“If men are punished for failure to achieve success, then women are punished for success in achieving success.”
– Random guy in a bar.
There is something ironic about the school of thought that commends a woman for washing a man’s underwear as a display of her eligibility for partnership in marriage, but frowns on a man washing a woman’s pant so much so that the act is referenced as a way to emasculate the man.
“Look at him, he is so useless he washes her panties.”
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The fight for women’s rights and gender equality has been on for quite some time now, all the way from the West down to even hidden corners of Africa. Today, one might even argue that feminism is more alive than ever, thanks to improvements in technology that have helped spread information faster than our forefathers would have ever imagined . The Internet has come to dominate, and with it, a kind of change that is disrupting both structure and culture. However, with all the positivity we see, for some, winning has not come without some losses.
The story of Nigerian women that hand their husbands money (or the passcodes to their debit cards) before they leave home, so he can pretend to be the one paying for meals to save both their faces, is nothing new. We have witnessed female celebrities buy cars for themselves, only to go on Instagram with captions expressing gratitude to a man for gifting it to them. The message is clear; you can be successful, but not more successful than your man. While we might argue that this mode of thinking puts pressure on men too, and that it is even perpetuated by women who seem to prefer more successful men for partners in a social behavior termed as ‘hypergamy’, it does nothing to address the issue of the woman who wishes only to bask in her well earned success with a man secure enough by himself not to make it a competition or allow himself be crippled by the fear that he has become the laughing stock of his community, or in (derisive) local parlance, a pant washer.
In economies with more evenly distributed wealth and smaller class gaps where social security guarantees a certain baseline of living experience, the role of capital in partnerships is greatly diminished. You only have to take one glance at the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to understand how important basic security means to the average person, and why it might affect our choices. After all, we do not exist in vacuums, but within social constructs amidst economic realities which our lives and that of our children depend on. With this in mind, one can understand that availability of resources is not some trivial issue to be overlooked in the construction of relationships.
Taking it back to much earlier times, men with the ability to hunt and survive war were considered more attractive than their less capable counterparts. This is why today, women generally go for men with a high waist to shoulder ratio and a toned body, signs of agility. In reality, this body frame is hardly useful today, considering that we don’t have to be too physically fit to earn bread. But just head down to your neighbourhood gym, and you will find men paying money to carry heavy objects and expending energy as if they were aspiring to join the ranks of the Spartan army.
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In context, you can almost imagine a woman in the past hunting for dinner, only to pretend it was her husband that dragged the animal home.
Moving closer to the present, before Hollywood replaced functionality with sentimentality as the bedrock of any good marriage, a lot of marriages were economic alliances: you have a farm, I have a farm, our children could get married and not have to worry so much for the rest of their lives. Today, thanks to the rise of individuality and more modern concepts of romance, the need for security in marriages is still alive (and intensified in some economies), but we want more. We, too, have watched Titanic and so many rom-coms. We want companionship, intellectual stimulation, emotional compatibility; one could write a whole book on the list that embodies the perfect partner. This has created a new dating market, where one might argue that even for all the progress with the spread of feminist thought, successful men are able to exercise more power than ever.
The successful woman is one that has applied herself in all her endeavours, cultivating a healthy financial position for herself, which often comes with a position of relative power. When this power is placed on the scale in the dating market, men that consider her above their social status decline to make a bid, and the men that can match her or are in a higher position of power are less likely to make an offer too. Why?
The reason isn’t really complicated. The more successful a man becomes, the wider his options for a partner becomes, at least in theory. This means that the successful woman, whose options have been shrinking with success, is left to compete with a larger pool of females for the same men. The men in question here sometimes require a different set of qualities from women, qualities often of a more domestic or submissive nature. For the economic security these men have to offer, so many women (particularly in underdeveloped economies) are more than happy to comply with their wishes. Consider, for instance, a culture that tells men that it is emasculating to rely on women for financial security, with my own now late grandfather famously stating to my father who had come to marry his daughter in Igbo, “kama nwayi ga eny’m nni, n’taba afifia ka ewu na ba nmou” (rather than having a woman feed me, I would graze like a goat and die).
It is easy to see how men are conditioned to avoid more successful women to protect their ego, which is much safer with a less successful woman who poses less of a challenge or threat. One can hope that for men already successful in their own right, the need for this validation that relies on comparison and domination is reduced or extinguished, but alas, we all can’t be Alexis Ohanian. Most men remain navigating an ego as fragile as ever, not trained to deal with anything that looks like it could bare teeth to our power.
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As it stands, women content with forging a relationship with less financially successful men because they require other things from their partner, remain at a disadvantage in the dating marketplace. We haven’t even addressed the matter of the biological clock that starts shrinking female dating options from as early as 25, while (for the most part) a man who is past 35 is still very eligible. The odds are just not in her favor. There is much work to be done in addressing gender issues from a cultural perspective unique to local economic realities, understanding that humans are a lot more adaptive in behavior than we are proactive. Simply asking men to “man up and stop being such ego babies” will not work, in fact, that is likely to make matters worse. Rather, a general cultural shift is needed to redefine our psychological relationship with partnerships. We must begin to understand that there are other values beyond finance that hold weight for success as a couple, to end the tyranny of this current school of thought that has boxed us into this unhealthy dynamic, that punishes men for not meeting certain standards while punishing women for exceeding the same standard. Either that, or we must grow the economy to be strong enough, that the place of wealth is pushed down the list of requirements, allowing us to look beyond it to form meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships.