Throughout most of the human race’s sad, patriarchal history, there has been this notion that women aren’t human beings with needs of their own, but instead a servant class put on earth to serve men, a sort of biological fembot notion. In Western tradition, misogyny was justified by saying that women were created out of a man’s rib to be his property, and therefore wives especially should be so subservient to their husbands they should really have no will of their own. (Conservative types reacted to the surge of feminism in the 60s and 70s by clinging fiercely to the myth of Adam’s rib. Mentions of Adam’s rib outnumber even tearful laments about women not silently producing food before it’s even anticipated in these anti-feminist country songs of the era.) The theory throughout much of human history is that there’s only room for one person in a relationship, and so women should simply erase themselves and become legal and emotional appendages of their husbands. One of the first wave of feminism’s greatest accomplishments was giving women the legal right to exist separately from their husbands. One of modern feminism’s greatest struggles has been changing the culture so women have the same right in practice as well as theory.
And, to a degree, second wave feminists were able to accomplish this. Nowadays, few people would have the courage to suggest outright that women should erase themselves as human beings out of tradition. Even the fundamentalist Christians that still basically teach that wives shouldn’t be real people in relationships try to dress this theory up as complementarianism, hoping that five-dollar word will distract you from the fact that they’re just echoing the same “you’re my rib, now make me a sandwich” from the refreshingly honest country western songs of the 70s. And in the secular world, you have this strange phenomenon of the anti-feminist relationship guide pretending that the old-fashioned notion that women should erase themselves is a fancy new form of feminism, a counter-intuitive one where women are supposedly made happier by giving up their attachment to the belief that they get to be full human beings inside relationships with men. And the excuse for claiming this isn’t anti-feminist is the suggestion that you have to do this because men are giant, squalling babies.
Every few years a book comes out with this premise, that women are unhappy in love (either because can’t find it or they struggle with their husbands) because they insist that men treat them like people who have wants and needs, something men supposedly cannot be expected to handle. And every single time, the book gets this laudatory and widespread reception in the male-dominated mainstream media, as if it’s a refreshingly new idea that women should make life easier for men by erasing ourselves as people. You had “The Rules” (premise: you’re single because you allow men you date to believe you have desires), “Marry Him” (premise: your ridiculous belief that you should want more out of a man than a penis and a pulse will leave you alone for life), and “The Surrendered Wife” (premise: look, men get married because they haven’t yet developed a dishwasher that can perform oral sex while expressing awe at how men can do no wrong). And now you have “The Man Whispers”, who argue that men cannot and will never accept that women have minds of their own, and subsequently you have to get your way through elaborate, passive-aggressive strategies to get your way while maintaining the illusion that you have no internal life.
Erasing your existence within a relationship is spun as totally feminist, of course, because anti-feminists are working diligently to destroy the meaning of the word “feminism” with hopes that it will destroy the concept. The Man Whisperers claim you have every right to be a human being at work and in relationships with other women, but when it comes to a heterosexual relationship with a man, it’s extremely important not to have opinions, ideas, or anything else that would perhaps threaten his idea that you’re just his rib. They explained their theories at the Washington Post: basically, words that come out of your mouth should only be in praise. Requests, opinions, and certainly indications that you have a life outside of the relationship should be silenced. This last one seems to be very important, as Donna Sozio noted,” In a romantic situation, a man wants to feel like he’s with a woman. Not another man. Men don’t fall in love with accomplishments.” I suppose to be the ideal girlfriend or wife, you pretend you don’t even have a job. Just let him believe the bills get paid by fairies. “Zipping it” appears to be an all-purpose solution.
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What is fascinating about advice like this is that it basically is about telling women men will love them better if they behave like they’ve been in a battering situation. When a woman is abused for a long time, she often gets to the “zip it” strategy as a survival technique. They tip toe around their abusers, analyzing everything they say for content their abusers will use as an excuse to berate or beat them—and the general category of “I have an existence out of serving you” is definitely a scary one.
What I don’t understand about the strategy of coming to relationships acting pre-abused is this: men who aren’t misogynist who like to beat women down will find it weird and repulsive to partner with a self-abnegating person, and men who are abusive often enjoy the process of breaking someone’s spirit as much as the results. (Which is why, after an abuse victim has really learned to “zip it”, abusers will often come up with even more elaborate excuses to claim she is nagging or showing impermissible self esteem, in order to punish her.) So, even if you—for whatever weird reason—were interested in a working relationship with an abusive man, this advice to “zip it” will not work for long. If you want a healthy relationship, it will actually defeat you.
But what this advice will do is encourage women in abusive relationships to believe they aren’t trying hard enough at self-abnegation, when what they need to be doing is finding a safe route out. And that will never be accomplished by worrying that you have too much spine.
As someone interested in women’s reproductive health, as well, I have to point out that the advice to be a “man whisperer” who never issues requests (much less demands) or expresses opinions that might conflict with a man’s is a road straight to the STD or unintended pregnancy destination. If ever a condom needs to be used and a man shows resistance, your main route is going to be allowing him unprotected sex in order to avoid being characterized as a “nag”. How much of our country’s STD and unintended pregnancy problems go back to this idea that a woman who expresses her needs directly—in this case, for protection—is a bad woman who will never be loved? I fear that it’s probably more than we’d like to think.