The Perfect Feminist

By David Himmel

I knew what I was getting into when I married Marie. She was a kindhearted woman—sweet as they came. A staunch NPR listener. The kind of NPR listener that actually gave money.

There wasn’t a cause she didn’t support. She convinced me to buy a Prius so she could save the polar bears. We almost didn’t get married because she thought it wasn’t right that we could, while her gay cousin in Sioux Falls couldn’t. But her mother kept telling everyone in her hometown that she was a “lesbo.” So we had the big wedding just to curb any rumors. Marie sent money to Darfur, and even though I begged her not to because I hated bumper stickers, she went ahead and slapped one of those COEXIST stickers on the Prius. You know, the blue sticker that spells “coexist” in different religious symbols. She wouldn’t even sign the petition to make our block permit parking because she felt that it prevented a person’s right to park their car.

And I was fine with all of this. It was cute. How could I get upset over someone wanting to make the world a better place?

Her biggest cause, the thing that she most identified with, was feminism. This was a point of contention between us, and after a while, we fought about it constantly. I was all for equal pay for equal work and would have never denied the sexism in our culture, but refusing to regularly shave her legs because it was, as she explained it, the male species’ attempt to remove her humanity by making her a sexual object was a bit much.

“Why don’t you support me, Steve?” she asked.

It wasn’t a lack of support. I just didn’t like the idea of my wife’s sexy legs looking like Robin Williams’ forearms. At night, in bed, it was like I was copping a feel on my dad.

The problem, at its core, was that I couldn’t fight with someone whose arguments lacked all reasoning.

“I’m a mammal,” she said. “I have hair on my body to protect me against the elements. It grows for a reason.”

“Then why did I just pay a credit card bill for a new Burberry trenchcoat? Dogs are mammals. They have hair. They don’t need $795 jackets.”

“Dogs wear jackets.”

“Idiots dress their dogs in jackets.”

“Having hair on my body is human.”

“So bald men are less human. Children with cancer going through chemo and radiation, they’re less human. So they’re not mammals.” That’s when she left the room with her iPad to watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix.

Marie wasn’t a male-hating feminist. But she could have passed for one. She told me once that there would be less war if more women were in charge. She said that women aren’t violent by nature and therefore, don’t see fighting as an option. So I reminded her of my mother and her Wooden Spoon of Death that she used to keep my sisters and me in line as kids.

For a stretch last year, Marie refused to use pens and pencils anymore because they were too phallic. But she changed her mind when it came time to sign Christmas cards.

We got into a discussion about equal pay among the sexes. You see; Marie made more money than I did. She was an account executive for a fancy marketing firm. I was a high school English teacher. So it was hard for her to make the argument that all men made more than all women because our home was proof against that. There’s no way we could have afforded our trendy Chicago neighborhood home on my salary alone. But she swore that if we were both up for the same job, I’d be paid more than her.

“Except that I wouldn’t get the job. Because women are being hired over men in almost every field.”

“That’s because they can pay us less,” she said.

“Maybe so. But there’s also this thing called diversity that companies are so excited about. Big corporations proudly boast their successful diversity programs that ensure diverse hiring, diverse promotions, diverse employee recognition awards. But what you’ll find is that this is code—just lip service—for showing the world and stockholders that you have black, single mothers on the payroll, and menopausal Latinas in executive positions. Plus, companies get tax benefits and other incentives when working with minority-owned businesses. This encourages the idea that the quality of workmanship is less important than whether the president of the company pees standing up or sitting down.”

“You sound like a racist, sexist jackass,” she told me.

“I’m just being honest,” I said. “I wouldn’t not work with a company because it was owned by a woman just the same as I wouldn’t hire a company simply because it was owned by a woman.”

And yes, so maybe I would have made more than her if we worked at the same place and had the same job. But if it came down to a man and a woman, the woman would get hired. And that means that while she may have been making less than she should have been, she was still making more than the unemployed man.

“There should still be equal pay,” she said.

“Equal pay for the same qualifications at the same job. I absolutely agree.”

“And diversity programs are necessary in order to create an equal workforce.”

“Except it’s not equal.”

And those are the things we fought about. We had to fight about something. We didn’t have kids and were in our early-to-mid-30s. Life would have otherwise been too perfect. And so the fights got worse. Still, we had an incredible sex life. It was passionate and sweet and at times, completely filthy and probably offensive to most of her fellow NPR listeners.

