March 01, 2010

Marriage and Feminism


OVER THE LAST FEW decades, sociologists and economists have been exploring the consequences of marriage for men and for women. Many of the studies indicate that married people are happier, healthier and richer than single or divorced people. Sometimes this masks the fact that marriage has more advantages for men than for women especially when we examine the financial portfolios of married women in developed countries compared to never married or widowed women. Married women appear to have smaller pensions and investments as well as savings. In the UK where I live, many more women work part-time than men, particularly after childbirth; there are more men than women in senior professional and managerial positions; and finally, more women care for elderly relatives (including parents and in-laws) than men and do so either by working part-time or by quitting their jobs. Given these exits from the labour market at various points in their lives, it is not surprising that when they are close to retirement women have smaller pensions and greater economic insecurity compared to men.

As an anthropologist married to a scientist, I’m interested in the career trajectories of women in the sciences. I’ve noticed that most successful scientists, especially those tenured at research-intensive universities, tend to have wives who initially had a promising career but 15-20 years later, they’re working in occupations for which they are overqualified. These range from temporary lectureships to teaching below university level or sometimes focusing only on teaching and not doing any research. Teaching is poorly paid and less prestigious than research.

Part of this imbalance is a function of the highly rarefied academic job market but this is not the full picture. Through informal conversation, I’ve discovered that a combination of circumstances and personal choices have resulted in one partner having a more conventionally successful career than the other. Some wives graduated after their husbands and followed their husbands’ jobs. If the husband procured employment in a remote area with few industries, it presented great obstacles to the wife. For others, the arrival of children tipped the balance of priorities.

I do not intend to present these women as victims of their circumstances; they are probably privileged and in a position to forgo work because they don’t need the money. Also most of the wives say they have very fulfilling lives, even if they are not doing exactly what they were trained to do. From a strictly economic perspective, it might make more sense for couples to focus their energies on the career of one partner especially when that partner is already doing well. But it’s hard to miss the fact that these women’s choices subsidize their husbands’ success to some extent. Without the reliability of a wife who chooses to stay at home or not be engaged in an extremely demanding career, some male scientists would probably not reach the pinnacles they do.

In defense of the male scientists I’ve met, most contribute considerably towards household chores each day. But unmistakably, marriage does tend to have better outcomes for men than for women. Worst is the penalty that women must endure if the marriage does not work out. Not only is she at a disadvantage in the labour market because she has not worked for a long period of time but the initial premise for compromise i.e. family stability has turned out to be false. I am not making a case against marriage, just pointing out that it is not without its risks and costs.

Of course, not all decisions are taken using cold-hearted economic models! Our decisions are often based on our individual definitions of happiness. From my own personal experiences, I’ve realised that a happy marriage is one where the woman does not feel that she is making too many sacrifices. It’s important for women is to be fully aware of the of the risks and costs of their choices, some of which may indeed leave them worse off in the long run as individuals. Feminism allows us a choice of several different life trajectories as long as we’re willing to abide by the consequences of our decisions. It should not dictate one way of life over another because this would not reflect the values at the core of the movement.

16 comments to Marriage and Feminism

  • feminist fatale

    Couldn’t agree more. Nor should we ever forget that marriage is a political institution and should be treated with some wariness always. It is, or often can be, about deep love and an abiding security but as you suggest often sacrifices that we might otherwise be unwilling to make are made in the name of this selfsame love and security. Sacrifices that make us sometimes less than we could be or desire to be.

    Marriage, especially between intellectual equals, can be an experience that allows for both to grow. But this needs commitment and a willingness to cast off the rose tinted glasses that suggest “love conquers all”. Often what is needed is a a clear headed view that however much we love, this is still a political relationship (for better or worse) and as such what it needs is a healthy dose of constant negotiation and evaluation.

    I’ve always thought that one of the great successes of a marriage is if you can still stay friends. And to stay friends one of us can’t be giving more than we get.


  • Completely agree to you on this one. We all have seen this happen in almost each and every house. The sad part is that it still is present in many families and even worse, this still exists in proper and well educated families too. And as feminist fatale said…This all will prevail in the society until and unless couples start to accept each others as friends because then no one will be making sacrifices for each other.

  • nm

    Two comments:

    1. Economists and sociologists have always noticed the gender difference of married and unmarried people. In fact, it is one of the strongest trends that we find almost across the board – the happiest and healthiest people are married men and unmarried women. Feminists have been using this statistic for ages to make the point of the costs of marriage for women. The data often gets complicated slightly with geriatric women and men – but even in this age group, we see that unmarried women are much more likely to cope with loneliness and ill-health (probably because of their higher experience with it through the life stages) than unmarried men.

