Most women who identify themselves as feminists generally carry that identity into all corners of life. Still, things become a little tricky in the dating arena. The rules of dating — while experiencing slight shifts in very marginal doses — are largely still a dance of gender performance, and one that can be difficult to navigate as a card-carrying feminist, definitely on a first date and especially regarding the payment of that first date check.
Generally, the rules say it’s the man’s duty to foot the bill when a man and a woman go out on a first date. It’s a rule written in time and one that seems to have hung on, even past the mainstream feminist movement. Women have been making their own livings, earning decent paychecks, and living independently for decades, yet a rule that was born out of necessity — because women, at one time, did not earn their own money — still remains. Generally, men are “supposed” to ask women out and pay on the first date and men are aware of the expectation.
“In general, men know that if they like a woman they need to call her or at least text her,” says New York-based dating coach and self-identified feminist Tracey Steinberg. “They need to ask to see her and they need to pick up the check, definitely… it’s what separates a romantic relationship from friends, from coworkers, from acquaintances.”
And it’s true, in most cases a man who has romantic interest will be the one to ask a woman out and pick up the check. Conventional wisdom says that if he pays for everything on the first date, he’s more likely to be interested in a second. So what does a woman contribute to this construction of the romantic connection? According to Steinberg, a woman’s job on a date is to tell her date what a great time she’s having and “maybe give him a kiss at the end of the night” and it’s the man’s job to prove “he can take care of her.”
While the dance is somewhat harmless, for a woman who’s trying to live her life in a way that flattens out the balance of power between men and women, it’s a little sticky. “There’s so much tied up in the issue of who pays at the end of the date: there’s power, there’s money, there’s sex,” says feminist blogger and editor at Feministing Chloe Angyal. “There’s defining yourself as a man and not just performing but doing gender properly. Money is a very costly way of expressing power.”
When the question of who pays becomes a question of who has the power, suddenly remaining “feminine” and upholding one’s end of the dating bargain doesn’t feel so much like a silly, instinctive dance, but a semi-submissive act.
It’s likely why the dating website HiDine.com came under so much fire from feminists when it first launched. The site’s tagline is “Chivalry is still alive” and dictates that women wait for men to ask them out and pay for their subsequent dinner date, a concept that many blogs and critics say is sexist. In an email, creator and CEO Kyle McGinnis refuted the notion that this dating model creates a power imbalance that some might see as unfair to women. “We don’t want it to be about ‘money’ and ‘power,’ we want these dates to be about the good food and great experiences. People are used to this concept of dating enough to not put too much weight on it.”
And sure, many people are used to the concept of men picking up the check, but that’s sort of the rub of this whole thing. Whether we like it or not, money is power and while many daters are able to resist allowing that notion to infiltrate a date, it is why the question of who pays on a first date is even a topic at all. If money had no power, it couldn’t function as a method of what Steinberg calls “earning a woman.”
While we’re concerning ourselves with feminists, this concept isn’t great for men either. Making money to “earn” the romantic respect of a woman reduces a man’s worth to what’s in his wallet. However, for most women — especially for staunch feminists who earn their own livings and can pay for their own drinks and meals — a man whipping out his American Express at a nice bar isn’t the piece that “earns” further dates or a potential relationship. The conversation and interaction that come before that are greater determinants of connection, and once that’s formed, the paying of the check is just a performance that expresses a man’s understanding of a preexisting social contract. It’s a move prescribed by all the dates that have come before the one at hand, so how special can it really be?
Without power, paying the check is remarkably unremarkable when compared to other completely currency-free forms of affection such as a first kiss or an embrace, or even simple words like, “This was fun. I’d really like to see you again.”
“[Money] wouldn’t be a problem if you just used your words,” says Angyal, who suggests that feminists be upfront about their beliefs on dates. “It certainly thins the herd.” And with that comes a bit of rejection from men who aren’t ready for an equal partnership. This is likely why some women don’t exactly wave the flag of feminism on a first date. But while that honesty might put a potential partner off, the dude who gets in a snit about a woman’s beliefs is likely not a great match for a self-identified feminist.
So where does this leave us? Can a woman allow a man to pay on the first date and still call herself a feminist? The short answer is yes. “Part of the thing about being a feminist is recognizing that we live in a very patriarchal culture and so, it is not unreasonable to expect that your date is going to want to do that,” says Angyal. “I think there’s a difference between expecting them to and wanting them to.”
What is important is recognizing what the money actually means. While men paying on the first date is a patriarchal rule that stems from the connection of power and money, if a man pays for the meal after his date has offered to split it, most feminists are smart enough to take it as a gesture and not as an expression of ownership or a down payment for dating — or worse, sex.
Of course, if it’s imperative to you that you keep money (and thus power) out of the equation and your date still insists on paying for round one, you can always do as Angyal suggests and offer to pick up the check on your next date. That way you’re not making a big display over what should be a rather brief moment and it kills two birds with one stone. Best of all, it gets this godforsaken dating headache out of your way so you can get back to the actual point of going out with someone in the first place: actually getting to know and, hopefully, getting to like another person.