Who should pay to play the dating game?

I have asked this question now to dozens of women from a variety of backgrounds. They include talented actresses, singers, writers, debaters and scientists. They include some of the wealthiest, most self confident, liberated, successful women in the country. Most answer the same way: “you bet,” or “it’s so sweet when a guy offers to pay,” or “I’ll always offer to split the check, but I expect him to pay.” Granted, my informal poll is not statistically viable and these responses are not nearly unanimous. Some women I have talked to insist on splitting the bill and swear that they do not get a better impression of a guy if he offers to pay. But most admit, at the very least, that it is a nice gesture.

This trend, however, is not limited to talented college students. In the August 29, 2001 issue of The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about this very issue. Gone, she said, are the 70s, when women found it liberating to go Dutch. Amazingly, today some of the most successful women in the country will not even consider a man unless he offers to pay. One TV producer she interviewed said that if the woman offers to pay and the man accepts, then the date is over. Another said, “Last week, I reached into my bag, offering to pick up our night out, knowing full well I only had six dollars. We want to come across as if we’ve had an upbringing, but we’d fall off our chair if it were accepted.” In fact, as Dowd wrote, “It doesn’t matter if the woman is making as much money as the man, or more. She expects him to pay.”

Why do women still care so much that the man shell out for dinner or a movie, especially the wealthy, successful women Dowd and I have talked to? After all, they can easily afford to split the bill. Most tell me the gesture illustrates how much their date cares for them, or how far he is willing to go to make a good first impression. Surprisingly, most do not see any contradiction between this custom and their own firm commitment to gender equality. Nevertheless, even though the requirement that the man pay on the first date may seem harmless, sweet or chivalrous, it clearly reflects unambiguously sexist attitudes, and I am not talking simply about the “I payed for dinner now you owe me” kind of sexism. Instead, it reflects the cultural values of an era when no one expected a woman to demand equality in the relationship.

Back in the olden days (I am not sure when those days are or when exactly they supposedly ended), on a first date, a man was supposed to show a woman that he could provide for her. If the implicit message in his paying for the meal wasn’t “now you owe me,” it was “don’t worry, I have enough money, if you choose to get into a relationship with me, or even become my wife, I will take care of you.”

Of course, everyone, both male and female, likes the idea of instant security. But wasn’t the women’s liberation movement based on the idea that a woman should be able to take care of herself and that she does not need a man to guarantee her economic or emotional security? In theory, this should apply to the highly achieving women I have talked to. Now I do not want to dismiss the sexism which plagues our nation; we have much progress to make before we can claim that our country has achieved any situation resembling gender equality, even among the top colleges in the nation. Nevertheless, by and large, the women of Amherst and the Ivy League come from comfortable backgrounds and, if they choose, they will almost definitely be able to secure jobs which will guarantee them financial security. They probably will not need anyone else, especially a man, to take care of them or provide for them financially. Why, then, should they care if their date offers to pay? In fact, shouldn’t they favor a man who wants to split the bill? After all, by doing so, the man not only respects the woman’s independence, he regards her as his equal as well.

Personally, I fervently support women’s liberation. I believe women should have all the opportunities a man gets. I saw the Amherst production of the “Vagina Monologues” and I believe wholeheartedly in its message-women should assert control over their own lives and their own sexuality. But when I hear some of the same women who believe passionately in women’s equality claim that they get a better impression of a guy when he pays on a first date, or when I read that some of our nation’s most successful women will not even consider having a relationship with a guy unless he pays for their date, I question whether most women themselves sincerely believe in the liberation movement’s basic tenets.

Women who expect the man to pay subtly but substantively reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that women want and even need a man to take care of them. Simply put, I do not think women can have it both ways; if they demand equality in the home and the workplace, they should welcome it on a date as well.

I should add that I am a total hypocrite. Though I do not have vast dating experience, of the few I have been on, I have usually paid-partly because I want to make a good impression, but mainly because I do not want to get into this discussion on a first date. Hopefully, however, the next time I offer to pay, my date will slap me, curse me out and march out the door. I will know then that I have found the woman of my dreams.