Questions and Topics for Discussion
“I could not fathom in any way, shape, or form ever bringing a conservative man home to meet my extremely liberal parents, much less a yee–haw cowboy from the middle of no–freakin’–where” (p. 5).
An Introduction to The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story, by Alisa Valdes
Alisa Valdes was a woman who didn’t know how to back down. An award–winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author, Valdes had proved herself equal—and often superior—to many of the men in her chosen fields. When it came to love, however, the forty–one–year–old divorced, single mother kept striking out. Finally, after a series of lame Match.com dates with “latter–day Alan Aldas” (p. 3), she met a man who seemingly embodied everything she never wanted—and she found herself attracted to him in ways she never would have imagined.
At fifty–two, the Cowboy was much older than the men Valdes usually dated. He was also an actual cowboy who lived on a ranch in a remote part of New Mexico and described himself as “conservative.” Valdes—the urban–minded daughter of hippie intellectuals who forbade Barbie dolls and makeup—heard warning bells. Yet, his photo was “hot in a bad–boy sort of way” (p. 5). Against her better judgment, she agreed to meet him for lunch.
The Cowboy turned out to be even sexier in person. He stood 6’4” in his boots and exuded a movie–star magnetism that matched his looks. Instead of sounding like a Fox News neo–con, he was well–spoken, indifferent to the restaurant’s largely gay clientele, and smart enough to begin “toying with my low expectations of him” (p. 16). Valdes couldn’t fathom why he was interested in her.
The last few years hadn’t been easy on Valdes. She’d won early acclaim as a journalist, but after the publication of her bestselling novel The Dirty Girls Social Club in 2003, Valdes managed both her career and her finances poorly. Her unbridled temper had made her numerous enemies, she was fifty pounds overweight, and she and her eleven–year–old son moved in with her father to save money.
Despite her excitement, Valdes hid her date with the Cowboy from her liberal father. Ever since she could remember, the retired sociology professor preached economic and sexual equality. Valdes adored him and “was afraid to risk upsetting [him] with the disappointing news that his good leftist feminist daughter was falling for, well, the opposite of all that” (p. 88).
Yet, the reality was, her father had never lived up to his own beliefs. He had expected Valdes’s mother to cook, clean, and edit his writings without granting her the credit she deserved. Their marriage imploded when Valdes was just eleven years old, but the damage was already done.
“If sexism’s legacy was my mother cowering as my father threw a full wineglass at her head, then the fix . was for the woman to throw the glass next time” (p. 32). The Cowboy would have none of that. No anger, no impulsiveness, no snarkiness. He made it clear from that start that he would run the show.
Brave, sexy, and unabashedly honest, The Feminist and the Cowboy is the provocative account of how a traditional man taught one die–hard feminist to embrace her biology and find the happiness that had always eluded her.
ABOUT ALISA VALDES
Alisa Valdes lives in New Mexico with the Cowboy and divides her time between a house in Albuquerque and a ranch in Southern New Mexico.
A CONVERSATION WITH ALISA VALDES
Q. Early on, you explain that you were uninterested in meeting the Cowboy in part because he was eleven years older than you. “I’d almost always dated men my own age or significantly younger” (p. 5). Since you were twenty–nine and your ex–husband only nineteen when you married, do you think that you consciously had looked for men who would “submit” to you?
Answer: Wow. Well, now that you put it like that.um.maybe. My ex–husband was a bit of an aberration, honestly. Before him, I’d always dated men my own age or within four years, one way or the other. I’d had a series of long–term relationships, always lasting about four years. But the truth was, I’d never really compromised with any of them. It had been my way or the highway, and we had fought endlessly for dominance. I think my ex–husband, being so much younger, being a teen when we married, was less likely to engage in that sort of thing with me. He was super easygoing. He also came from a very controlling mother and found being controlled sort of comfortable; he almost required it. He was also the funniest man I have ever known, and incredibly bright, so it wasn’t as though I just picked a random kid to shack up with.
