Commentary Magazine


How the Feminists Saved Marriage

Radical feminists once aspired, in the name of women's freedom, to abolish the institution of marriage. In the event, not only did they fail to do that, but the preservation of marriage became, in a way, the movement's chief if wholly unintended accomplishment. What now threatens to end marriage is not feminism but something else, and that something may signal the end of the era of feminism as well.

But before entering these thickets, it may be worth stepping back for a moment.

Feminism as we know it began with a lurch a generation ago. It has not subsided to this day, even though every man who was over thirty years old at the time of the movement's inception—and therefore, by definition, not to be trusted—has now reached retirement age. In the next while, virtually every surviving member of that legendary species, the Male Chauvinist Pig, will have become superannuated, and the old rocking chair will envelop what is left of the Patriarchy.

A female letter-writer to COMMENTARY in February 1971 summed up that supposedly incorrigible gang of glass-ceiling-enforcers, coffee demanders, “gal”-sayers, bottom-pinchers, and old-boy-networkers.1 Any young woman trying to enter the American business world, she wrote, had to be prepared for an experience resembling “both the harem of the Grand Turk and the salt mines of Siberia.” What, then, she asked rhetorically, was the reason for the “really wild surge of Women's Lib feeling” sweeping the country? Her answer: “the Men.” Well, soon, the Men—at least those Men—will be gone.

Who is left? A generation of working adults who, in most Western countries, have lived their entire maturity under a feminist regime whose triumph was still unimaginable in 1968 but which by 1972 had become fully installed and was functioning reasonably smoothly. As for the villains—those all-powerful, multifarious, cunning males, driven to defeat the legitimate aspirations of an oppressed class—the idea that they were an organized force turned out to be a legend, although a very useful one.

This is not to say that the over-thirty generation did not abound in individual male creeps. Rather it is to say that, contrary to feminist myth, the creeps were far outnumbered by men who, by and large, accepted the new situation with remarkable flexibility and a cheerful lack of resentment, and in an orderly way. The entire working population that remains has now lived in a world created by the feminist ideologies of the late 1960's, the accomplishments of the women of my own generation (I was a member of the college class of 1971) whom they inspired, and the acquiescence of the men who were expected to fight back but instead simply did what was demanded of them.

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But the world of work was only one of feminism's targets. The other was marriage. This fundamental human institution had played a central role in the early history of feminism, the feminism that predated the contemporary variety. Indeed, the demand for freedom in marriage came long before the demand for a place in the political and business world. To many in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the reform of marriage was nothing less than a matter of life and death, the source of all that would follow: Nora's protestation to Helmer in Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879)—“I am an individual, just as much as you are”—marked the beginning not just of the legal revaluation of women's rights within marriage but of a sweeping cultural revaluation of women's place in the world.

The various forms taken by the early women's movement—seeking education, the vote, the right to join professions, the right to work in any job-all began with the readjustment of the legal relationship between men and women in the home. Nora wanted an existence in which her marriage no longer completely defined her. Just so, millions of women wanted, on the one hand, to be able to control their own legal and material destiny and, on the other, to be free of male authority, which could operate nearly unchecked within the home as far as the law allowed.

The struggle to make marriage bearable (or, failing that, divorce possible) for modern, middle-class women was long and intricate. But by the time contemporary feminist thought began to articulate itself in the 1950's and 1960's, something had changed. Marriage—reformed or not—had become passé. Moving far beyond Nora's demand for a recognition of her individuality, mid-20th-centu-ry feminists decided that what marriage needed was not reform but demolition. For them, marriage was itself the enemy, and its abolishment a precondition of the feminist revolution, if not that revolution's main goal. Marriage, they wrote, was the altar of the patriarchy, and it had to be smashed before women could be free.

Just to be clear about it, I am speaking not of the movement's rank and file or, for that matter, of its liberal publicists and apologists. Like every such movement, feminism had its Robespierres and its Girondists. Nevertheless, of the leading, widely quoted, agenda-setting ideologues of 1960's feminism—Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, Juliet Mitchell, Kate Millett, and the rest—it is important to remember that not a single one thought of marriage as anything but an obstacle to women's liberation. All agreed that a refusal to marry—call it the Lysistrata strategy—would be the beginning of the final struggle to overthrow male supremacy. In this negative sense, marriage was feminism's testing-point.

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Here, however, history has thoroughly defeated the expectations of the 1960's feminists. After 35 years, one can hardly say that marriage has been ended, or improved, or, on balance, very much changed to the naked eye.

