Feminists Don't Hate Marriage: In Defense Of Elizabeth Gilbert

In a short but nasty Wall Street Journal editorial, Charlotte Hays opines that Eat Pray Love writer Elizabeth Gilbert has deserted her feminist readers by getting married — thus revealing that the feminist = man-hater canard will basically never die.

Hays once wrote that "few activities, I've found, are less fruitful than dialoguing with feminist scholars," and her general disdain for (straw) feminists is on display in her coverage of Gilbert. Of Gilbert's upcoming book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, Hays writes, "It seems that Ms. Gilbert, a woman capable of roaming the globe with no male protection (beyond an ample publisher's advance), a heroine who had vowed [...] never to wed again, was - wed." But how will her readers react to this new "twist in the Gilbert voyage of feminist selfhood?" Hays asks, "will they be plotting revenge on the supposedly strong, single woman who betrayed them?" The basic thesis of the rest of the piece is: yeah, they will, but how silly of them, because they all just want to get married too.

Hays writes that "Ms. Gilbert was always going to get a guy" and that "such women rarely remain single - even if they profess to be feminists." It's not clear who "such women" are, though Hays quotes several passages in which Gilbert talks to her friends about men and sex. So maybe the type of feminist who "gets a guy" is the kind who, um, wants to? Except, according to Hays, that's all feminists: Gilbert's fans, she says, "are, in the way that feminists always seem to be but hate to admit, boy crazy and sex crazy."

Hays winds up her essay thus:

Ms. Gilbert knows, according to the Times, "that some knives may be out for her." She senses that loyal readers may well feel that their heroine has deserted them for a man. But women have been doing this to their girlfriends since time immemorial. Sisterhood is powerful, but not that powerful.

All of this actually kind of difficult to pick apart, but what Hays to be saying is that feminists equate strength with singlehood, and view anyone who couples up as a traitor. But all feminists really want a man (lesbians don't exist in the Hays universe), and would cheerfully abandon their feminist values should they find one. Of course, this is based on an outdated and wrongheaded notion of feminist values. Only a very few people still demand that feminists eschew men, and most feminists I know accept the notion that whether or not a woman is in a relationship doesn't determine how "strong" she is. It's true that the idea of taking a husband for "male protection" raises my feminist hackles, but the fact that Gilbert didn't need such protection while traveling the world makes me more sanguine about her marriage, not less. She seems to have gotten married because she wanted to, and because she was in love, and "such women" seem pretty happy to me.

It's actually kind of strange that Hays chose Gilbert as her vehicle for insulting sex-crazed, hypocritical feminists. Eat, Pray, Love isn't really a "voyage of feminist selfhood," it's a voyage of plain-old-selfhood — meaning that it feels self-absorbed at times, but also that it's not too useful as a political football. Gilbert doesn't leave her marriage because she's a strong woman who doesn't need a man — she leaves because she's miserable. And she doesn't stay celibate until she meets her lover Felipe because she thinks men are oppressors and sex is evil — rather, she fully acknowledges having been "boy crazy" her whole life, and decides she needs some time alone after her divorce to figure things out. That's not even feminist, that's just smart.

I wasn't a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, and I certainly don't feel betrayed by Gilbert's latest effort — mostly because I don't think Gilbert made me, or feminism, any promises in the first place. But even if she had, even if Eat, Pray, Love were subtitled A Feminist's Feminist Voyage of Self-Reliance and Feminism, she could still have gotten married without renouncing all she stood for. Because sisterhood is, in fact, powerful — so powerful that it can withstand even (shudder) marriage.

A Feminist Icon Gets Her Man [Wall Street Journal]