A female entrepreneur recently said that “a big part of being a woman is to help men manifest their calling in life”. We should resist this narrative, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.
It’s a phrase likely to raise the hackles of even the most casual feminist: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” Widely used as a compliment in the Forties and Fifties, the saying is now considered as outdated as gramophones and girdles. We know that all women have the right to stand alongside men, not behind them, and that great men don’t expect their wives or girlfriends to hover in the shadows.
Yet the legacy of that phrase is more pervasive than we might think. What it really means, of course, is that women have a responsibility to support men on their path to success and contentment. And this is a dynamic that I’ve seen play out in my own life more than once. I’ve known many, many women – women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s – who’ve struggled with the burden of helping men decide what they want to do with their lives; who’ve felt a deep obligation to assist men in figuring out what will make them happy.
These men are usually women’s partners, but a sense of profound emotional and practical responsibility doesn’t melt away outside the parameters of a romantic relationship. I’ve witnessed women help their closest male friends through lengthy wilderness periods and their fathers through dramatic life crises. It’s a sense of obligation that can leave us feeling drained and exhausted.
None of this is to suggest that men never provide women with emotional support (they do), or that women always begrudge helping out the men we love (we don’t). But it is undeniable that women are often expected to carry out this kind of emotional labour, in a way that men are not.
A perfect example of this expectation of emotional labour occurred recently at an event for the co-working company WeWork. According to reports, the firm’s chief brand officer Rebekah Neumann tearfully thanked her sister-in-law Adi for helping her husband Adam (the co-founder of WeWork) find his feet when he first moved to New York.
“I’m so grateful you took care of Adam,” Neumann said.
“You helped him create the biggest family in the world,” she continued. “A big part of being a woman is to help men [like Adam] manifest their calling in life.”
Yikes. Is it? There are lots of things I view as “a big part of being a woman”, from my deeply intimate female friendships to the fact that I always slide my keys between my fingers when walking alone at night. But I’d never, ever considered the fact that helping men “manifest their calling in life” was an intrinsic part of womanhood.
I’ll be honest: Neumann’s wording makes me shudder. It’s the 2018 version of “behind every great man”, suggesting that as women, we have a feminine duty to support male success. It paints us as accommodating helpmates on the sidelines of life, while simultaneously disregarding our own potential and achievements.
But while I disagree with Neumann, I don’t blame her for buying into the narrative that women have a responsibility to help men on their journey to greatness. Women are socialised from adolescence, if not before, to feel as though it is our job to soothe and bolster men; to provide them with the emotional support and encouragement they may not get from their male relatives and peers.
As a result, we can easily fall into a role with our partners, friends, brothers and fathers that is part therapist, part careers counsellor, part cheerleader and part mother, as Freudian as that might sound. Earlier this year, I was with a group of female friends when someone read this tweet aloud: “Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends raising their boyfriends!” We all fell about laughing, because – well, we got it.
We should keep supporting the men we love as they inch their way towards success and happiness, just as we support our female friends and partners and relatives. But we must resist the idea that helping men “manifest their calling in life” is somehow our responsibility. Adult men are not children; they are perfectly capable of figuring stuff out on their own. And besides – we have our own dreams to focus on.
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