    2. Some feminists, including me, are wary of the language of ‘choices’ women make. Sometimes, life options are not simple, and they certainly are not presented to us as choices, and it is always difficult for women, I think, to figure out whether we are ‘choosing’ something for ourselves, or whether the choices are made for us. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for selfish and self-involved decision making. Care-taking is enormously satisfying, but it is also one of the most culturally prescribed roles for us women. Whatever happened to asking why caretaking of elderly is not falling on the men? So, my concern is not so much about whether a woman is making too many sacrifices or not – it’s mostly – why is she (and she alone) asked to think about making them at all? What has feminism given us, if we settle for our husbands/partners/family members ‘contributing considerably towards house chores’ instead of settling for ‘contributing considerably towards childcare /career development/personal fulfillment…..’.

    • Eric

      I think that people who don’t live in the house should buttout of it and those how do are responsible for what goes on. If I do 98% of the household chores and my wife does 2%, why is it the place of feminists (or anyone else) to come into our home and tell her she’s not doing her part. That is for the two of us to work out.

      Also, if I like a cleaner house than my wife, if it drives me nuts when it is not at a certain level of neatness I should have married someone neater or I can do more of the cleaning. That is what is the case in many homes. The wife may not be satisfied with husband’s contributions and chooses to do things herself. Well, those are all personal choices that those of us who don’t live there should butt out.

  • Madam you totally missed the fact that people get married to make a family not to build up a career. Those who are more inclined to build career should choose appropriate spouses. Say for example, if Wife is more ambitious over her career she should not choose a high profile guy as spouse because asking him to quit job and take care of household chores is a national waste. No country can afford a brain drain especially when the govt spend a considerable amount of money in upbringing young talent. IMHO such women should marry those guys who can afford to quit job and wife can still meet the expenses. There are plenty of guys who are willing to marry professionally well settled women. Thats the reason why you see many high profile guys marry women who are less or not interested in career; but in the case of women there are less or no such examples. What would be the reason for this phenomenon that you as an anthropologist can give? May be a good topic for research?

    On the other hand, Madam, I dont know which studies you are talking about, do those studies consider only those people who are never married until retirement? If so then the study would make sense; otherwise it would be pretty close to blunder if that study says unmarried people are less healthier and richer than married. Because studies conducted in USA on married men and women shows, life expectancy of MEN are steadily declined by 7 years, because on stress and burden of responsibilities. In other words married women live 7 years more than married men.

    Blaming MEN for anything and everything and painting WOMEN as victims is not only bad for your career but also worse for the society in general. When i say its bad for your career, I really mean it; because minimum qualification for an anthropologist should be the ability to see the world in a GENDER NEUTRAL way; not a FEMINAZI way. Having lived in different countries become worthless if one cannot grasp the real essence of various cultures. I hope that helps.

    • saika

      Girls are typically forced to leave their careers post marriage because of various reasons. Come on, let’s face it, how many guys willingly share 50 percent of the household work? Forget 50 pc, at least 25 pc? So, it so happens that a woman comes back from office work to move into another work – cooking, taking care of kids, elders etc., cleaning, washing… While the hubby reads newspaper and watches IPL, and promptly come to the dining table at mealtime expecting a delicious dinner waiting for him! Yes, there are men who are exceptions, but yes, they are exceptions. You cannot blame men because they are used to a world order in which this was the norm. Man works, woman cooks. After a few years, these superwomen get drained out and decided to move into lesser demanding careers.

      Secondly, I myself am planning to get married soon. I don’t find any guy willing to accomodate a career oriented wife, though you mention there are so many around. Most men, I say MOST men, not ALL, prefer a wife who is lower to him in the career ladder. Otherwise, it affects his self image. This is the reason why either high profile women marry high profile men or choose to STAY SINGLE.

      Thirdly, most women marry before 26, men before 30. Men will be a few years ahead in career, so they will have better jobs/posts and naturally they earn more. So, the pressure is on the woman to quit.

      Fourth, once women have children, their families prefer that they spend maximum time with the kids. This prevents them from taking up jobs that require travelling or transfers. Fathers stay away from their kids for career sake often, mothers? No right? Many women willingly give up their promotions to avoid such situations. The problem is that, even if a woman wants to take up a higher study or a promotion, their families often oppose this, leaving her with no choice.

      You are right when you say that a highly talented man should not be asked to quit his job. Nobody is asking him to. But you should also consider that the economy suffers a loss when a highly intelligent woman quits her job also. So, the point is that, society should consciously support women who are briliant in their chosen fields. Because woman is the underdog here, and many men instead of understanding this situation, unnecessarily blame those who speak the truth.

