When Your Girlfriend Thinks You’re a Slacktivist
For Vivian, the 35-year-old mother of a toddler, attending the Women’s March in Nashville, Tenn. was a no-brainer. She’s an outspoken feminist who voted for Hillary Clinton, who panicked as Trump’s election results rolled in, and who has been logging calls to her representatives to fight the bleak new future ever since. The march was her “first foray into this kind of activism,” she told me by phone, and it was exciting. As she pored over the organizers’ instructions for taking her 17-month-old daughter with her into the crowds, it never even occurred to her to ask her husband, Mark — whom she describes as liberal on social issues, and a feminist — to join her. “I just assumed he probably wouldn’t,” she said.
She wasn’t wrong to think so. A recent Washington Post poll of Democratic Party members found that while 40 percent of women intended to dive into greater political activism this year, only 27 percent of men did. Recently, writer Amy Spalding put the question informally to Twitter, asking followers if they’d called a single representative in this calendar year and to indicate their gender.
The replies are only anecdotal data, of course, and far more women than men responded to the poll. But these kinds of gaps are playing out in relationships across the country between liberal men and women who share similar values and are generally in alignment on political issues. In a recent “Ask Polly” column at New York Magazine, a letter writer laments that she’s been having a hard time in her relationship with a man who is “on her side” when it comes to examining his privilege and talking about issues of race and gender, but that has largely come through her initiating the conversations. She writes:
I was feeling patient about him learning this stuff, but since Trump was elected, I have very little patience. I want him to wake up right now. And he’s angry and sad and scared about Trump and what he’s doing to our country, but he’s not angry and sad and scared ENOUGH for me. He has a short attention span for pain or sadness (and I arguably have a tendency to ruminate on things — so something in the middle would be more ideal), and he can also retreat into white-male-privilege-keep-head-in-sand-until-it-all-passes land. I wish he was more personally motivated to learn about privilege and that I didn’t have to be the one forcing him to think about it. Sometimes he doesn’t get things and I feel so disappointed and afraid that maybe I settled. That’s harsh. I hate even typing it. Everything is just so fucked right now.
The writer asks how she can keep her relationship healthy in this political climate. Polly advises her to not use her husband as a scapegoat. “You can’t turn the story of ignorant white men into a story about your actual husband,” she says. “Sure, we’d like some of the ignorant white men who voted for Trump to wake up… But let’s not fuck with the good men by our sides. Let’s not fuck with the liberal guys who are just as anxious for a woman to take a shot at the job as we are.”
After reading Polly’s advice, I asked a few girlfriends if they felt a similar frustration with their good dudes. I put the question to Facebook, and several friends shared it with their friends, and women reached out to tell me they could “talk for hours” about this stuff — the activism they’re doing to resist the current regime, and their husbands’ and boyfriends’ relative inaction to do anything to actually protest, in spite of having their back ideologically.
These men, their wives and girlfriends say, talk the political talk — but when it comes down to walking the walk of active resistance, the man falls short in terms of joining her in action. It’s a pain point in otherwise happy relationships, made all the more obvious by the urgency with which so many women feel moved to act.
To be clear, these are liberal men who favor reproductive rights and equal pay for women, who are deeply concerned about a Trump presidency, but who, for whatever reason, just aren’t joining their girlfriends and wives in the slog of calling and emailing representatives, donating to causes, or showing up to a march. And it’s driving their ladies nuts.
Understandably, none of the women wanted to point fingers at their good men, whom they described as progressive and generally supportive. They agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity (they’ve been given pseudonyms here). But privately, they expressed frustration that the men who shared their fear and disgust of Trump and his policies never seemed to be moved to do anything.
They spoke of logging hours calling and emailing representatives and researching causes to donate to; of using social media to draw attention to issues and troubling headlines, to post action alerts for contacting representatives; and even of circulating scripts for making those calls — only to notice that their boyfriends and husbands had done nothing of the sort.