Q. If feminism goes against human biology and is thus at the root of so many troubled male–female relationships, why do you think it’s gained so much cultural traction?
Answer: I’d say only certain parts of radical feminism go against evolutionary biology, the parts that insist we are completely equal and that every difference is learned rather than innate. The idea of equality is seductive, and entirely human. No other animal or species on earth lives by this credo. Fairness is not part of nature’s repertoire, but it is the foundation of empathy, that which makes us most human. So I think feminism is appealing in theory, even the most radical elements of it, to many women (and a few men) because it promises a fair and just society. Who doesn’t want that? Hell, I want that. But the older I get, the more I recognize that fairness and equality, while nice to strive for, aren’t always possible. Men will never, on the whole, be able to see color as well as women do. They will never be able to process language with incredible speed, using both sides of the brain, as women do. This is because we evolved for different purposes. Even though many of those purposes no longer exist, our biology hasn’t changed in 100,000 years, leaving us with a problem, and it is this: Though through our higher intellect and empathy we can envision and desire an equal playing field, our genes have set us upon a slope and that’s pretty much all there is to it. I believe that we need to rethink the idea of “fairness” to include celebrating the different strengths of the sexes, rather than requiring that we all be just exactly alike in order to hold equal merit. Equal value is not the same as equal ability, and though men and women are quite similar in many areas, there are many areas where we simply aren’t alike at all. We should keep the idea of equal worth, but ditch this idea of equal ability. The fastest runner in the world will always be a man, because male humans have more fast–twitch muscle fibers. Period. Are there women who are faster than some men? Sure. There are men who are slovenly and slow. So it’s a spectrum. But in terms of absolutes, we cannot afford to stick our heads in the ground and pretend everything is absolutely equal and must be fair, because that is absurd. The writer Annie Dillard did a Thoreau–like retreat into nature, to try to find peace, but what she found in the middle of the woods were ants at war with one another, rapes, slaughters, the same old things she was trying to escape. Nature doesn’t do fair. We can complain about it all we want, but at the end of the day, women will be the ones with the milk and men will be the ones with the sperm.
Why do you refer to him only as “the Cowboy”?
Answer: Out of respect for his privacy. The cowboy is an incredibly private person. It’s part of his culture not to brag or talk about yourself really at all. This was one of the enormous compromises he had to make to be in a relationship with me, accepting that I was a writer, and that I put it all out there, that my life was literally an open book. This was not easy for him, and it’s still challenging. He never asked that I not identify him by name, but I chose not to. It’s a literary device as well, because even though this is a personal love story I think the cowboy and I each represent something important about American culture. In the broader national culture, the cowboy is an icon, one that many people think is extinct (he isn’t). By repeating “the cowboy” again and again throughout the narrative, almost as a mantra or chant, I felt a bit like I was paying homage to the tradition, the icon, the legend, the culture, and not just one man. Cowboys are defined by community, and live by a communal code of conduct. All of this played into my decision not to refer to my boyfriend by name. He has a name, and doesn’t mind if I use it. His name is Steve.
Considering your firebrand public persona and the Cowboy’s notions of appropriate female behavior, did he ever explain what made him want to meet you?
Answer: He didn’t know anything about my public persona when we met. All he knew was what he saw on my online dating profile, and I didn’t make it obvious what I did for a living or who I was. After we met I let him know that there was a lot of crap about me that you could find on Google, and I asked him not to google me. I wanted him to get to know me organically, like two regular people dating. He thought that was best, too. I do remember sitting on his porch one evening early on in the relationship, and telling him about my very public run–in with a former employer, an instance where I fought and fought hard for my rights, and the rights of others, in spite of risking great political disaster in my career. The cowboy respected this a lot. Part of the cowboy culture is fierce independence, and courage, and he recognized that quality in me. He grinned. I’d been afraid to tell him about it, because I was ashamed of that episode and had never intended for it to be public. Instead, he grinned at me and tipped his glass of Pendelton on the rocks at me, and said, “I knew I’d like you, Miz Valdes.” That was the moment in which we both realized that we were actually more alike in our core values than the simple social labels allowed for. He admires my ability to stand up for myself, but, like many people, correctly advised me that I would be more effective if I learned how to tone it down a bit, and be gentler in my delivery.
