"You know what your problem is?"
It’s 10 years ago and I’m on the phone to my mum. She’s about to deliver a piece of unsolicited dating advice. It’ll be something I’m doing wrong, as always. She once asked me if I waxed my bikini zone, saying I shouldn’t expect to get a boyfriend if I don’t.
I wait to hear what my problem is this time. "You’re too clever," she says. "Men don’t like clever women."
When this conversation happened, I had just started university, which was itself a sore point; Mum didn’t see the point of a woman going to university. I ought to just find a wealthy husband instead. Amazingly, I’d never really questioned her views on women before. Having grown up with them, they’d become normal to me. Later, I just thought she was old-fashioned, from another time. When I got to university and started reading feminist texts and attending lectures on gender (most of them delivered by women my mother’s age), I decided she was simply ignorant. If she started to think about it, she’d change her mind. I was very confident about that. And so, as I put the phone down, I decided that the next time I saw her, I would try to have a frank and open conversation about feminism.
It’s difficult to explain how disastrous this conversation was. Not because we had a blazing row and fell out. Not because she disowned me as some kind of man-hating unruly rebel who had (as she suspected) gone to university and become a different person. It was a disaster because her response was so calm and belittling. This wasn’t just ignorance. It was much worse than that. She’d thought about it and decided that men were just better. And now, at almost 60 years old, she believed her extra years endowed her with unquestionable authority on the subject. She adopted this patient expression of forgiving. Like I was behaving very stupidly, but as my mother she understood and wasn’t going to get annoyed. "Oh sweetie," she said, patting me on the arm, "that’s all fine, but just wait until you meet a nice man and then see how you feel."
As it happens, I have met a nice man. We’ve been together for six years now, but I recounted the "you’re too clever" conversation to him on one of our early dates. "That’s fucked up," he said. Obviously, I agree. And obviously I didn’t accept my mother’s advice that day. It hopefully goes without saying that I don’t go around demurely asking men what they think while pretending to know nothing about the topic, or bashfully thanking mansplainers for their heroic wisdom. Like many women in 2018, I have wonderful male friends and enjoy lively discussions with them about films or books or politics or feminism. Sometimes we discuss my mother. "It’s kind of astounding in this day and age, that anyone can still think feminism is a bad thing," one friend said, scratching his beard in genuine puzzlement. I put it to my mum that maybe men do like clever women after all. I pointed out that I have a lot of evidence to prove it. She had an answer for that, too: "Oh darling, all your friends are just 'metrosexuals'." I could hear the air quotes. "They’re not men’s men, are they?" Incidentally, this is also her opinion of my father, who she divorced several years ago.
I just gave up for a while. It was easy enough to do. I live in London, she lives far away. I just avoided the subject and bit my tongue if it ever did come up. But it occurred to me that by doing this I was becoming the quiet, polite, unobtrusive woman she thinks I ought to be. So I started recommending books and TV shows that I hoped would shock her into changing her views. I tried reasoning and debating with her, thinking I could make her see things a different way. Sadly, nothing has worked.
For me, this doesn’t matter too much. I was fortunate enough to find out at 18 years old that my mother doesn’t always know best. And, as it turns out, disagreeing with your mother is much easier when you have an independent life, when their influence is minimal and removed. I appreciate that a lot of women aren’t so lucky.
My approach now is a simple one. I don’t argue anymore. I just tell her she’s wrong. Objectively, the same way you can get maths wrong. Just incorrect. There is no such thing as a woman who is "too clever". No, mother, men are not superior to women, actually. Things have changed, are continuing to change, whether people like my mother like it or not. And I’m hoping that my new approach of not arguing with her means she’ll start to understand that there’s nothing to argue about.