Then, one night, a few months ago, after fighting about buying gender-neutral toys for the kids we don’t have, I started to wonder… What am I missing here? And we made love that night. Intense, make-up sex kind of love. And when we were through, she unhitched the belt from my wrists, took off her Nixon mask and said, “I truly wish you could at least see my side of the feminism debate. You don’t have to agree with me, I just want you to see it. Support me in my interests.”

Marie was my wife. My brilliant and kind wife. And if she felt as passionate as she did about feminism, maybe I needed to revisit it. So I did. I started really reading up on the history of feminism. I read Marie’s Gloria Steinem books. I indulged myself deeply in the works of Gertrude Stein and suffered through How Women May Earn a Living by Helen Churchill Candee. I read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I scoured the Internet for back issues of Ms. magazine. I read Candace Bushnell novels. Although, that was really more of a setback than anything. Candace Bushnell is hardly a feminist. She’s a “vapid cunt.” Those are Marie’s words, not mine.

I put Tori Amos and Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco on my iPod and listened to them during my morning workout. Which, mind you, I moved from the gym I’d belonged to for years to our bedroom because I was beginning to see that big corporate gyms like mine, really are nothing more than the live-action first act of a soft-core pornography film. And it disgusted me. So, I bought a treadmill for our bedroom. Marie wasn’t thrilled with it, but she was glad I was starting to see the feminist light.

And I was, really. More and more, I understood why so many women were upset. And Marie’s arguments didn’t seem so crazy to me any longer. James Brown was right, “This is a man’s world!” and I was no longer okay with that.

People don’t tell you this, but I will. It’s amazing how wonderful marriage can be when both people see eye to eye on important issues. Our home had become a happy home—a feminist home. Marie and I stopped fighting. And because fighting is exhausting, we had more energy for sex and dinner parties. And I made up for the cost of the treadmill by canceling our cable TV. What use did I have for the History Channel or ESPN or AMC? All of that programming was sexist. All commercials on any channel were misogynistic. Sexy women selling cars. Sexy women selling Doritos. Sexy women selling tile flooring.

I got interested in women’s fashion. For a moment, I considered watching old episodes of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway but I knew those shows would just upset me. Because I was interested in women’s fashion as a crime—not something to be celebrated.

The brassiere? To me, the bra was a device used to distort a woman’s true body form to be something a man wanted her to be. I agreed with Germaine Greer who said that there would be no women’s liberation no matter how educated they became as long as they were stuffing their breasts into cones and cups. Right on, sister! Victoria’s Secret was the warehouse for modern day Crusade-like torture devices, and I wasn’t going to stand for it. A change was needed. And it was going to start with me.

So, I burned all of Marie’s bras. Even her sports bras. I set them on fire in the alley behind our condo.

“Why the hell would you do that?” she screamed at me.

“You don’t need them. Your body is beautiful as is. I don’t want you changing your shape.”

“I do need them! Have you seen my boobs? These things are heavy!”

I thought she was going to punch me in my mouth when I suggested we burn her high heels, too. They’re not comfortable. I always knew that because every woman in high heels I’d ever walked more than a block with told me so. They served no purpose other than to elongate a woman’s legs; therefore, giving the appearance that she had a thinner shape. Make no mistake—I loved my wife in high heels, but not enough to subject her to that sort of pain and unnecessary objectification.

What’s not widely known is that high heels were originally men’s fashion anyway. High heels were used by Persian men as riding boots. The heels helped them secure a stance in the stirrups during battles. The style was adopted in Europe in the 17th century and used to elicit social status. Because heels were hell on Europe’s cobblestone streets, only the wealthy men wore them. After all, a man of leisure had no use for walking. And the higher the heel, the wealthier the man. After some time, women adopted the style in an effort to be more masculine so they could make it in the man’s world, which gave cause for men to drop it.

So you see, high heels were men’s fashion first. And that’s the point I wanted to make. Gender equality could only come from gender understanding. So, since she wouldn’t let me burn hers, I proved my point by wearing mine.

I saw nothing wrong with a male high school English teacher wearing high heels. But the kids at the school had a problem with it. And I was teased. Instead of calling me Mr. Anderson, I was known through the hallways as Mr. Lady Feet. My principal, an older man who always wore comfortable black sneakers, suggested that I stop wearing what he called “ladies shoes” to work. But I refused.