Most of your friends, and even your ideologically opposed parents, came to accept the Cowboy as a positive force in your life. Has anyone—male or female—broken off a friendship with you because of him? Has the Cowboy ever told you to end a relationship?
Answer: I have two female friends who don’t speak to me anymore because I’m in a relationship with the cowboy. They don’t like him. They don’t know him, either, and their dislike is largely my fault because I cried on their shoulders during some very rough patches and they cannot forgive some things that I have been able to forgive. This is the risk we take in telling our friends too much about our relationships. I’ll never do it again. The cowboy has never told me to end any relationship with anyone. He respects my decisions and my life. He likes my friends and family. He has, however, gently warned me about certain people I was about to do business with, and has always been correct in his initial assessment of people. He’s got a good nose for rot.
Do you think the blockbuster success of E. L. James’s submission fantasy Fifty Shades of Grey is a result of the backlash against second and third wave feminism? You’ve recently begun writing erotica, including a novella with a cowboy on the cover. Are these novellas autobiographical?
Answer: Those are a lot of questions all wrapped up in one number six! Okay. Yes, I do think the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey might be a backlash against extreme radical feminism, by women who grew up with its mythology and restrictions. I think women probably evolved, at some level, to enjoy sexual domination. I don’t think all women are like this, and I’m not saying anyone “should” like anything, sexually. What I’m saying is that it is quite likely that there is a biological basis to so many women around the world reacting so positively to a dominant man and a submissive woman. In sexual submission, the attraction for women isn’t “I’m a nothing, so I deserve to be bossed around,” but rather, “I am so attractive this man can’t control himself; he has to take me.” Being willingly sexually dominated by a man we find attractive is extremely affirming to a woman, it tells her she is desirable, attractive, able to bring a strong man to his most basic animal nature. Many feminists interpret the desire to be dominated sexually in the wrong way. They say it shows weakness, lack of assertiveness. I believe it shows a particularly female brand of assertiveness. We are the flower, men are the bees. It is our job to get them inside of us, to attract them, to entice and be entered. Radical feminists miss the point by pitying sexually submissive women. Sexually submissive women are incredibly powerful, perhaps the most powerful force in the world, because we allow men to ravish us. Sexual submission is not the same as being raped, because we want to be pushed against the wall, held down, and.well, you know.
As for autobiography, I will remind everyone that novels are fiction, memoir is not. Many novels draw upon personal experiences, but are not perfect representations of historical truth. So, no. They’re not autobiographical.
Q. Your sexual politics have changed radically since meeting the Cowboy, but what about your actual politics? How much influence does he have on the way you vote at the ballot box?
Answer: I’m still a progressive. I’ve listened with an open mind to many traditional viewpoints, and can see the wisdom in some of them, but fundamentally I still side with progressives on most issues. I am pro–choice. I believe in governmental regulation of industry. I like public schools, libraries, roads, infrastructure, the military, and I know these things don’t pay for themselves and require tax dollars to exist. I think the rich should be taxed fairly. I don’t want religion mixed up in government. I believe in civil rights. I think a civilized society helps those in need. I want same–sex marriage to be legal and normal. I don’t think people choose their sexuality any more than they choose their skin tone. I am a Jeffersonian, a Unitarian Universalist Christian, and my core value is that I respect the interconnected web of life and the dignity and worth of all people. I’d love for our culture to stop seeing Christianity as belonging to the right; it belongs to all of us. What has changed most is my view of those who service in the military; I used to think they were all brainwashed pawns and I was pretty disrespectful. Now I understand better the culture that spawns self–sacrificing individuals who go into the military. I understand their point of view, and have a deep respect for what they do, and am humbled and left speechless by their sacrifices. I might disagree with the reasons they were sent to war, but the fact that they go, largely to protect the rest of us, is incredible and deserves nothing but respect. I’m still me, and will always be me, but I like to think I’m a more moderate and loving version of me, able to listen to the other side and respect our differences now, rather than attacking and trying to destroy the other side. I still believe women should hold equal value and rights with men, but I no longer think we are equally suited for all things by nature.
