Learn from Smart Women

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‘Ugh, I HATE guys.'

‘You’re better than him. You deserve better.’

These are snippets from everyday conversations that I have with my close friends.  And whether we like to admit it or not, there is a sense of impending doom in knowing that the push-pull between ‘what the heart desires’ and ‘what the head knows it should want’ is a perpetual theme in the life of the 21st century woman.


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I have found that the age we live in – the age of digital innovation, the Internet, and feminism – is a particularly curious one in the course of human development.  Maybe this is my education in history talking, but I have always had a particularly vested interest in the lives of women, especially those who pushed the boundaries of their societal constraints and lived effectively ‘before their time.’  Expectations surrounding women’s career aspirations, sexuality and spheres have always been at the central crux of our gender issues.  Historically, there is a certain image women ‘should’ maintain.  As recently as the mid-20th century, women had the expectation to let men pursue them.  To frame this more dramatically, if a woman did not have a man courting her, or did not have the prospect of courtship, something was off.

Feminism has its roots dating further back than anyone would conventionally think.  Although perpetuated by the women’s suffrage movement, and certainly by the social reform movements of post-war America, I can think of feminists who kicked some major ass far before their time.  For example, Eleanor of Acquitaine, Queen of France and England in the 12th century, had 12 children, divorced two husbands (who were kings, mind you, and actually aided her son in leading a rebellion against the second one), ruled two countries, and eventually died at the ripe old accomplished age of 84.  And don’t even get me started on Queen Elizabeth I…

I have mused about these ideas my whole life – what it would have meant to be a woman in different periods of history that I’ve studied – but in my more recent adult life, I have become much more keen on my role as a woman in society, especially given the velocity of social change in our contemporary era.  In addition to the numerous social and professional issues women face today, as a 22-year-old woman, I have recently taken up pondering about the nature of college dating.

Recently, I had a very unexpected turn of events in my dating life.  My ex-boyfriend and I broke up in January 2015, before my semester abroad, and although there had been issues with our relationship (mainly maturity related; him not putting in enough effort while I put in too much), it had left me feeling slighted and exhausted.  Although I voiced these concerns to him over a particularly grueling FaceTime conversation, it was obvious we still cared about each other greatly and remained amicable, catching up fairly regularly, which was convenient as we have a lot of mutual friends.  After coming back to campus in late August, and after spending nearly nine months apart, it was clear that there were still feelings between us.  Unfortunately, he soon became distant.  I could tell he was scared, confused and overwhelmed, and that left me hanging out to dry without much of an explanation. About two weeks later, I let him know that I needed to move on. At this point, my happiness was what mattered most, and living in limbo of not knowing his feelings was too painful and hindering my own personal fulfillment to the point where I knew I needed to let go whether I liked it or not.  I was hurt deeply – our relationship was the closest I had ever been to someone, the first REAL love I had experienced, and it left a wound for quite some time.  But, as a confident woman with an excellent support system, I re-focused my energies after my heartbreak into my friendships, passions and academics.  By the end of the semester, I was thriving once again.


A feminist is not a hard definition. A feminist is a fluid concept of intelligence, independence, and most importantly, a support network.


About a week and a half ago, however, my ex re-entered my life virtually out of the blue.  He asked me out to lunch one afternoon, and after a lot of hesitation and debate with my girlfriends, we decided on coffee.  He sat me down in a coffee shop by campus and, in essence, poured his feelings out to me.  He said how unbelievably sorry he was, that he had done a lot of changing and reflecting over the past year, and knew at that point in time he was not ready to commit to me, but had come to realize how much his love had grown.  He wanted more time with me.  Was I open to it?

I left coffee a flustered mess of desire, frustration, but mostly anger.  How dare he?  I went home to my roommates – my closest friends – and recounted the story.  I was fuming.  I hadn’t said no to him, but I had stood my ground.  I felt good!  I thought: this is what being a feminist felt like – feeling confident to stand up to someone who had wronged me!

…But was it?

I spent the next few days monitoring my inner thoughts and behaviors.  It was odd – I didn’t feel any different from the renewed, confident self I was.  The thought of my ex hadn’t cramped my style like it would have in the past, and although I had a lot of questions, I did believe his words were genuine.  What gave me the greatest challenge was the inner debate within myself: on the one hand, I knew how happy I was in my life and how fulfilled I felt from my family, my amazing group of friends, and all of the intellectual and extracurricular pursuits that I chose to occupy my time.  I was in no way looking for a relationship and definitely did not ‘need’ a guy to make me happy.  Yet on the other hand, I did still feel that connection with him bubbling up….and part of me (a large part) was curious about what he meant and wanted to ask more questions.

