The Feminist and the Cowboy — Book Club, 4th ed.

Yeehaw, giddyup — that’s how I feel about this book. At times it angered me, at other times I was nodding my head in agreement, and the rest of the time I just wanted to pour the author a nice soothing cup of tea and tell her to relax.

Valdes, Alisa. The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story. New York: Gotham Books, 2013.

Valdes, Alisa. The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story. New York: Gotham Books, 2013.

The feminist of the title is author Alisa Valdes, a 40-something divorced mom. The cowboy is an older, rather conservative ranch manager. This memoir appeared in the Ottawa Public Library’s catalogue as Learning to Submit which sounds sort of dreary, and maybe a little kinky too. But, happily, by the time it was published, the book was called The Feminist and the Cowboy: An Unlikely Love Story. And who doesn’t want to read about a sexy cowboy and a smart feminist lady falling in love?

In a nutshell, the author, after years of dating wimpy liberal guys who share her very partisan left-wing political views ends up in a relationship with a stern manly cowboy who identifies as a traditionalist and libertarian. The attraction is physical, initially, but the more epic battles they have, the more Alisa starts to see that her cowboy is right about a lot of things and that taking hard line political views on one end of the spectrum doesn’t always make sense. More importantly, she learns that she has been a bully in her past relationships and that she actually enjoys having someone else call the shots and make the decisions for her; it makes her feel safe, feminine, and taken care of.

Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Here’s how their first meeting goes:

“Hello, Miz Valdes,” he said with a smile, walking up to me and extending his hand. I shook it. What a hand. It was large, rough, tanned, and strong–nothing like the squishy computer-keyboarding hamster hands of the men I usually dated.
“Any trouble finding the place?” I asked him, trying to sound like the kind of woman who met conservative cowboys every day and didn’t much care one way or the other for rock-hard monumental handsomeness.
“Nope. I’m pretty good at finding things I want.” He peeked up over the tops of the dark glasses and gave me a teasing, significant look, clearly meaning me. He’d wanted to find me. My belly fluttered a bit, but I stopped it by remembering that guys like this were smooth because they generally cared about only one thing–sex. Okay, two things: sex and, like, Fox News.
He gestured with one hand for me to walk toward the door of the restaurant, taking charge of the situation. He quickly positioned himself on the curb side of the street. I found this display of caretaking awkward and controlling, of course. The men I’d dated never did such things; usually, they waited for me to tell them what to do and how to do it, and then simmered for years in unspoken emasculated resentment because of it. I laughed about the cowboy’s chivalry, and he ignored me. I was far too egalitarian-minded to find anything remotely charming about this gentlemanly behavior, except that, truth be told (and only to myself, naturally), I actually sort of really, um, like it.
(pages 13-14) 

(Are you hooked on the cowboy now? Yeah… I thought so.)

And so begins a tumultuous relationship in which the author questions everything she had ever believed up until that point in life. You see, Ms. Valdes grew up in a 1960s/70s household in which she experienced many contradictions. Her unfulfilled home-maker mother wrote secret essays for feminist journals and eventually abandoned the family, while her strong-willed father praised feminism and yet behaved in an oppressive manner toward his wife and children. She was taught by both her parents to reject traditional femininity and she modelled her behaviour after her father’s because her mother warned her about becoming powerless like her.

I loved reading about the author’s realisation that artsy/left-wing/so-called sensitive guys were, in fact, often secretly angry at women and not real grown ups. I too went through a much less dramatic but similar journey in my late 20s when I decided to stop dating “alternative” type dudes. I started dating guys who went to the gym and had bigger biceps than me, guys who had mainstream jobs that didn’t have the word “design” in the title, and guys who opened doors for me and paid for dinner. What I came to see was that those sensitive boy-men I had been meeting were often quite sensitive… toward their own feelings and needs only! I figured if I was going to be hurt emotionally by men, they might as well be hot, confident, and charming. And what I learned was that often these macho manly men were actually a lot more comfortable with who they were than the other guys and it made them nicer people overall. But back to Ms. Valdes…

With the help of the cowboy and some therapy, she comes to the conclusion that she’s been a controlling bitch her whole life! And this is where the submitting comes in — she agrees to, for example, never question the cowboy’s decisions on the ranch, to never disagree with the cowboy’s treatment of her son in front of the boy, and to always let the cowboy drive when they travel. She comes to share the cowboy’s opinion that someone always has to be in charge. It’s not always the man in every situation; each person has their strengths and weaknesses, and each person is the leader at different times. This letting go, of sorts, is a revelation for the author and I was very happy to read about her growth.

My favourite cowboy: Lucky Luke

My favourite cowboy: Lucky Luke

There are just 2 little things that bugged me about her story…

First, I was sad that she blames second and third wave feminism for her plight and for the pathetic state of the men she was used to meeting. While I agree that some second wave feminists were too extreme in wanting to create a new world order causing many women to feel just as oppressed under the rules of feminism as they had previously under the rule of patriarchy, I think that, especially now, feminism is about having the choice to express who we are. If little Johnny wants to play with dolls, he shouldn’t be mocked for it. And if Johnny wants to play with guns and trucks, no one should try to force a doll into his hands. I haven’t come up with a full analysis regarding why many men seem more like grown children than self-aware adults these days, but I think “blame feminism” is way too simplistic. However, this is a memoir, and I appreciate how raw the author is with her story; her experience of feminism as she saw it in her childhood home was certainly destructive.

Secondly, oh… the cowboy. As fun as it was to read about a strong manly cowboy who can cook a steak and make wild passionate love to a woman, there were some serious red flags about this guy early on. I found myself cheering for the author as she underwent her metamorphosis but, at the same time, thinking — wait, but why does he get to set all the limits in their relationship? Why doesn’t he have to correct his behaviour and become more open and permissive — where’s the give and take? I couldn’t help checking out the author’s blog when I was done in order to find out what ultimately happened with the cowboy. (I’ll never tell…)

Such a thought provoking story! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this; I love a good memoir and this one was like a memoir, a Harlequin romance, and some gender studies all rolled into one. Has anyone else read it?


  1. I haven’t even heard of it—but I still can’t get over the fact that this is a memoir! Sounds like a novel to me.

  2. Does it fit into your review policy for your blog? You should read it!!!

  3. Jezebel wrote about this too. Valdes eventually leaves her cowboy because he was abusive
    “[W]hile I set out to write a memoir that was a love letter to a man I was deeply in love with, a man who challenged me in myriad ways, a man who changed my life profoundly, a man I respected and honored greatly at the time, what I actually wrote was a handbook for women on how to fall in love with a manipulative, controlling, abusive narcissist.”

    • Okay, the cat’s out of the bag: she left him! Meg, your link led me on trail of online comments about this. The Atlantic is brilliant as always:
      “In truth, masculinity doesn’t have to mean abuser, and femininity doesn’t have to mean abused. But maybe one way to make sure they don’t mean those things is to see them less as norms particular people have to fulfill, and more as potential possibilities we all need, both for ourselves and for those we love.”

      My impression in reading the book was that the author was a woman of extremes; she wasn’t happy with the status quo so she went toward the opposite extreme. I get it. But I was afraid for her well-being reading the book and I’m glad she’s now with someone who seems, like, normal- A confident masculin man who is also able to be sensitive and to, like, communicate.


  1. […] to thinking about the sad state of manhood these days, something that I’ve fretted about in previous posts, and I wonder if the fact that men have been alienated from production in the home for a longer […]

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