Q. It sounds as if the Cowboy wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about your writing this book. What convinced him? Or is this an instance in which you—as a successful published author—are the “leader” of the relationship?
Answer: The cowboy has always respected me, my calling as a writer, and my career. He has not stood in the way of this book. He has only asked that I run things that I say about him by him to see if he remembers them the same way. Other than that, he has been very open about just “getting out of the way,” as he says, and letting me do my thing. He has said that in all things book and film, I am the leader in our relationship and he will just hang back and be my literal and figurative bodyguard. Though traditional, this is not a man who thinks women should be barefoot and pregnant. This is a man who loves women, the way we think, the different gifts we bring to the world in the professional arena as well as in our families. He truly admires what I do, and I have never felt so supported in my life, by any man other than my own dad.
Q. You write that your relationship with the Cowboy inspired you to learn “traditional womanly arts such as cooking, knitting, sewing” (p. 304). Did he encourage you to do so, or was this a decision you came to yourself?
Answer: It all came from me. I’d always had an interest in these things, having watched my grandmother do them, but I’d been actively dissuaded from doing anything remotely traditional by my radical upbringing. I was raised to live in reaction to sins committed against generations of women who lived before I was born. Gaining the courage to openly love someone like the cowboy emboldened me to try lots of things I’d avoided in order to please my community of radical feminists, including traditionally womanly arts. I’m a hell of a cook, by the way. I love cooking. If I hadn’t been a writer I might have liked to be a chef. My knitting, on the other hand, just pretty much sucks. I still like to do it. But I want to be perfectly clear: The cowboy is completely autonomous and independent. He has never been married. He does all his own housekeeping, and does it better than I do. He has lived alone most of his life, and can stitch up his own sock as well as his own skin. There was never – I repeat never – any kind of conversation where he even so much as suggested that I do more womanly things. He’s a quiet leader, not a domineering control freak. He leads by example.
Q. Your biography says that you split your time between a house in Albuquerque and a ranch in New Mexico. Assuming that the Cowboy’s duties don’t allow him to live off of the ranch, how much time do you spend together? While he did propose marriage, you reach the end of the book without getting that “size 7 ring” (p. 234). Isn’t marriage the traditional endpoint of love and courtship?
Answer: I spend every weekend with him, from Friday around noon to Sunday afternoon. He comes up to Albuquerque during the week sometimes, to augment our time together, especially for events at my son’s school. He likes to show my son that he supports him at academic or athletic events, and he enjoys going to restaurants in town. We both agree this situation is not ideal. I’d love to live at the ranch full–time, but with my son in a prep school in the city, and sharing custody with his father, that’s simply not possible right now. Most moms on remote ranches like the one where the cowboy lives homeschool their kids. I work full–time on my writing and would have a hard time being as good a teacher as my son is getting at his school now. Living apart even though we are both ready and longing to live together is one of our great compromises. The cowboy will never be able to live in the city, and I won’t be able to live full time at the ranch until my son is in college. We agreed early on that “a little bit of us is a whole lot better than a lot of anyone else,” and so we make it work, as well as we can, for now. As for marriage, he’s never proposed properly and I’m not about to ask him. We’ve talked about marriage. He’s asked if I might like to replace my last name with his own one of these days, and I’ve said yes, so it’s out there on the table, something we might like to do. He recently said, “Can we just get along for a while, be nice to each other, get married and live happily ever after?” I said yes. But it’s not like we have immediate plans or a date. Marriage is not important to the cowboy, personally, he says, because it’s just a piece of paper, but he understands that it’s important to me and is pretty reassuring that he’ll pop the question one of these days, once we iron out a few of our remaining areas of recurring conflict. So in this sense, he is very non–traditional. He’s big on freedom, personal and otherwise. We’ll see what the future holds.
