Marriage: A Feminist Institution
What empowers women more than anything else? You might be surprised.
G. K Chesterton accurately defined feminism as the effort to avoid being feminine in any way. He's exactly right in that everything radical feminists have advocated for regarding sexuality and family relationships call women to deny their womanhood in an effort to be like men. These are primarily abortion, sexual aggression and cohabitation.
And yet, good research shows marriage is curiously what has done the most to not only level the playing field between men and women, but actually shift the balance of power in women's favor for the last few millennia.
Key feminist leaders have literally proclaimed abortion to be a "sacrament." Pregnancy—a powerful, profound and obviously unique feminine quality—was not seen as a virtue, but rather a weakness to be overcome. "How can women keep up if they are constantly being dragged down by bearing children?" was how the thinking went. What feminists failed to grasp was how a woman's ability to present the next generation of humanity to the world might not actually be a weakness, but rather an immoderate power.
Interestingly, women who came of age since the 1980s and '90s—many raised by these very feminists—have taken a more honest and higher view of the virtue of their fertility. As a result, support for abortion has been slipping among young women in recent years, according to Gallup polls. They understand abortion is contrary to their female hearts.
Sexual expressiveness was the second development pressed by feminists. Back in the day, we were told it was fine for a man to show up on his wedding night with his virginity long gone. But we had names for gals who could not honestly wear white on their big day. A clear double standard, right?
The feminist solution was not to have men act more virtuously, but to encourage women be more like men sexually. Women would no longer be sexual victims if they met the man on his terms, becoming more sexually aggressive. This was supposed to be empowerment. But guess what? It ended up hurting women and playing right into the male script of sexual opportunism. In the last decade, there have appeared a number of very strong—and for some, unexpected books—on how this "leveling of the sexual playing field" has played itself out.
The first, Unprotected, written in 2006 by Dr. Miriam Grossman—a UCLA campus psychiatrist - explains how she was growing increasingly disgusted to the point of anger by the way the campus hook-up culture was ravaging her students' bodies, hearts and psyches. Her professional experience was exactly opposite of those who believe men and women are essentially the same, save for some obvious plumbing differences. She explains that her patients—the young students who regularly made their way through her office for physical and emotional help from their frequent and casual sexual exchanges—were nearly always women. Clearly something was not right.
Next came Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp. It draws from her extensive research and interviews with students at leading universities and how they are experiencing the hook-up culture—an environment of supposedly quick, clean and impersonal sex. But Stepp discovered what the author of Unprotected realized through her work. "The girls I observed," Stepp explains, "almost always ended up disappointed" by these emotionless, commitment-free sexual exchanges. And although "they don't admit it readily," she adds, "young men are as dissatisfied with hooking up as young women."
Prof. Donna Freitas wrote a third book, Sex & the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America's College Campuses. She interviewed college students nationwide, discussing their experiences and views on sexuality. She found that as these young women become sexually aggressive and more experienced, they are neither enjoying nor being fulfilled by the experience. "They slowly learn to shut themselves down emotionally, so much so that they don't even seem to feel anymore," she explains. "They tell me time after time they feel they can't afford to." Far from empowerment.
Let's Just Live Together
Cohabitation was the third feminist development. Many factors led to its quick rise in the 1960s and '70s. Among the earliest was the idea that marriage oppressed women because it was such an confining transition to a life of house-cleaning, cooking, doing dishes, providing sex on their husbands' demand, chasing after hordes of children and giving up nearly all their important life goals and dreams. At least that was the picture they painted.
The solution, they believed, was cohabitation. The couple would bring both their incomes into the piggy bank and share it equally. They would rise above the oppression of the old domestic gender order and equally split the drudgery of household chores. And since women could easily leave the no-strings-attached relationship at any time, the man would be more likely to treat his woman the way she wanted to be treated, for fear of losing her to a better man.
As with abortion and sexual expressiveness, we have had decades to see how these ideas about cohabitation actually worked out. I make the research-based case in Chapter 7 of my book, The Ring Makes All the Difference, that all the evidence shows cohabitation hurts both men and women—but it hurts women more deeply because the female nature thrives within committed relationships. Women in cohabiting relationships tend to be given false hope from their man about the future of their relationship, have less influence in ending the relationship if it goes bad and are more likely than wives to be forced to work outside the home, whether they want to or not. This brings us to explore why marriage is actually a feminist institution, in the best sense of understanding the empowerment and protection of women.
Women Rule the World Through Marriage
Of all the human-driven forces in the world—business, education, media, etc.—there is one clear power that's greater than each of these. It actually drives them all. It is simultaneously simple, but complex; soft, but strong; reserved, but highly influential; subdued, but controlling. This one thing drives humanity and shapes its future.
It is a woman's prerogative to say "yes" or "no" to a man's sexual interest in her.
Sex is a divine thing, the first activity God had Adam and Eve pursue. It is our most natural and powerful drive. However, all people in all cultures must be taught how to control and protect it, or very bad things happen.
