In this week’s Ask Chelsea Anything, we’re talking about an issue very close to my heart — the constant, all-consuming pressure to be a Good Feminist according to an ever-shifting and ever-complicating definition. Nearly every choice a woman makes can feel under scrutiny and judgment, and nearly every option can feel wrong in a different way. Part of letting go of this, of course, is just saying fuck it to the whole game to begin with, but I don’t want to spoil too much. So, without further ado, let’s get into the question! (And as always, don’t forget to send your own questions to firstname.lastname@example.org)
I’m getting married in two months to the love of my life, and he’s offered to do something really incredible for me. He makes more money than I do, and has a good amount in savings, so he has offered to pay off all my student loans once we get married (about $22,000).
I feel uncomfortable with this for a lot of reasons, but I know it’s important for him to do because he wants us to start off with a blank slate, financially. Still, it makes me feel like a #BadFeminist, because I want to be independent with my finances, and there is something… guilt-inducing? about letting a man pay for me in this way. What should I do?
-Betty Draper I’m Not
I’ve taken a while to answer this question, because I invariably get a River of Shit whenever I take on this topic, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t avoid it for that reason. I’ve been open in the past about the help, financially and in terms of tech work, that Marc has provided to help TFD become a thing, and the (not-insignificant) way in which he helps sustain it, by spending $500 a month on our fancy web hosting.
I’m not ashamed of this at all on a personal level, and it’s always been important to me that Marc be repaid for his investment in me and in TFD, but I know how it will rub some people. And while I do think that it is super-important for bloggers to be transparent about the cost that goes into starting a site, and the help required for most of us to get it off the ground, I can’t pretend that the flutter of backlash doesn’t exhaust me. I know it’s important to disclose this financial stuff — if for no other reason than to be realistic for people thinking of doing the same thing — but it’s hard. And I imagine that at least part of what you’re feeling is the pre-emptive cringe of judgment from others that will inevitably come.
Because #BadFeminist is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and there are many things we do as women which we are totally comfortable with, but which make us feel like we’ve pulled the wrong lever in some kind of pinball game of Womanhood. And it’s so, so important to distinguish between the things that actually make us uncomfortable, and the things that we fear other people won’t be impressed by.
A perfect example in your case would be “accepting some financial help from your husband which will help you both enormously in the long-run,” versus “turning a blind eye to all things financial and becoming entirely dependent on him to make all decisions.” The latter is what many women in generations before us lived with, regardless of personal preference. And the resistance to being totally blind and dependent when it comes to money — lest we forget, the majority of married women still don’t even manage their communal investments until death or divorce — shouldn’t be conflated with “total independence at all times, even when it doesn’t make sense.” You should be uncomfortable with giving up all financial autonomy, and obviously, even if he always out-earns you, you should have your own savings account, emergency fund, financial goals, and financial literacy. But to deny yourself a good decision for you and your partner out of some vague, external pressure to be a “good” feminist is only shooting yourself in the foot.
So ask yourself the questions that are based on your own financial health and health as a couple: make sure you both understand the terms of him paying this, and are comfortable with it. Figure out if anyone expects some kind of repayment, and outline the details of what you plan to do with that “blank slate” you’re speaking of. As long as the actual financial details and goals are something you are both comfortable with, and both feel is a good decision, then the rest is noise.
For myself, when I accepted that Marc would help me to a certain extent in the transition to making TFD my full-time job (and growing it as a company), it was because I knew that it was an investment into something bigger, and that it would be foolish to not take that opportunity where it lay. If Marc couldn’t offer that help, I would have asked family members, most likely, and made my business case to them as I would an outside investor (and, of course, offer them equity if they required it). It happened that Marc was also able to work on the project actively, and understand the investment better than most, so he was always happy to make it. And sure, the gender dynamics of that might piss some people off. But if I hadn’t taken that opportunity, I’m sure that a whole other group of people would admonish me for not being sufficiently ambitious as a woman.
You can’t win, so don’t play.
At the end of the day, I am confident in my choices, and even if I’m getting angry tweets or emails about people making wild assumptions about my life and my relationship dynamics, that’s still worth it to me. Because I have to live my life, not random commenters on the internet, and I don’t have time to waste nail-biting over whether or not the decisions I’m making will please the maximum amount of people. If my boyfriend happens to be in a position to help me make an investment in our future, fuck yes I’m accepting that.
And I encourage anyone to make the right decisions for themselves financially, professionally, or otherwise, regardless of the gender dynamics that make you feel guilty. Worry about helping yourself so that you can be in a position to help others, and always keep in mind the goal of paying it forward. Remember that a privilege is just that — something not afforded to everyone, and something you should be grateful for. But it’s not something you should agonize over, because that’s not going to help anyone. Do something great with your opportunities, and strive to be generous because it’s the right thing to do, not because you are worried what other people think of you.
But that means accepting generosity for yourself. Even if it comes from a dude.