Cara, a 30-year-old writer in Chattanooga, told me she spoke to her boyfriend Ben about that disparity — her marching and tweeting and calling, and him doing nothing. “We had a conversation about it the other day,” she said. “I’m frustrated that he won’t join me [in protesting]. I always ask, but I only ask once.” Ben’s reason? “He’s a Jewy-looking Jew who innately knows he’s going to be targeted,” Cara says. She mentions that recently the news has contained more and more references to Nazism and Hitler; swastikas are showing up in graffiti across the country; and she recently read a news item about subway graffiti that said “Jews Belong in Ovens.”
“A huge part of the reason I want to become more active is FOR him,” she explains. “I know he very much supports me, he takes care of the dog and 90 percent of the housework so I can fuck off to D.C. for a weekend to march. He has a legitimate fear that he has to deal with that I don’t. But I just wish he could fucking ‘like’ a heartfelt Facebook post.”
Atlantan Sarah, 32, said her liberal husband Josh works as a writer and says he can’t express political opinions publicly at the risk of appearing biased, but she doesn’t see why that means her husband couldn’t still make those calls with her. His desire to play more of a peacemaker role in tension “results in inaction and apathy,” she said. “And that really does disappoint me. More than frustration I feel disappointment.”
Other women I spoke with said they were told by their partners that women are just “built for the fight” better than they are. And many of the women I spoke with said that even if their male partners didn’t want to march or make phone calls, they wish they would at least speak up more about policies that affect women with other men, or stand up for them if they encounter troubling comments from other men. “I’d like to think Josh would [speak up] if he were in situations where he needed to call out misogyny or racism, but I’m not sure,” Sarah said.
Alison, a 40-year-old television writer in Los Angeles married to fellow writer John, said she had some ideas for why he wasn’t able to participate as much as she does. She’s constantly posting action alerts on Facebook, calling her representatives, marching, and did canvassing for Clinton during the election in nearby states.
“Most women I know volunteer at their kids’ schools whereas it takes specific manly tasks to get men there,” she told me. “They volunteer, but they like knowing they’re going to paint or what have you. Women show up and organize everything. I’m wondering if activism resides in the same realm as volunteerism.”
She draws the parallel to unpaid work to the worry work of the home — the planning and organizing of a social calendar, or children’s schedules, doctors visits and the like that women still do the lion’s share of, even when they work full time. “Women know how to do unpaid work and are expected to do it,” she said. “So even if there’s no clear task at hand, they show up, brainstorm, and figure it out.”
But she also thinks it’s about the fact that men need to be told a specific task they can tackle. When the protesters headed to the Los Angeles airport in response to Trump’s travel ban, “My husband jumped in the car and was on it,” she said. “But these nebulous meetings where we figure out media strategy or voter suppression — less so. But part of that is him working 70 hours a week.”
All the women I spoke with were quick to add that they feel lucky to have supportive husbands and boyfriends — the most progressive, evolved generation of men in history, who participate in family life and childcare far more than their predecessors. A recent study from Pew Research Centercovered by The New York Times found that men are more committed than ever to cooking dinner and changing diapers. However, there’s still a disconnect between what they think they do and what they actually do — a gap in hours spent dealing with the day-to-day drudgery of life. “Even feminist couples find it very difficult to attain equality, particularly after a child,” Jill Yavorsky, a sociology doctorate candidate at Ohio State University, told The New York Times.
That disconnect appears to extend to political activism. MEL’s John McDermott looked into the reasons why Democratic men are less inclined toward activist work, speaking with political science experts and activist organizations. He found that white men in particular may be less motivated to march for a few reasons. Women may well feel more threatened by the Trump Administration — after all, Trump has made a number of outlandishly sexist remarks, and has been accused by many woman of sexual harassment and assault.
And many of the administration’s policies and positions target reproductive rights, including implementing a global gag rule to cut funding to organizations that say word one about abortion. If the Republican Congress and President Trump succeed in killing the Affordable Care Act, birth control will become more expensive again. And Trump seems happy to go along with Mike Pence and Paul Ryan when it comes to abortion rights in the U.S. — and yanking all funding from Planned Parenthood, which provides a wide range of health care serves to women (and men).
McDermott notes that while many men protested Vietnam because of the draft, women have often been more engaged in political activism because historically they’ve had fewer rights and more to fight for.
“All the major recent grassroots political movements — Tea Party, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15 — have had ‘a strong female base,’ McDermott writes, quoting political communication professor Vincent Raynauld.