Therefore, sex is not only a private act, but also a very public one.
It is a human and cultural universally that the man usually approaches the woman, who then gives or has given him a subtle red, yellow or green light. If you question this, consider that men who take sex without the woman's permission are seen the same way in all cultures: Nowhere are they idealized by either male or female, but deplored and punished. Women control the turnstile to the world of sex.
The Market Price of Sex
Roy Baumeister of Florida State University studies human sexuality from an economics perspective. This curious angle teaches us something essential about the importance of marriage: In all human cultures, female sexuality has greater market value than male sexuality because their sexuality is simply harder to get. Thus, women control the market by setting the market price. As such, they hold the upper hand; the man must negotiate with the woman. This is colorfully explained as a human universal by Margaret Mead, in her book Male and Female,
In these primitive societies, before marriage, it is the girl who decides whether she will or will not meet her lover under the palm-tree, or receive him with necessary precautions into her house, or in her bed… He may woo and plead, he sends gifts and pretty speeches by an intermediary, but the final choice remains in the hands of the girl. …A mood, a whim, a slight disinclination, and the boy is disappointed.
If you question this power, consider that men who take sex without the woman's permission are seen the same in all cultures: criminals. In no culture are they idealized by either male or female but deplored and punished by the culture. A man who must win the heart of a woman, not to mention her hand in marriage, before he gets access to her is a man who acts dramatically different than a man who has to expend no real effort for such access. This is perhaps the first and most basic sociological fact. And women tend to prefer the former as a gentleman while the latter is a cad. All cultures have various names for women who go for the second type—and such names are generally spoken by other women.
Women Make Men Behave
Anthropologists find the most serious social threat to every society is the problem of the unattached male. Gail Collins, the first female editorial page editor for The New York Times, wrote an important and deeply interesting book titled America's Women, which examines women's influence in American culture. In a 2003 interview with National Public Radio on her key findings, Collins bluntly said, "The most important implicit role women play in society is to make men behave."
Among her examples is the 1607 founding of Jamestown by British investors. The new colony was not producing goods and profits as intended; when investigated, it was determined this was because the colony consisted exclusively of men who were at "their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streets" as one observer at the time noted.
Women weren't present, so the men did what they wanted—which was pretty much goofing off. The work would be done tomorrow they rationalized. The first women to come to the colony—sent by the British investors to become the wives and motivators of these men—found themselves "marooned in what must have seemed like a long, rowdy fraternity party, minus food." explains Collins. Men will be boys. These women got the men working, one thing led to another, and presto! America happened—because of the sexual, emotional and domestic power of women. It's not small thing. And it's what had built every other civilization. Society develops manners and a work ethic because woman exist.
Collins also explains the battle women launched for the right to vote was not motivated out of the lofty feminist ideals of power and equality, but something more domestic. In the 1890s, ten times more women in New York belonged to the Women's Christian Temperance Union than all the suffrage groups combined. These wives combined and organized to create a massive American social movement that eventually attained the right for women to vote so they could vote in temperance—fueled by their desire to keep their men and their paychecks at home and out of the taverns.
Margaret Mead explains this truth was and is not just unique to the founding of the United States.
In every known human society, everywhere in the world, the young male learns that when he grows up, one of the things he must do in order to be a full member of society is to provide food for some female and her young. …[E]very known human society rests firmly on the learned nurturing behavior of men.
No society has found a more powerful mechanism than marriage for this essential task. Not even close. And it is not just marriage that does it, but women who do it through marriage.
George Gilder explains in his 1986 book Men and Marriage that when women have influence through marriage, they
…transform male lust into love; channel male wanderlust into jobs, homes and families; link men to specific children; rear children into citizens; change hunters into fathers; divert male will to power into a drive to create. Women conceive the future that men tend to flee … The prime fact of life is the sexual superiority of women.
Prof. George Akerlof of the University of California at Berkeley, awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, presents compelling evidence on how marriage changes men. In a celebrated 1997 lecture, he explained, "There is no question that there is a very large difference in behavior between single and married men … that men settle down when they get married: if they fail to get married, they fail to settle down".
Gilder concludes these truths succinctly: "Women control not the economy of the marketplace but the economy of eros: the life force in our society and our lives." He adds, "What happens in the inner realm of women finally shapes what happens on our social surfaces, determining the level of happiness, energy, creativity, morality, and solidarity in the nation. These values are primary in any society. When they deteriorate, all the king's horses and all the king's men cannot put them back together again."
Women rule the world, and they do so through the insistence on marriage. Where marriage is weak, women are more likely to be used and cast off by men. As a result, a marriage-lax culture is weak and on the road to disintegration. As with any market, women become more powerful when they dictate that access to their cherished sexuality happens only when commitment is high. The higher they set that price, the more powerful and influential they become. This is what marriage does and why it serves women, as well as the rest of us, so powerfully.
Originally published in the May, 2014 issue of Citizen Magazine