Ever since she wrote a piece for and appeared on Fox News in early February, Suzanne Venker has cemented herself (yet again) at the center of a maelstrom of marriage-minded females. Venker is known for her controversial stances on womanhood and feminism, and her latest book, The Alpha Female's Guide to Men and Marriage: How Love Works, is no exception.
The Alpha Female's Guide is the kind of tome designed to poke modern feminism in the eye and rally traditionalists around the idea that old-school gender roles were the answer all along. Venker's recently published excerpt highlights its premise: Today’s women are getting so good at being leaders that we have become incapable of knowing how to love. As Venker puts it: "Alpha women aren’t exactly new, but they were once a rarer breed. Today they abound. There are several reasons why, but it’s in large part due to women having been groomed to be leaders rather than to be wives. Simply put, women have become too much like men. They’re too competitive. Too masculine. Too alpha. That may get them ahead at work. But when it comes to love, it will land them in a ditch."
For me, as both a professional and a wife, Venker's stance that being a leader in the workplace spelled doom at home insulted me to my very core. Cue my knee-jerk feminist rage spiral. But as time went on, I began to wonder if my reaction was keeping me from truly processing her argument and thus proving her point.
And so, I tried again. You cannot challenge someone you disagree with unless you actually listen to their point of view. And while I have come to the conclusion that she makes some underlying points that are worth considering, I believe that her reasoning misrepresents women and men—and paints a bleak picture of what it means to be feminine.
In her eyes, marriage is doomed unless the woman can leave her alpha self at work and put on her beta pants at home. Venker says she used to be the dreaded “alpha woman,” and it was a problem in her marriage. She writes:
"My alpha ways were bumping up against his alpha nature. . . . And because I had zero interest in my husband adopting a more feminine role, I set about to become the feminine creature our culture insists women not be."
If your idea of a leader is a despotic tyrant, then of course that mentality will cause tension in your home. I, however, think the leadership skills that I have acquired to “get ahead at work” have helped my relationships. As a leader, you have to consider the needs of others. You have to listen and encourage those around you and support them when they are having difficulties. A leader always thinks about the team. At work, this advances your bottom line. At home, this reaffirms the beautiful notion that a marriage involves two people lifting each other up by celebrating each other’s strengths and helping each other in times of weakness.
Working together as a team shouldn’t mean stifling part of ourself for the sake of the other. Assigning labels like alpha and beta to a husband and wife, as Venker does, invalidates the tenant that marriage is a partnership of equals. It reduces us all to stereotypes and makes every union a formula of convention and role-playing. Every man is a leader and strong-willed. Every woman, amiable and content to play a supporting role. But that's not just not real life.
Venker argues that men need to be the alpha because "men love women who are fun and feisty and who know their own mind! But they don’t want a woman who tells them what to do.” Of course men don’t want women telling them what to do all the time—from my experience women are not all that fond of being told what to do either. No relationship that is built on being constantly harped on is going to last—regardless of whether the husband or the wife is doing the harping. And yes, our current cultural climate does occasionally push the narrative that showing vulnerability and a willingness to compromise is tantamount to rejecting the entire feminist movement, but Venker’s argument that being “nice” is an inherently feminine trait diminishes human beings into cliché stereotypes.
Venker continues: “And here’s what I learned: It’s liberating to be a beta! I’m an alpha all day long, and it gets tiresome. . . . Self-reliance is exhausting. Making all the decisions is exhausting."
Both men and women, whether they have a career or work by being at home, make decisions all day long. But humans are not robots. We all need a break from time to time. And part of being a loving spouse (as I am learning), is learning that sometimes you are the caretaker and sometimes you are being taken care of. Sometimes you take the lead, and sometimes you defer to your partner. The partner who is the recipient of care at any given time or the one who takes the backseat in a certain situation in a relationship shouldn't be considered weak or labeled as "adopting a feminine role"—as though to be feminine is to be weak. A successful relationship isn't about one person, male or female, being in charge all the time—it’s about combining efforts and navigating life as it comes.
Not long before I met my husband Dan, my mother mentioned offhandedly that I might want to keep in mind that the more independent I became (read: the older I got), the more difficult I might find it to be in a relationship. Given my natural stubbornness, I would be too stuck in my ways, unable to adapt and grow with another. And it’s true—when it comes to decision making, I want to talk it all through and decide on next steps right then and there. It drives me nuts to leave things hanging. I am a master planner and organizer—traits that translate handily into my job as an arts administrator. Dan, on the other hand, likes to talk about things and then mull them over . . . for a really long time. One might argue that this trait is an extension of his job as a software engineer—the man can tweak a piece of code happily for hours and days at a time. Initially, our personality differences led to me making a lot of decisions on behalf of the two of us, and my easy-going now husband would go along with me.
But then my mother’s voice would pop back into my head and remind me to yield a little bit—to remember that there is more than one way to accomplish a goal, and that if I wanted my relationship with Dan to work and be truly happy, I needed to let go of always needing things done my way. We've come a long way in terms of realizing when and where each of us needs to take the helm, but no matter what, we're a team of equals.
I am new to the marriage game. But one of the best parts of being one of the last of my friend group to get married was that I got to watch and learn from my strong, loving, and complex girlfriends and their amazing husbands. I witnessed firsthand that every marriage is different but that a successful marriage depends on spouses regarding each other as equals. Venker is right about this: You cannot get your own way all the time. You have to consider the needs of your spouse and prioritize their happiness, but if your partner is doing that exact same thing, then there is no alpha or beta. There is just love.
Photo Credit: Suzanne Venker