Polly, meanwhile, suggests that the angry letter writer should “Cut the semi-almost-woke lily-white motherfuckers some slack and keep gently nudging them in the right direction,” she writes. “This is not a moment for shouting them down — unless they actually believe in the orange menace’s racist, anti-woman agenda.”
But the women I spoke to said that it wasn’t that the men they love didn’t care about the issues or what’s at stake — it’s that they weren’t making the leap to taking action. “The men in my family all feel urgently affected by this administration,” Alison said.
“I think it’s just not knowing what to do. What will make a difference. It’s what we’re all feeling. But women know what to do with a big nebulous mess. You just start doing something. For my father-in-law, at first I wrote out scripts for him to use when calling reps. Now that he’s familiar with it, he’s on it. He calls them every day with his own stuff.”
But some men take the position that all that work won’t move the needle, anyway. Marie, a 34-year old graphic designer in Nashville, told me her husband Sam doesn’t think all the calling and emailing makes a difference. “He doesn’t want to put physical effort into political opposition,” she told me. “He doesn’t believe a congressman will pay attention to phone calls or emails, and though he believes marching is great, he would rather watch the baby so I can go.
“Sam believes donating to causes and organizations that have lawyers, professionals and activists working on issues is more helpful in the long run, because the controversial bills will be decided in court. Which I agree with, but I’m moved to be more active when I see a piece of legislation that will allow guns in parks, or regulate abortion access, or voter suppression. I get angry, and I want to funnel that anger into action. He doesn’t get angry. And that is our biggest difference.”
To Marie, Sam’s lack of action suggests something troubling. When a bill shows up that could endanger your child or limit your wife’s health care choices, she asks, and it doesn’t move a man to stand up and show outrage, what does it actually mean?
“Does that mean you really don’t care?” she says. “Is it laziness? Or just apathy? The discussions usually end up with him insisting, “Yes, I do care, but me getting angry doesn’t help anyone.’ So you know what we’ve done? I rant and rave at him when I’m overwhelmed and infuriated at some new piece of news, he listens quietly, and when I’m done he says, “Yeah, that was good, now write your senator but leave out all the fucks.’ It’s working out.”
Marie says that lately her husband has been pointing out issues to her in the news instead of the other way around. Which brings us back to Vivian, who said her husband Mark didn’t seem like the type to join her at the Women’s March in Nashville. As she realized the crowds might make it too difficult, or possibly even dangerous, for her to navigate with a toddler on that January day, Mark said “Why don’t I just go with you?”
VIvian appreciated the show of support, even though she knew it was more from a protection standpoint, and not necessarily because he felt the need to go himself and fight with her for her rights, and their daughter’s. But the distinction bothered her. This is a man who shares equally in the childcare and the cleaning, and is open to discussion about women’s experiences and concerns. He supports reproductive freedom for women, and equal pay. But he still sees himself on the sidelines of the fight. She hopes that as their daughter gets older and hits some of these limitations, he may be more inclined to get angry, and to take action.
VIvian added that it would be really sexy if he did. “It would be sexy time ASAP if he were to come to me and say, ‘Hey, what can we do right now to help our daughter’s future?’” Vivian said. “I’d be like, ‘What did you say? Uh, let’s go do it first, and then let’s get politically active.’”
But she and Mark ended up deciding that it was easier for her to go to the march alone than for them all to go together. So she attended the march with friends — one of whom never even told her husband she was at the march. “She didn’t want a confrontation,” Vivian said, noting that, again, she knows she’s lucky she and Mark share the same views, and he was willing to go with her. While at the march, she and her girlfriends were heartened to see so many men in attendance. Not their men, but men nonetheless.
“It was so moving,” Vivian said. “I loved it. There was this adorable hot dad there that had his newborn strapped to his chest, and he had a sign that said, ‘This is for her.’ Are you kidding, my ovaries turned. I was like, ‘Uhhhh God, so sweet.’ His beautiful hippie wife was next to them, and I was like, ‘Yes, yes, let’s make THAT the future. Mark is just going to have to learn to warm up to this fire that’s been ignited.”
Tracy Moore is a staff writer at MEL.