Friday, August 22, 2014

Fast Cars and Broken Hearts: What Makes a Feminist Marriage?

Over the summer, I was teaching a class about success, and one of the paper prompts involved choosing a song and analyzing it through that lens of success. While I was looking for songs to share with the class as possible choices, I ended up listening to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car."

Halfway through, I burst into tears. 

This was not the first time I'd heard this song, of course. In fact, I've heard it dozens of times. I wasn't in a particularly mopey mood (I was working, going through many songs that night). What was it that made me so suddenly overtaken with emotion?

I mean, sure, it's a sad song. Here's this woman who saw a relationship as her chance to escape a cycle of poverty and working to take care of her alcoholic father only to end up circling back around to repeat the same cycle with the man she thought would save her. 

I think the simple feminist analysis of this song would end with an admonishment of a woman depending on a partner to save her in the first place, a reading of "Fast Car" as cautionary tale that demonstrates a woman's right and perhaps even responsibility to make it on her own. You know, the whole "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" message.

But it's not that simple, and that's certainly not why I had surprisingly burst into tears.
The speaker in that song wasn't asking to be saved. She wasn't a damsel in distress standing in a tower hoping the prince would some day rescue her. She was working her ass off, planned to continue working her ass off, and had recognized that she would be much more effective if she could escape the dead weight of a father who didn't help her and instead depend on the partnership of someone who would.
Maybe we make a deal/Maybe together we can get somewhere . . . Starting from zero got nothing to lose   
And you know what? She's right. It is easier to climb out of poverty if you have someone climbing with you. If you find the right partner, you can make a difficult feat a little less challenging.  

The woman in this song pins everything on her romantic partnership, and she recognizes that it is a gamble--a gamble she ultimately lost.

She holds on through imperfections and dashed expectations, continuing to work and trust and believe in the beauty of a true partnership that will give her access to a world she couldn't see herself reaching alone.

But she got in the wrong car.

By the end of the song, she hasn't just given up on the relationship; she's given up on herself.
I'd always hoped for better/Thought maybe together you and me find it/I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
The fact that you can lose yourself through the course of a relationship is the flip side of a more optimistic truth: you can find yourself there, too.

I recently told a friend that marrying a feminist was the most important decision I've made; it has impacted every aspect of my life.

But it's not that simple. I didn't know my husband was a feminist early in our relationship because I didn't know that I was a feminist yet. I didn't know what questions to ask that would turn out to be so crucial later in our life together.
I didn't know to ask if he would get out of bed to bring our infant daughter to me so I could nurse her and still get some rest (I didn't even know if I wanted children). I didn't know to ask if he would  juggle his work schedule with mine so that we could both still pursue our hobbies (I had no idea I would want to play roller derby or do yoga some day). I didn't know to ask if we would split the housework (we were in a dorm; the housework was scarce). I didn't know to ask how we'd afford to live while the two of us (both first-generation college students) went to graduate school and law school.
There was so much that I didn't know. Just like the narrator of "Fast Car," choosing to pin my life to my husband's was a gamble. It was a calculated gamble thread with love, respect, and joy, but it was still a gamble because the intertwining of two lives is not simply a matter of finding someone compatible with who you are today (a feat in itself) but of finding someone whose future self will meld with your future self. It's an act of inevitable instability, one that necessarily requires a leap of faith into the unknown.

So when I ask what makes a marriage feminist, I am not simply asking if you need to marry a feminist. I'm asking how you make the decisions--tiny and huge, day in and day out--that build a relationship based on trust, equality, and respect.

I don't think you have to call yourself a feminist to be a good spouse, but I do think you need to value one another as autonomous people. I don't think you have to split all the bills and all the housework directly down the middle, but I do think that those decisions have to be made with fairness, respect, and acknowledgement of individual abilities and desires. My recognition of myself as a feminist came only through the relationship of mutual respect and autonomy built in my marriage.

I know as a "good feminist" I'm supposed to believe that I don't need a man, but I'd be lying if I said that. I may not need a man, but I need this man to be who I am today. Every decision that we made from the moment we decided we were building a life together shaped and pruned and nourished different parts of me. Without my husband, I would be a very different person, and I think recognizing that co-dependency that drops down into my very identity left me feeling vulnerable and incredibly, incredibly lucky.

I got in the right car.

Photo: anarrestidream, Tim Green

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