Lynn Beisner knows her husband isn’t the perfect feminist, but he is the best man she could imagine loving.
Recently a friend of mine wrote a Facebook post blasting people who use water bottles and plastic shopping bags. I have to admit that I do both. Her blast made me feel judged, defensive and consequentially hostile towards environmentalism for a few minutes.
The problem lies not with my ideals, but with my habits and my nature. I am the stereotypical absent-minded professor. I am always preoccupied. On my own, I am stymied by things as basic as recycling. The complexity of sorting trash is beyond my capability. I can barely sort my laundry and keep up with that. Fortunately, our house is green in that regard because Pete has figured out a system for making recycling effortless for me.
But I am an environmentalism failure in two of the most visible ways, the very things my friend railed against. I simply cannot remember to bring with me my own water in an eco-friendly reusable container. And even if I could, I would misplace the damn thing by noon. The same is true for those wonderful cloth shopping bags. I buy them, but my absent-mindedness and disorganization means I never end up using them. For years, I struggled with the cognitive dissonance between what I believe and what I am actually able to do.
In the all-or-nothing thinking proposed by many environmentalist, I am what is wrong in the world. They see me as selfish, silly, ignorant or immoral. And faced with the disapproval from my environmentalist friends, I become defensive. Over time I’ve started to see their green ethical practices as something that only those not living in the real world could achieve.
Then, last year, a wonderful environmentalist friend of mine told me something very important. She encouraged me to give up perfection and to think of ways that I could make small improvements and offset the harm that I was doing.
After careful consideration, I decided that how I would offset the way that I was harming the planet was by ripping out every square inch of grass on my property. Suburbia, with the acres of grass and asphalt is a desert for birds, bees and butterflies. Without butterflies and bees, life as we know it on earth will end. As it happens, I love the physicality of gardening, and I am relatively good at it. I have chosen to offset the harm that I do by planting two gardens, one for vegetables, but another much larger one that was designed entirely to be an oasis for butterflies and bees. I have yet to expand my gardens to eradicate all grass, but I am about 80% there. I am clearly making a difference. Our entire block is now buzzing with life, where two years ago it was nothing but arid, lifeless suburban landscaping.
The old saying is true: the perfect is the enemy of the good. And nowhere does this seem truer than in feminism. Some of us have adopted feminist purity standards by which we judge each other and everyone else. And while it is true that there is a special place in hell reserved for women who do not support each other, I am also very worried that some of us have created a standard for male supporters and partners that few can ever reach.
I am concerned about the criticism I hear about men as partners. For example, I agree with Hugo Schwyzer that it is reasonable to want a man who is not overly needy. But human beings are flawed. And as flaws go, isn’t neediness a relatively forgivable one and one far more easily remedied than misogyny or a genuine belief in the essential inferiority of women?
It seems to me that by far, the women who are most contemptuous of men are disillusioned traditionalists. They begin with unrealistic expectations for a knight in shining armor. Then, when they are disappointed or betrayed by one man, their belief that all men are the same makes them critical of the lot. Fortunately, feminist women tend not to have the unrealistic expectations that traditionalist women have, and they understand that gender is not what makes a person trustworthy and good.
Still, when I listen to some of my feminist friends and colleagues talk about their relationships, I am concerned about how hard they are on the men in their lives. What is more, I am concerned by how critical they encourage each other to be. Rather than having unrealistic expectations of the white knight variety, they have the expectation that men raised in a sexist society will be able to completely and immediately change all of the assumptions, attitudes and behaviors they were raised with.
What I find most telling is how other women respond when I talk about my husband. Most are either in awe or disbelieving. I cannot tell you how often I am told that I am incredibly lucky to have found such a great man. They say this as if I have bagged a unicorn. Some of my feminist friends react with outright skepticism. They cannot believe that a man exists who is as loving and good as I describe Pete. I have had women tell me plainly that they believe I am somehow brainwashed by patriarchy or that Pete must be deceiving me.
To be fair, I value loyalty above everything else in a marriage, and I place a very high premium on kindness. So I only discuss problems with my husband or my children when I am looking for help resolving the issue. That means that everything people hear about my kids and husband has gone through my kindness and loyalty filters. But I am not bragging or exaggerating. How I talk about Pete reflects my experience of being his wife; he really is kind, loyal and supportive. It also reflects my true feelings about him. I am every bit as besotted with him and as entirely bowled over by his goodness as I seem.
The sad thing is, I feel disloyal to my feminist friends and to feminism as an institution when I confess how loved and loving I feel in my relationship with my husband. Because the truth is, he is an imperfect feminist. He still has some very sexist ideas. But then again, he is a descendent of the Daughters of the Mayflower, the great-great grandson of general who engaged in ethnic cleansing, and the son of an arch supporter of McCarthyism. For him to incorporate ideas of liberalism and equality effortlessly and intuitively would be nothing short of miraculous. For the love of God, when I married the man he was a card-carrying Republican and a member of a group that taught men how to have non-egalitarian relationships. The concept of righting the wrongs of inequality was as foreign to him as the environment and nature were to me. He is still learning to think in a non-patriarchal way. Of course he does not always get it right. He said something so breathtakingly sexist the other day that I had to get out of the shower and leave him to finish scrubbing his fun bits all by himself.
Just like I have harmed the planet with my plastic water bottles and shopping bags, Pete has hurt women, including me. We have had some rough moments and even briefly separated because of some of the hurtful things that he has done. But he has tried to offset the harm he has done by making amends. Pete’s growing feminism and his conscious efforts at offsetting harm have made a difference. His love for me is so deep, his loyalty is so fierce, and his support is so sincere and stalwart that he has created that an oasis in our family that supports life, much like my butterfly garden does. He makes my work possible, and has helped me raise two of the most effortlessly feminist human beings that I know.
I have had several friends tell me that they want to clone Pete. I understand that they are lonely and that they want what I have. I wish that every person were as loved and supported as I am. But it saddens me to think that they feel a need to reproduce one good man when there are millions of others who are equally good. I don’t believe that I am being naive or anti-feminist when I say that I believe the majority of men are like Pete. They may not be able to do the feminist equivalent of eschewing plastic water bottles and shopping bags, but they build butterfly gardens, oases that sustain life. They are imperfect but striving, and consciously creating offsets for the harm that they do. And when we demand feminist perfection from men, we become enemies of their goodness.