To the contrary. Rather than disposing of marriage, feminism made it more important to women than ever. The 1960's feminists blamed the “nuclear” or “patriarchal” family for uncountable evils. These terms of abuse have not altogether disappeared from our discourse—they survive in the writings of radical academics like Catharine MacKinnon—but they seem to strike most of today's upwardly striving women as quaint, if not wholly irrelevant, and off-campus one seldom hears them any longer. Women of all persuasions, from Gloria Steinem to Oprah Winfrey still say they wish to be part of long-term sexual relationships in terms ratified or even sanctified by marriage. Men—whether “feminist males” or professionals, backyard barbecuers or nascar dads—are still, in the main, the objects of the drive to marry, not its initiators.

Why is this? Ironically, it is in large measure the unintended consequence of the changes demanded by feminists themselves in the other sphere of their activism—namely, the world of work. As Stanley Kurtz has observed, the connection between marriage and motherhood remains remarkably strong—and stronger in the United States than in any other Western country; yet, for women, the interval in human life available for marriage and children has shrunk dramatically. The pressures of school and work—getting the qualifications, entering the workforce, building one's career—eat up time: in our society, at least ten years after the age of eighteen. Because of biology, those ten years affect women differently from the way they affect men.

Emerging on the field of honor in their late twenties, with credentials and career (and, generally, sexual experience) in place, middle-class, professional women find they face a frighteningly brief window in which to make a marriage that will include children. For those women to whom it matters, this makes marriage-seeking an urgent, intense, and often anxiety-laden affair.

There are other ironies in this situation, likewise unforeseen by the 60's feminists. Men remain marriageable—and obligingly fertile—at an age when they have already proved themselves materially successful. Once upon a time, a woman's potential for child-bearing and -nurturing might have been gauged by an informed examination of her physical attributes. But a modern man can hardly tell which nubile young woman of his acquaintance will turn out in the fullness of time to be a net asset, income-wise. At the same time, a woman who has become successful enough to be married for her money is likely to be a less than ideal candidate for motherhood. Despite the fact, then, that women have entered the workforce on equal terms with men, the limitations that a working career places upon their fertility has made marriage to an eligible male not less but more important to them than ever.

True, there is more to marriage than pregnancy and SUV's. There is the question of identity—what Nora had in mind when she remonstrated that she wanted to be not a wife first but a person. And then there is that peculiar aspect of the connection between men and women that is neither sexual nor legal nor financial but, for want of a better word, spiritual. Here the ironies cut every which way.

Feminism demanded equal rights and treatment for women. At the same time, and sometimes within the confines of the same book or manifesto, it reserved for women a special, higher status vis-àvis men. That this was a paradox, even a contradiction—even an importation from the dread Patriarchy itself—has been noted many times by the movement's critics. To no avail. Even as the movement was raising the banner of equality in all things, it strove mightily to enforce a recognition of women's superiority—that quality which, in the words of the young Henry James, “woman always represents to the imagination of man,” namely, “a diviner self than his own, a more private, a more sacred and intimate self than that wherewith nature endows him.”2 Although James's phrasing would nauseate any modern feminist, his description is accurate enough.

Marriage is the place where feminist-era women attempt to keep hold of their “sacred” character. Indeed, it is now obvious, as it was not to the 1960's feminists, that marriage, far from being the prison of the self, is the only setting where a woman can hope to exercise her privileges as a woman. Only to a husband—not to a boss, a team leader, a department head—can she be a woman, and only in marriage can she realize that elusive superior status to which feminism itself insisted on elevating her.

The great feminist objection to marriage in the age of sexual revolution—the fear of “losing one's identity”—has become an historical artifact. It seems only yesterday—1970—when the singer Carly Simon could fret aloud that, should she wed, “I'll never learn to be just me first/by myself.” But I do not believe this concern has been uttered anywhere east of the Urals by any educated woman in the last twenty years. The problem for a woman in the real world has not been to find her identity within marriage, but to find marriage at all.3

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So marriage has survived. Has it changed at all? There were some early changes at the margins, of course. Married women began to retain their father's family name, and men became willing to wear wedding rings. But if, in 1972, the women of my generation had been told that these trivial alterations in outward forms would not mark the beginning of a sweeping revolution but would be virtually its sole public accomplishment, they would have been disbelieving and appalled.

What, then, of private accomplishments? Did women, “inspired by the really wild surge of Women's Lib feeling,” force a remodeling of the institution from within? It is certainly true that they raised the standard of what was thought to constitute an “acceptable” marriage. In this, however, they merely took another step in a process that had been going on for a long time.