Even entertaining these thoughts made me feel guilty.  My friends had been so proud of how I had ‘stood up’ to him.  And although I know they are my friends and would support me no matter what, a small voice in my head was worried of disappointing them if I chose to re-visit my relationship with him.  Worse, I was scared to face judgment from people I respected.

This is what I refer to as ‘The Feminist’s Dilemma.’  In this Age of Feminism (I say Age of Feminism, and not post-Feminism, because women have a long way to go), women have more expectations – and critics – than ever before.  This particularly applies to the realm of dating.  The vernacular of ‘I need to prove to men that I can be independent before they approach me’ is a true, but difficult line.  Granted, everyone deserves to be respected in a relationship.  But is it wrong for me to feel an inner pull towards someone with whom I really had an emotional connection?  Does wanting to explore that make me ‘less’ of a feminist in the eyes of my female peers whom I respect?


I needed to let go whether I liked it or not.


Furthermore, I do support the belief that there is a fundamental disconnect between the emotional intelligence levels of men and women.  I do not want to make any broad sweeping generalizations, but in my own personal experience, I have found that men do not empathize with other people in the same way women do.  They struggle with putting themselves in another person’s situation, adopting another person’s point of view, or when examining how their actions could affect someone else.  This lack of perception is overwhelmingly an issue in college dating, and reflects not only on expectations of a romantic partner, but of our expectations of relationships (platonic, familial, etc) in general.  I wondered, was this something I should also consider with regards to my ex’s change of heart?

My ex and I have had a few subsequent conversations regarding his motivations, thought process, and his feelings towards me.  He emphasized how he knew he was not in a good place in September and could not face the possibility of failing me, the person he loved, yet again.  He then apologized for his cowardice.  He owned up to his ignorance, his neglect of our relationship previously and how he had treated me in the fall.  He wrote me a long letter explaining how much he loved me and how/when he realized it and how he knew the expectations for him to even attempt to spend more time with me were incredibly high.

All of that aside, as I sit exploring these options for the rest of my time at school, I think of women everywhere who have felt the pull of ‘The Feminist’s Dilemma.  I absolutely believe there is a level of respect every single person in a relationship deserves and if those needs are not being met, a friend should, without a doubt, step in and say something.  That's why I value my friends so much – they give it to me straight, as I would do for them.  But I believe they – along with many other women my age and older – who have been in this position, can empathize.  Can someone be reconciled in this type of scenario?  How will my peers view me now if I choose to spend more time with this person?  Most concerning for me: what does that say about my levels of self-respect?  With all of the expectations placed on women today, who are we as a community of supportive peers if we start placing additional expectations on each other?

As I turn these questions over and over again in my head, I am spurred by a snippet of inspiration one of my close friends said to me recently: ‘I don’t think a feminist is necessarily a strict definition.  I think a feminist is someone who is confident in what she wants and does what she wants without judgment.  That is another way of being strong.’  She makes it sounds so simple – ‘a feminist does what she wants when she wants’ – but to me, these words carry a lot of merit.  I haven’t decided what I am going to do about my predicament, but part of me refers back to this statement and thinks that I don’t really have to make a formal decision.  I can spend time with people when I choose to, as long as that choice does not negatively impact my relationships with others, or most importantly, myself.


It's imperative that we women stick together and support one another. 


While taking the time to reflect on my predicament, I continually referred back to this statement.  It struck a deep sounding chord within my heart.  After much deliberation and peppered inner debate with myself, I knew how I felt.  There was no law saying I was signing a binding contract - as a femininst, I could explore the possibility to spending more time with someone who I cared about deeply at my leisure, and the people I love would support me at the end of the day.  Easing into the decision and the process took the pressure off of me as I genuinely embodied how I felt in the moment for my last remaining months at school.  He and I have been spending quite a bit of time together since that initial disastrous coffee date, and I couldn't be happier.  My fear of my other aspects of my life and motivaitons being compromised has virtually evaporated.  As a 22-year-old woman who has developed a strong backbone, a clear head on my shoulders and overwhelming sense of self, I feel appreciated for who I am and what I am doing - and most importantly - proud of myself for my accomplishments and how I led myself through the process. 

A feminist is not a hard definition.  A feminist is a fluid concept of intelligence, independence, and most importantly for me, a support network.  When 'dilemmas' arise, it's imperative that we women stick together and support one another. 


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