      • Rahul

        saika, u said
        >>Secondly, I myself am planning to get married soon. I don’t find any guy willing to accommodate a career >>oriented wife, though you mention there are so many around.
        What kind of groom did u look when ur searching. Touch ur heart & be true for sake of ur life.

        1) He should be 23-28 years old, should have decent job
        2) Have masters or higher education.
        3) Should be nuclear in family.
        4) I dont care about his bank balance(sure u do).

        Did u have the guts to look for a groom who is a commerce or arts graduate & works as a clerk or a peon or receptionist or a painter or a taxi driver & will truly love u. Trust me, if u marry those folks he will never object to ur dreams, bcos u made his dream come true by marring him.

        >>Fourth, once women have children, their families prefer that they spend maximum time with the kids. This >>prevents them from taking up jobs that require travelling or transfers.
        There is a saying “Man who dreams high cant live with a female who dreams high & vice-versa”. So never in history u will find that u see a superman & supergirl created a superchild & thats what ur asking for.

  • […] Ultra Violet » Marriage and Feminism (tags: marriage feminism women) […]

  • Sreeparna

    @ NM – your comments are well received. However I would argue that you always have some element of choice, especially if you are educated and middle-class. I think it is important to not devalue women’s work (both at home and outside) and think of her as an active agent. There are feminists who choose to not marry or have children and are happy to live the consequences of those choices. There are women who continue to stay in unhappy marriages for the sake of security and economic stability….if you do not want to sign up to a patriarchal mode of life – marriage family kids, you don’t have to but it also means that you have to be willing to live a life of frequent loneliness and the odd stare.

  • Shreya

    Sreeparna, @ “sometimes this masks the fact that marriage has more advantages for men than for women especially when we examine the financial portfolios of married women in developed countries compared to never married or widowed women. Married women appear to have smaller pensions and investments as well as savings.”

    I’m not sure how it works in the UK but in some countries like the US the tax system also encourages this. Unlike in India where every individual is taxed as a separate unit, in the US it is possible for the couple to be taxed as one unit. So the benefits (deductions / exemptions) that apply individually are multiplied by two and applied to the couple instead. The impact of this is, that on a couple basis, it may sometimes be more beneficial for the woman to quit / work part time. The primary earner (generally the man) gets the advantages of more tax benefits since he tends to have more taxable income. The secondary earner finds she can add value through unpaid household labour like housekeeping / childcare etc which tend to be expensive.

    This is of course a sweeping generalisation – the tax provision would probably impact professionals at different levels differently. But it has been criticised on the grounds of being one of the factors that may compel certain professional women to get into part time work.

  • Shreya

    PS. Really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing.

  • Vivek

    Well i think prasoon do have a point that people marries to build a family. Also there are some fields where women’s brain are better designed to do such as family management,social network…even if men take over can they do better than women ( for eg: if you have seen indian marriages, women are most of the matchmakers, i’ve seldom seen men and I think around the world mothers force their children to settle down). About the financial security, it is more depends on couple ( as i’ve seen most of the time eventhough a husband manages funds for their home they give their ownership to their wife). Couples can manage and own asserts together even if one of then paid for it.
    Also i need an honest answer from women readers, do you want to leave a lone life after 40+. Single men might not have any responsiblity but a single women will always have more responsiblity as they might have kids to see. So even if couple don’t share responsiblities equally, but it is still much better than being single.

  • Kaushiki

    To the men who think the single life is the worst curse: Its far far better to be single, independent with financial security and get emotional security from a few close friends and family than to be stuck in a marriage where you are expected to cater to your husband’s and in-laws’ every needs, your time is not your own, you are not allowed to have time for yourself. And this is just the description of an ordinary run-of the mill marriage. Being stuck in a bad marriage (with physical or emotional abuse) is a whole other ball-game which I am not even touching.

    • chakravarty

      If in-laws are so much of burden, then the article says women takes more care of elderly … hmmm confused now, parents are okay but in-laws are expectation mgt. That shows the double standard nature of any women (including my mom & sis).

  • Pravin

    @Saika, “Girls are typically forced to leave their careers post marriage because of various reasons.” —-> clearly says you have false understanding of subject.

    Do read “Prassoon Suryadas”‘s comment no only once but twice and if needed thrice. I am sure you will understand each word written by him has great meaning and level of maturity.

  • Sreeparna

    @ Pravin and Prasoon – Are you the same person, just with different names? I am not even going to bother to comment on your comments. You have clearly missed the point.

    @ Vivek – Family management and social networking are sadly not recognised as fields!

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