmonious relationships. But here's where things get interesting. The greater men's support of feminist principles, the healthier their relationships. In fact, men's feminism correlated more significantly to relationship health than women's feminism or participants' perceptions of their partners' feminism. Therefore, women's feminist beliefs don't make or break the romance at all. Rather, it's the feminist men out there who are relationship revolutionaries. After all, they identified strongest with partner equality, which predicted greater stability and sexual satisfaction.

So maybe tossing out a Steinem reference over cocktails isn't such a terrible idea. Because while feminists make for fine girlfriends, they make for even better boyfriends.