“You’d better make sure this guy is worth all that sacrifice.”
A near-stranger in a bar told me this after I mentioned a decision I was about to make for love.
My big “sacrifice?” Traveling to another country that I absolutely love to be around someone who makes me extremely happy.
Now that I’ve done it, I can’t fathom why I, too, once feared it was a sacrifice – and that it was anti-feminist.
During the months preceding the move, I almost backed out several times. I had this nagging voice in my head that said, “You shouldn’t do so much for a man!”
I spoke to a friend who was also about to move to be with her partner, and we both had this same fear.
But it wasn’t like I was giving anything up – except maybe an apartment in a city I didn’t even want to stay in. In fact, I’ve worked extremely hard and continued publishing upwards of ten articles a day since I left the US (and had new ideas, like this article). I haven’t lost anything – I’ve only gained a lot of happiness.
What if I were a man? Would people, myself included, be so concerned that I was making a big decision for love?
People tend to be especially critical of women for making “sacrifices” for love. Often, it comes from a good place. Many women feel pressure to give up their location, work, or independence for their partners or to be the primary caretakers in their families. Some women are even forced to do this.
But the assumption that this is always the case relies on another set of assumptions – specifically, that everybody fits into a binary, heteronormative worldview in which relationships consist of women playing feminine roles and men playing masculine roles.
Plus losing yourself in a partner means sacrificing your own happiness for them. It doesn’t mean making decisions that make you happy.
So when we criticize or warn women who make decisions based on their partners, this is why it’s anti-feminist.
1. It Imposes a Double Standard
Men can certainly face backlash for making time for their partners or wearing makeup or loving kids, but it’s for a different reason: because they’re not performing their gender role.
The people who judge women for making these choices are often the same people who consider men liberated for making them.
Granted, there are reasons for this. After all, men are defying stereotypes by doing these things, while women are living in accordance with them, although they may certainly do these things in their own way.
But it’s okay to live according to gender roles. It doesn’t mean you’re trying to conform. Even if you are doing “feminine” things because of how you were socialized, it’s still valid to like them.
You shouldn’t have to avoid things you like just because these preferences may result from socialization. That’s punishing yourself for your own oppression.
Feminism should be about letting women like sports or fashion or both or neither, not saying women have to like sports and can’t like fashion, for example.
When we think of certain decisions as ones women should make and others as ones men should make, we’re still thinking in a gendered way, even if we’ve reversed the expectations.
2. It’s Based on Stereotypes
It might seem feminist to point out when a woman seems to be acting based on internalized misogyny. But when we assume that a woman is being passive and submissive, rather than taking control of her life and following her heart, we’re the ones being sexist.
Even the word “sacrifice” plays into a tired narrative of women as self-sacrificial, which is why I’m putting it in quotations.
Women can have all sorts of reasons for doing things that are sometimes rooted in sexism. For example, a woman may wear makeup not because she believes it’s her duty to be aesthetically pleasing, but because it’s a form of self-expression.
Similarly, women can move for love, give up work for their kids, and make other “sacrifices” because they’re not actually sacrifices to them – they have a net gain.
Yes, there are women who give up parts of themselves for men because they don’t know their own self-worth or they don’t have much of a choice.
But when we assume that’s the case, we’re squeezing them into a sexist narrative that may or may not apply to them.
A woman can feel empowered by choices that might feel disempowering to other women. Feminism is about being able to do what makes you happy. And when we put pressure on women to make the more “feminist” decision, we hinder that goal.
3. It Pressures Women to Represent Their Gender
Part of being a member of an oppressed group, women included, is that you feel like you have to represent the group you belong to. If, for example, you’re a woman who happens to be a bad driver, you may fear that people will take your driving to mean women are bad drivers.
Women who make “sacrifices” for love can feel the same way.
When you make a decision based on your partner, you don’t want to encourage the idea that women should do this. And nobody should interpret your decisions that way. But they might – just because of your gender. And interpreting a woman’s decisions based on her gender is sexist.
If you happen to be the one who wants to take care of the kids or who has an easier time moving (which was the case for me, since I work remotely), you shouldn’t have to face the assumption that you’re doing it because you’re a woman.
A man, after all, can become a stay-at-home dad without people assuming men are less suited to work, and he can travel to be with a significant other without anyone assuming he’s losing himself.
When we put pressure on women to play traditionally masculine roles in order to make a point about feminism, we limit their freedom, which is inherently anti-feminist.
4. It Devalues Femininity
In Western society, caring about relationships is considered feminine, and caring about work is considered masculine. That doesn’t mean all women care more about relationships or all men care more about work, but it does mean that we base our values around these associations.
That is, women aren’t inherently feminine, but devaluing femininity is based on devaluing women.
Our patriarchal, capitalistic society says it’s better to be independent and individualistic and focused on your career than it is to put your relationships first, which is based on the assumption that it is better to be masculine than it is to be feminine.
If someone wants to give up their work or their home for their significant other, why should that be a bad thing?
People of all a/genders should be able to do that if they want to. In fact, when we start viewing women who make this choice more positively, men will probably also feel more free to do so.
We can simultaneously debunk the notion that women must be feminine and make displaying femininity more acceptable for people of all a/genders.
5. It Limits Women’s Choices
For all these reasons, criticizing women who make “sacrifices” for love makes them feel like if they want to make a certain decision because they love someone, they could risk letting themselves and other women down.
I know because that’s how it felt for me.
I still often feel like I have to justify my current living situation with explanations like “I’m not here for good – I’m just spending a few months, then reevaluating” and “I didn’t have to give up any work.”
I shouldn’t have to. My choice should be fine even if I was staying here forever or giving up work because it makes me happy.
Leaving my home for love has in many ways been a feminist act. I defied society’s expectations in order to make myself happy. I pursued a relationship where I feel treated like an equal. And by experiencing a new culture, I’m gaining a broader perspective on feminism.
The fact that my friend and I both had this warped image of ourselves sitting at home knitting after we moved to be with our partners says a lot about our culture.
That image was so far from the truth, yet we both were interpreting our own actions through the lens of a sexist society that says if a woman does something because of her partner – especially a man – she’s disempowered.
Now that I’ve gotten over that fear, I hate that I and other women have had to experience it. And I really hate the thought that it could hold women back from doing things that could actually be really good for them.
I don’t mean to subscribe to the philosophy that every choices a woman makes is feminist, because that’s problematic, too.
And I’m certainly not saying that women should make sacrifices for love. But I’m also not saying they shouldn’t. They should do what feels right for them.
That may be a harder philosophy to live by than “do this” and “don’t do that,” but feminism isn’t supposed to be simple; it’s supposed to be individualized.
In order to make feminism include all individuals, we can’t criticize anyone’s choices based on assumptions that are ultimately sexist.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.