(CAVEAT: Not that we women necessarily care whether men are attracted to us. Some of us are lesbians. Some of us value other things in our lives as much as or more than having a man. Some of us have relationships with which we are satisfied and don't need to be seen as desirable by every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Furthermore, I have no data to back up my observations. This post is about the world as I perceive it. Plenty of more conservative-minded folk write extensively about their subjective impressions of gender relations, so I may as well share mine.)
Popular belief, furthered by the likes of Maureen Dowd and many others, holds that men are threatened by professionally successful women. This popular myth couldn’t be farther from reality, at least according to my own admittedly unscientific observations. Men understand the alpha-dog model of human relationships. They seem to be exquisitely sensitive to hierarchy. They understand why power is important and desirable. They expect people to be direct in their pursuit of power and they can relate to a desire for independence. I don’t think that in general men hold it against a woman who plays the game of life on what were traditionally considered male terms -- in fact, quite the opposite. They appreciate it because they can relate to it.
Feminism is, in large part, about women playing the game. It is about women asserting their right to climb the hierarchies of our society, whether it is the partnership track in your law firm, or a political position, or taking an equal role in heading the home. It is about women defining themselves not only in terms of their familial and marital relationships but in terms of pursuits independent of those relationships. I am obviously speaking in a massive generalization but I firmly believe that, on an individual if not a philosophical level, men respect a woman who lives in a feminist way. And I think that in men, as well as women, respect for a member of the opposite sex can -- when combined with other things (such as liking) -- lead to attraction. Attraction in turn can lead to love. My experience from talking with both male and female friends about their love lives (people like to confide in me, I'm like everyone's favorite aunt), men very often find independent and successful women devastatingly attractive.
Somehow when I was growing up, I didn’t get the memo about how you’re supposed to play dumb in order to catch a man. I thought it was the opposite. I couldn’t imagine being attracted to a dumb or unambitious guy no matter how good looking, so I assumed boys thought the same way about girls. I assumed that being smart and funny and forceful were just as important as being pretty to get boys to like me. If there was a cute boy in my class in high school, I made absolutely sure I had my homework done and something intelligent to say in class. If a cute boy said something in class, you bet your boots I’d contradict him and get into a debate. I honed my ability to come up with witty one-liners. Although I was more interested in flirting than dating in high school, it always seemed to work for me then and later in life (although I will admit that my husband has asked me to please agree with him occasionally just for kicks).
I realize now that being pretty probably would be enough to grab the attention of your average 15-year-old boy-- but my experience has been that a 15-year old boy as well as 35-year-old man is going to be that much more intrigued and for a longer period by a girl or woman who has her act together. And while I don’t think every woman has to be in Congress, I don’t believe that holding a successful or powerful position in public life is going to detract from a woman’s desirability in the eyes of most members of the opposite sex. (I certainly have met individual men, including but not limited to my deeply sexist ex-boyfriend, who do feel threatened and uneasy around powerful women. I do not however believe that such insecurity is a universal or inherent aspect of the male psyche.)