Evidently before feminism no one asked, “What do women want?”

“The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'”
-From Sigmund Freud: Life and Work by Ernest Jones, 1953

Conservative columnist Susan Dench starts her column with a story about a man she knows.

Dench says, “A guy told me he just didn’t know what women expected from him anymore.” The poor fellow is anxious, “paralyzed by fear.”

Now, as Freud said and men and women have said for thousands of years, it’s never perfectly obvious what one’s potential romantic interest, even one’s life partner, wants.

The phrase that captures that so well is Joni Michell’s: “constant stranger.” Even those we live with for decades sometimes surprise us (hopefully in a good way).

Advice columnist Ann Landers, 1961.

Feminism isn’t responsible for this man’s difficulties in basic dating skills.

Frankly, this man sounds like he could use the dating advice of the sort Ann Landers used to give.

If you’re interested in a woman, talk to her and, most of all, listen. Find out what she cares about and see if you are a good fit in terms of values and interests. See if you have a spark between you. Find out if you can have a relationship built on fun and love and mutual support and respect. If so, you may have a future together.

Beyond this man, Dench gets it wrong

People are oh-so-prone to look back and see the past in gauzy terms. Well, pre-feminism, all women weren’t really up “on a pedestal.”

Women had far fewer legal protections before feminism. Not only were laws and procedures on rape and domestic violence far less protective than they are now, women had fewer choices and options in the workplace. When discriminated against or harassed, there were no laws they could use to promote their rights.

Sex discrimination even affected the most competent professional women. The first woman on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee, was third in her class at Stanford Law School. After graduation, “No law firm in California wanted to hire her and only one offered her a position as a legal secretary.”

Now over 50% of law students (and medical students) are women. Female Justices constitute one-third of the Supreme Court.

Can anyone imagine that would have happened without the feminist movement?

But discrimination didn’t just affect women in the professions. My own mother would have lost her teaching position when she became pregnant if not for new legal protections. It was standard practice to fire female teachers, even married ones, when they got pregnant. The fact that she wanted to work and her husband supported that decision didn’t matter.

Feminism stopped that sort of thing.

Women in factories and offices, were paid less and could be harassed without any potential legal penalty. Although laws and policies haven’t done away with all that — and no laws can end the problems they punish — acceptable work behavior and compensation practices have changed.

Feminism led to new rules, more equal pay and better work environments.

The good old days weren’t as good as Dench contends, nor is the present as awful.

Rather, women and men live in a legal landscape that is far better and in day-to-day circumstances that have challenges and joys and the ever-present requirement to listen to others if we are to ever understand what they want.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.