Before the first marriage reforms of the mid-19th century, a woman yearning for a “good husband” would likely feel herself satisfied with a man who would not beat or imprison her. After the laws were altered to allow a woman her own property and to extend her control over her own person, a wife might yearn—like the mothers remembered by the lost boys in Peter Pan—for a “checkbook of her own.” A hundred years later, both husbands and wives were being held to far higher, more interior standards: the standards, that is, of personal “fulfillment.” Unlike poems, modern marriages have not merely to be, but to mean.

Of course, the higher the standard, the more easily will marriages fall short of it. Hence, in part, the burgeoning divorce rate. Sociologists point out, though, that many if not most divorces are gestures of hope—hope, precisely for self-fulfillment in marriage—on the part of at least one member of the collapsed union. (That this hope is frequently delusory is another matter.) Besides, the rising divorce rate has itself been an inevitable byproduct both of greater prosperity—divorce requires surplus capital—and of the greater health of men and women, many more of whom now die in old age than are felled by disease or in childbirth, and hence are around long enough to become unbearable to their spouses. The demand for higher quality in marriage came about, and most likely would have come about, simply because of the grand sweep of history and of economic liberation, like the rising demand for cars that are not only functional but fun to drive.

But what about the specific effects on marriage of 1960's feminism? Were they really as limited as I have suggested?

Not quite. What has happened to marriage, it is true, is not a radical rearrangement of sexual roles: most surveys show that, when it comes to matters like childcare, housecleaning, and the like, the balance between women and men may have altered slightly but it has hardly equalized. In other ways, however, the balance has indeed shifted.

Partly on account of the harsh light trained on it by the feminist thinkers, the role of men in marriage has become an object of women's special concern, a role in need of careful tutelage. For many men of my class and age cohort, marriage has been turned into a didactic process—a primary “scene of instruction” (in Harold Bloom's useful bit of jargon), the place where they receive lessons not in a wise passiveness (think of Archie Bunker) but in how they need to live and, in short, grow up.

The drama of men's lives has changed. Formerly it was accepted that a husband's character would be largely shaped by the world before he entered his marriage, and that marriage itself—and the assumption of responsibility for the lives of his wife and children—would merely finish the job. Choosing to marry was a sign that a man had attained something desirable, even necessary: maturity.

In our current dramas of maturation, by contrast, little is thought to have happened to a middle-class man in his thirties before his marriage. The idea seems to be that men are inherently and necessarily unformed, and that they must be formed by marriage. Men have shrunk—if not entirely thanks to feminism, then thanks to the changed material circumstances that helped bring about feminism's triumph. They have shrunk because they have lost their special status, as providers and protectors.

One can see the shrinkage in the writing of feminists themselves. In the furious polemics of the 60's and 70's, feminists spoke of men with far more respect, endowed them with far greater power and substance, than most men could possibly claim today. Germaine Greer, contemplating the marriages she had observed, ascribed to men a potential for rule and a power of self-love far superior to those of women. These were the qualities that had enabled men to succeed in the world to a degree Greer thought women could never attain, absent a total revolution. But then the revolution came, and at least some women and men switched places. One can see the effect in those marriages where the wives, especially the successful professionals among them, operate in the world of work in vivid, self-regarding, “empowering” ways, while the husbands tend (as it were) to sit drinking quietly and inexpressively in corners.

But one should not exaggerate. Some men of my generation, who formed their relationships in the decade of the 1970's, were indeed frightened for a while of losing the women they loved to “liberation.” But I suspect that such escapes—like the wife's departure in the fictional marriage of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)—took place mostly in the case of older or longer-married couples, or in the case of young couples living in the hothouses of intellectual or academic milieux. The more frequent threat to marriage and family lay in the new kind of attraction between men and women in the workplace itself. This was not the story of two smitten wage-slaves, à la Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), but the story of an executive or manager who found the independent, intellectually engaged “new woman” of the 1970's more sympathetic and better able to appreciate his skills, courage, and sacrifice—ironically, his manliness—than a wife who stayed at home with the kids.

But the passage of time has remedied this situation, too, as the pre-1970 generation (Bill Agee and Mary Cunningham) has gone into retirement. The recent nuptials of Jack Welch and Suzy Wetlaufer mark the end of an era.

