Why Marriage is a Declining Option for Modern Women

Kate-bolick-007Kate Bolick in The Observer:

For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church and community. It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate's skills, resources, thrift and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. This held true for all classes. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives' steady income as domestics in elite households. Two-income families were the norm.

Not until the 18th century did labour begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women's contributions to the family economy were openly recognised, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labour became separated, so did our spheres of experience – the marketplace versus the home – one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the postwar gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

All of this was intriguing, for sure – but even more surprising to Coontz was the realisation that those alarmed reporters and audiences might be on to something. Coontz still didn't think that marriage was falling apart, but she came to see that it was undergoing a transformation far more radical than anyone could have predicted, and that our current attitudes and arrangements are without precedent. “Today we are experiencing a historical revolution every bit as wrenching, far-reaching, and irreversible as the Industrial Revolution,” she wrote.

Last summer I called Coontz to talk to her about this revolution. “We are without a doubt in the midst of an extraordinary sea change,” she told me. “The transformation is momentous – immensely liberating and immensely scary. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organise their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.”

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