Q. What do you think fans of your previous books will make of The Feminist and the Cowboy? How do you view them now in the wake of your own transformation?
Answer: Well, I have lots of them. I’m not sure what they all think, but I know some have been really pleased with my transformation. I alienated a lot of my readers with my combative nonsense in the past, and I think the fact that I recognize this, and that I’ve met a man who has helped me to see where I needed to improve, is a good thing. I’ve also got some readers who feel a bit betrayed, I suppose, but in the end they have mostly been very loyal, understanding, and quite interested in my relationship with this unusual man. As for how I view my fans.wow. That is such a great question. I value them enormously. I love them. I know that everything I have is because of them. They are the reason I do what I do. I am hopeful they will come along for this new ride with me.
Q. You mention that you may eventually write “The Cowboy’s Guide to Raising Boys” (p. 291). Is that your next project? If not, what are you working on now?
Answer: Yes! I have been so amazed by the positive influence the cowboy has had on my son’s life. He literally saved my son in a lot of ways. I write blog for a parenting website called The Cowboy’s Guide to Raising Boys, and I’m collecting those essays to put them together in a book that I truly believe will change people’s lives for the better. I think we have a crisis in the way we are raising boys right now, and I swear to you that my cowboy knows how to fix it! I saw it transform my own son in ways I never thought imaginable. I can’t wait to share this information with the rest of the world as a book!
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSValdes writes that she “will be on the receiving end of a lot of grief once this book comes out” (p. 301). Do you agree, or do you think her message will resonate with the majority of women?Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, what does the term mean to you? If not, why not?How important a role should political and social beliefs play in a dating situation? Would you have gone out to lunch with the Cowboy?Were you surprised that it took someone as smart as Valdes “four decades of life to figure out what was wrong” (p. 32) with the way she internalized the power dynamic in her parents’ marriage? How did your parents’ relationship shape your own romantic history?How would you have handled hearing Mary Pickle’s phone message? Would you have been able to move past the Cowboy’s early lie and trust him?The Cowboy tells Valdes, “sometimes to be a liberal you think you have to destroy all the traditions and come up with something new, and sometimes the old way is better” (p. 151). Was this true during the sixties and seventies? Is it true now?Through anger management therapy, Valdes finally faces her parents’ hypocrisy and her father’s abuse. Her therapist tells her, “I’d say you had pretty invalidating upbringing. One of the worst I’ve ever heard about in this office, actually.. I’m amazed you never turned to drugs or alcohol” (p. 188). Would Valdes have survived if it hadn’t been for her anger?What aspect of Valdes’s relationship with the Cowboy shocks you most? What elements do you enjoy—or wish you enjoyed—in your own romantic relationship?What do you think of Valdes’s realization that, “It wasn’t men’s fault that they were turning into women. It was our culture’s fault” (p. 99)?The current economic downturn is affecting everyone, but a greater percentage of men are losing their jobs. As a result, women are increasingly the main breadwinner in many households. Will this trend be disastrous for male–female relationships?The Cowboy sees liberals and conservatives as mutually dependent. Whereas liberals are “the conscience of society,” conservatives are “the ones who make the hard decisions that [liberals] are too empathetic to make” (p. 205). Do you agree?Valdes’s son, Alexander, always struggled socially and academically until the Cowboy raised the bar and made it clear that he expected more from the boy. Are conservatives generally better parents than liberals?How do you think Alisa and the Cowboy’s story will end?