Long-distance relationships and gendered expectations


Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee

Yesterday I saw Going the Distance, the new rom-com about a dilemma faced by a lot of young professional couples: What happens when job opportunities put you in different cities? The movie — which I thought was better than a lot of films in this genre — is a pretty good depiction of how, in heterosexual couples, there is more of an expectation that the woman will be the one to suffer a professional setback or divert her career path in order to preserve the relationship. Drew Barrymore’s character is a 31-year-old intern who makes many references to the fact that she delayed her career because she moved for a previous boyfriend.

Today, DCist has an interview with DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who recently got engaged to Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, CA:

One of the things that I’ve been hearing from people in my neighborhood and in the larger community that has surprised me, is the assumption that even if Mayor Fenty is reelected you might leave.

That’s absolutely incorrect.

I’ve found it a little sexist, actually.

It’s totally sexist! Let me just tell you this — not a single person in Sacramento has implied that because Kevin and I are getting married that he’s going to be moving to D.C. Not a single person. And it pisses me off to no end that people assume that I’m going to be the one to move, or that of course I would have to move. People say, well, her husband is there, so of course she would have to move. And I say “really?” What century are you living in?

So I am committed to the Mayor, that when he is reelected I will absolutely be here for a second term, and I’m really excited about the prospect of it.

This hits close to home. I have moved across the country three times — and two of those moves were for (at least in part) men I was dating. At the time, I don’t think I would have told you I felt a lot of pressure to be the one to move. If other people assumed I would be the one to change jobs and move cross-country, they certainly didn’t say so to my face. But looking back, I am not so sure I could honestly say that there were no gendered expectations at play. Even if your long-distance lover is a feminist man, deeply engrained sexist cues — that women’s work is worth less, that women bear more of a responsibility for keeping a relationship together — have a way of affecting your choices. It’s good to see Rhee pushing back.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Michelle Rhee was my education heroine, now she is my feminist heroine. You go, girl!

  2. Posted September 7, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. I also notice that when you’re dealing with long distance across countries, people always assume one person is going to move to the most western, most ‘developed’ country. In my case, I’m in the US, and my fiance is in Australia, and everyone assumes he’s going to move here, even blatantly saying that moving to Australia is a step down from America. I’m actually moving there, and while it does adhere to the gender stereotype involved here (me being female moving to where the male is) people are completely shocked that I would leave America. I think that our particular situation is slightly different though, even more, because we’re both seniors in University, so we wouldn’t have an established career set up after graduation.

    • Posted September 9, 2010 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      How is the US is more western or developed than Australia? That’s a bit of a bizarre assumption on anyone’s part.

  3. Posted September 8, 2010 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    It truly is good to see the pushback. I still can’t help hoping, though, that their paths lead them to the same coast soon (for Rhee’s sake, I’m rooting for DC!). Coming out of almost three years of long distance, it still hurts to think of trying to maintain a relationship when you’re living two completely different lives.

    For myself, I have been blessed that the moving decisions have gone both ways. My partner was two years in college ahead of me; when he graduated, he relocated to my town for a short while, and when I graduated, I came with him to grad school. Both of these decisions made sense for us at the time, for where we were in our respective careers– and we’ve checked in with each other every step of the way to make sure no dreams were being squashed, for either person. While I can’t say there were no gendered assumptions in this process, I feel that the choices we’ve made have all been worth it. Now his program’s almost done, and we’re looking for grad schools for him AND me. :)

  4. K
    Posted September 8, 2010 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    It’s good to see someone so unapologetic about this issue. It really helps cement my idea of going off to study on my own sans the bf.

    I’m going back to school and for that I have to move out of state. My family is trying to be supportive, but there’s still that underlining pressure of asking me if there’s any way I can work it around where my boyfriend lives instead of going off by myself.

    I generally have to point out all the positive things that this small separation comes with, for them to give me some breathing room. That in going back to school I am opening more doors for my artwork, by not only making it better but also more commercially viable. This will help spread it to a larger audience and will help make me even more financially independent doing something I love.

    Of course, sometimes that’s not quite enough, and I have to turn it on them. Ask them why they’re not asking my bf why he’s not moving with me, instead of asking me to stay. That usually makes them stop. :)

  5. Posted September 8, 2010 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    interesting article! my partner moved home and job to be with me as i was earning more and had more stable job. this way i think makes perfect sense. to do anything else would have been stupid! there was never any question between us and i am lucky to say that nobody appeared to raise their eyebrows either.

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