“I’m a feminist,” I told him. “And if history and feminist literature are part of the curriculum, then consider me a living lesson.”

“You’re a man wearing women’s high heels. It’s causing a disruption. Lose them, or I’ll have to suspend you.”

Good. Disruption is the beginning of change.

Marie loved my passion. But she admitted that seeing me in high heels was a bit of a turn off.

“It’s a man’s fashion,” I told her.

“For warriors, not lactose intolerant English teachers. And not for hundreds of years. I understand why you’re doing what you’re doing; it’s just not very sexy. But not because you’re a man, because you look better in wingtips.”

She was lying. I thought that maybe she wasn’t as committed a feminist as she claimed. She disagreed with more and more of my ideas. Like when I refused to use any running water in our house.

“Let’s consider the plumbing,” I said. “It’s just another invention by Man to showcase his power over Woman. Without the sturdy pipes carrying the water through the house and out of the long faucet, She would not be able to fill her glass to drink or wash her hands or clean the dishes. Think about it. The faucet is a penis. The whole house has plumbing that functions similarly to a man’s reproductive organs. One must first turn something on to have a liquid be brought up from a water tank in the basement before being released into a cup, bowl or the sink itself. So if the faucet and plumbing is Man, the cup, bowl and sink are Woman. And without the plumbing—the Man—the sink, the cup and the bowl—the Woman—are useless.

“But the water needs the sink, the cup and the bowl,” she said.

“Not true. Humans lived millennia without these things.”

“Not true. The sink, sure. The Kohler sink, definitely. But if it’s a penis, then the receiving item is like a uterus. Therefore, they need each other.”

“Artificial insemination,” I said. “A woman doesn’t need a man.”

And that’s the point where we stopped having sex.

It was me. I put a stop to it. What was once perceived as a beautiful and a deep, emotionally charged physical connection seemed like something less. No, like something evil. Like rape. Like, actual, legitimate rape. Rape of the mind and body. Rape of Womankind.

I could no longer stand to sexualize and objectify my wife like she was some pornographic actress or a Kardashian or even Betty White. My wife claimed to be a strong, dedicated and independent feminist. The way I saw it, she didn’t need a man to give her orgasms. So I stopped. Sure, I still helped her when she pleasured herself. I made sure the silk scarf around her neck was never too tight. But that’s because I loved her and didn’t want her harmed—as a human—not as a sex object.

I used to open doors for her. I would occasionally bring her flowers. Although we had joint bank accounts, I always took care of the bill and paid the valet guy—I’m sorry, valet person—when we went out to eat.

I stopped doing all of that, too. Marie used to say to me, “I don’t need you to help me with my coat. I’m perfectly capable.”

But I guess she missed those sorts of things because she told me, “Why am I always stuck paying for dinner?”

“Because you have a job and aren’t some distressed damsel who doesn’t know how to operate an ATM. And cash is queen,” I told her.

And that’s the point where she started sleeping on the couch.

I began to feel like something was wrong. Like our marriage was unbalanced again. But I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. We were feminists, together—in solidarity. Why was I being treated like the enemy?

While my family life was spinning out of control, my career was, too. Kids at school were getting nastier, and frankly, so were the teachers and staff. Mrs. Franklin from the math department said my shoes made me look gayer than Liberace on his best day. I was in the teacher’s lounge with the regular substitute, an older woman, whose name always escaped me, when she insulted me and my style.

“Nancy,” she said. I looked around because I didn’t know to whom she was talking. “Yeah, you. The fella wearing the heels. Where’d you get those things? The 1922 Ward’s catalogue?”

I didn’t even understand that. Was that supposed to be a joke? Where would I have found a Montgomery Ward’s catalogue from 1922? And why would they still be offering styles that old? And didn’t Ward’s go out of business? Besides, what did she know of style? This was a woman who wore those horrible brown orthopedic shoes. Like every substitute everywhere.

Word was getting out about my high heels. At a boys’ basketball game, the opposing team recited a cheer that was clearly aimed at me.

We’re the team that makes the shots!
We’re gonna give ‘em all we’ve got!
The other team is full of chumps!
Look! That guy’s in sling-back pumps! 

