Harriet Walker: Equality in relationships, as on the dancefloor, is an illusion

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It's terribly unfashionable to say it, but women will never reach complete parity with men. How can we, when we still rely on them not to dump us and one day to pop the question?

How regressive, you may cry, in an age when women are told they can have it all: work, children, love, money. But you can't have it all unless someone else is willing to hand it over to you.

Cutesy Hollywood couple of five years Justin Timberlake and actress Jessica Biel, both 29, split up this week after reports of an awkward surprise party that Biel threw for her beau – where she apparently gave a highly charged, emotional speech about how much she loved Timberlake and how long she had waited for him to notice her. Soon after the mortifying spectacle of one of the world's most beautiful women throwing herself on the mercies of the man she was in love with, the couple announced their separation and Biel found herself on the non-stop express to Dumpsville.

Modern relationships, you see, are like ballroom dancing: women are not supposed to take the lead. Toes get stepped on; each romantic clinch looks, upon closer inspection, more like a bout of wrestling; and it doesn't half upset the other couples swirling around gamely to the strains of the Wurlitzer.

We might have strong-armed our way into jobs, boardrooms and public roles, albeit gradually and still with some resistance, but we can never truly be masters of our own destiny. Unless that destiny is one that doesn't involve a family or intimate relationship – in which case, you're a rock or an island, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel.

One can argue, of course, that all personal interactions are, by definition, out of our hands and dependent on the whims of another. But it seems unique to women, who have the capacity and capability to control just about every other aspect of their lives, that they're under concerted pressure not to try to take the helm of their own drifting love affairs. And they're surrounded by the shipwrecked women who have tried.

We grew up with the Spice Girls screaming at us about Girl Power – I remember distinctly the manifesto in which Ginger Spice encouraged us to just go ahead and ask out the guy we fancied, rather than hanging around and waiting for him to do so. As I was aged 11 and not as aesthetically blessed as Jessica Biel, this struck me as eminently practical.

"Oh, you don't want to do that," counselled my mother. "That's not how it works." Confident and righteous in my own progressive approach, I spent one breaktime suggesting to the scruffy urchin in question that we, y'know, get together some time. He didn't come near me for the next seven years.

Or leap years: that magical Brigadoon day at the end of February when women are allowed to propose to their partners. We, my worldly wise mother and I, once watched from between our fingers as our local weathergirl asked her boyfriend to marry her at the end of a live broadcast. She turned up again the following week, ringless and dead-eyed.

There are the age-old stereotypes of downtrodden husbands being ruled with an iron fist by their wives and hit on the head with a slipper if they start acting up. But as women came out of the kitchen, they lost their domestic dominion. An Englishman's home is his castle, they say, but good luck trying to get past the drawbridge before he's ready to let it down.

So why can't women be the ones to make the calls in contemporary love affairs? Because we're all still romantics at heart? Hardly. It's because anything that's chased runs away.



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