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None of it had to happen this way. Marriage would have ended in the last 30 years if women had desired it to. Here again is Germaine Greer in 1969, in a predictive mode:

Ultimately the greatest service a woman can do to her community is to be happy; the degree of revolt and irresponsibility which she must manifest to acquire happiness is the only sure indication of the way things must change if there is to be any point in continuing to be a woman at all.

Germaine Greer notwithstanding, what has happened is very much the reverse. The effect of feminism on women's happiness has turned out to involve not “revolt and irresponsibility” but their opposites. Women's pursuit and acquisition of happiness through marriage have knit the “community” together, improved the behavior of men, and preserved women's value in men's eyes and in their own. The generation of parents and, now, grandparents that feminism brought into being is different from the unliberated generations of the past only in degree: paradoxically, they are slightly but distinctly more child-centered than were the parents of the 1950's and 1960's. They—we—have sunk into family life, that despised bogeyman of the feminist imagination, to a degree that is nothing short of astonishing.4

That middle-class marriage has continued at all is due to the will of the women most influenced by feminism. It is a matter of the internal demands of female dignity, bolstered by the lingering hold of traditional modes of behavior. Whereas, in the public world, the “other” feminism has flattened the differences between men and women and subjected both sexes equally to the demands of competition and cooperation, somehow, in the private world, those differences still matter. The valences have shifted, but the structure holds.

But feminism has been in power long enough to become sclerotic in its reactions. Like the British garrison in Singapore in 1940, it has erected secure defenses against all possible threats from the one direction where it mistakenly expects an attack to emanate—namely, the generic “Right.” Its own myth of origin, in which women heroically overthrow a vicious patriarchy that is eternally plotting its revanchist “backlash,” has blinded the remnants of the movement to the real threat. The final irony is that what will end the age of marriage and of feminism alike is a threat not from the Right but from the Left.

I have in mind, of course, the long-term effects of the sexual revolution, including the spread of cohabitation, single motherhood, the gay-liberation movement, and the recent, increasingly successful effort to extend marriage rights to homosexuals and thence, inevitably, to absolutely anyone. The last-named development in particular marks a steep loss in the special protections that marriage has always offered to women. Whatever benefits gay marriage may bring to homosexual couples, the community, by giving the protection of marriage to all and sundry, will have effectively taken it away from women specifically.

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It is the cumulative effect of these trends that, if anything, will prove fatal to the regime under which women and men have, for the most part, continued to thrive. With their triumph, the sway of contemporary feminism—its ability to embrace the superiority of women along with their equality (and their vulnerability)—will end, and with it women's leverage as a sex over men.

What will ensue then is hard to foresee. My own suspicion is that the demands made 35 years ago by figures like Ti-Grace Atkinson and Shulamith Firestone may come to seem prophetic after all: the demands, that is, for the abolishing of marriage, the withering away of any sustained relationship between one man and one woman, the ushering-in of an age of random and casual sexual intercourse, the sexualization of children for the sake of adult pleasure.5

All of this, now forgotten, was part of the original program of radical feminism. Thankfully it did not come to pass. Instead, against every expectation, feminism helped bring into being a kind of bulwark against the dehumanizing vision of its own New Left roots. How strong a bulwark it is, we shall see in the next decade as it comes under challenge by newly resurgent and far more sweeping visions of antinomian sexuality, some of them operating—for such is the cunning of history—in the name of marriage itself.

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Footnotes

1 She was responding to Midge Decter's still-definitive article, “The Liberated Woman,” October 1970.

2 “Is Marriage Holy?,” the Atlantic Monthly, March 1875.

3 I do not mean to downplay the role played by the sexual revolution in creating this situation. The decade of the 1960's—with its new sexual mores, its triumphs of birth control and ultimately abortion—nearly succeeded in separating marriage entirely from sexuality. But for only one of the sexes: if women have come to need marriage as much as or more than ever, men have needed it less.

4 In 1996 James Atlas recorded his own astonishment at this state of affairs in an admirably candid essay in the New Yorker titled “The Fall of Fun.” There he ruefully compared the depressingly early-to-bed lives of today's literary professionals, of whom he himself is a representative figure, with the sexier, messier, rowdier, and altogether more interesting lives of their recent forebears. To his catalog of the putative causes for the decline of adult fun—the high price of urban real estate, baby-boomer fussiness about exercise (pro) and smoking and drinking (con)—many (though surprisingly not Atlas himself) would surely add the influence of feminism.

5 These were among Firestone's set of “minimal demands” in The Dialectic of Sex (1970).

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About the Author

Sam Schulman reviewed God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens in our June issue. He is the publishing director of The American.




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