We lost that game. And I wasn’t even wearing sling-backs that night. And I could feel my suspension was near. By then, Marie and I were barely speaking to one another and her 40th birthday was coming up. I refused to plan a party because a man telling a woman where to be at what time was archaic. She planned it herself along with several of her friends from the Women Owned and Managed Businesses organization or WOMB. It was at the Signature Room in the John Hancock Center, which was an interesting choice, I thought, because, you know... Hancock.

Then, a week before her big birthday, my principal came by my classroom following third period just as I was heading out to lunch.

“Steve,” he said. “This has to stop. Your statement, or whatever it is you’re calling this high heels thing, has gotten out of hand. Parents are concerned. I’m getting at least 10 calls a day wondering why their children have to be exposed to a gender transformation process when they’re supposed to be getting an actual and traditional education.”

“I’m not transgendered.”

“I know that. But the parents don’t and the kids don’t. Hell, it’d be better if you were. That’d be easier to explain. But no, you’re just a guy wearing ladies’ shoes. I can’t fire you. And I don’t want to fire you—you used to be a great teacher. But I have to suspend you until you can find a way to fight for your feminist cause, or whatever, without making any waves.”

“Would you say this same thing to Dr. King?” I asked him.

“Who?”

“Dr. Martin Luther King. Junior.”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s exactly the same thing. I’m taking a stand against the norm in the hopes of making a difference, of making this world a better, more tolerant place.”

“No. You’re a guy who thinks wearing a woman’s shoe is going to equalize the sexes, neutralize gender. You’re delusional. Suspension is a month. Talk to your union rep.”

It wasn’t the suspension that upset me. It was that I knew that old substitute who called me Nancy would be filling in. My suspension would simply give me more time to figure out the best way to truly champion feminist causes.

But, as had been the case since I started crusading, no feminist organization would take me seriously. They thought I was mocking them. Hardly. Mockery was no longer a trait of mine. Because feminists don’t have a sense of humor.

As Marie and I were getting dressed for her party, I was trying to decide between a classic black heel and a pair of artsy Sergio Rossi pumps I recently picked up when she came into the bedroom.

“Steve,” she said. “I don’t want you coming to my party tonight.”

“What do you mean? It’s your 40th birthday. Of course I’ll be there. Besides, there are a few women from WOMB I’ve been meaning to talk to. I have some great ideas.”

“That’s just it! I don’t want you talking to them. I don’t want you talking to anyone about anything! You embarrass me, Steve. You’ve become this insane person. I miss my husband. I miss his snarkiness. And I miss how he used to shower before boycotting indoor plumbing, not this freak who cleans himself with baby wipes. I miss the way my husband used to pay for things and hold doors for me. Not because I was a woman and he was a man, but because he liked taking care of me. Even if it was old fashioned, it was a little romantic. And I miss having sex with my husband. Smearing banana on my face just isn’t the same without him behind me. And I miss the way he would wear men’s shoes.

“I’m glad you have so much passion, but I think you need to just tone it down some. You could lose your job! And Steve, you could lose me. Please. I beg of you. Please don’t come tonight.”

Then she left.

And I seriously considered not going to the party. But I realized that she didn’t really not want me there. She was using reverse psychology. Women did that sort of thing all the time. Marie made me feel terrible about a lot of things with her little speech. She made me feel like a bad husband and a bad teacher. She made me feel like a dirty bum because I didn’t shower. She made me feel like less of a man. That was a good move on her part, because there was never a better motivator of man than a woman essentially calling him a pussy.

So, I showered. And I got dressed. I hopped in a cab and headed up to the restaurant. On the way over, it hit me. I completely misunderstood feminism. In my desperate attempt to connect to my wife on an even deeper level, I thought I could become something she would admire: the perfect feminist. But of course my wife didn’t like me. I was a feminist—a male feminist—and no one likes a male feminist. And like a typical man, I allowed ego and shortsightedness to get in the way and totally screw things up.

I decided right there, in the back of that smelly cab, that I would never let that happen again. I would simply support my wife in whatever she wanted to do with a tongue-biting smile. Because that’s what good husbands do. We just shut up.

Marie looked pissed when she first saw me enter the party. But as she eyed me from head to toe and noticed I was wearing my dark brown leather wingtips she loved so much, her grimace turned to a grin and she greeted me with a kiss.

“Happy birthday, my darling,” I said to her.

“What, no heels tonight?”

“Are you joking? My feet were fucking killing me. Let me buy you a drink. It’s the least a man can do for his wife on her birthday.