Why Women Choose Not To Marry

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own by Kate Bolick is a fantastic book for men who want to understand modern women. Kate Bolick, an editor at The Atlantic, has written something that is part memoir, part literary history, and part feminist declaration of independence. Bolick interweaves her personal memories of growing up and choosing not to marry with the history of other women who made the same decision. By using five women from different time periods Bolick creates an evolutionary chronicle of women who chose to swim against the social current and found personal freedom. Bolick’s inspiration came from:

Spinster

In essence, Bolick asks why should women be a slave to biology, society and men. Bolick explores no new feminist territory, but she has written the latest dispatch from the front, and she’s written her story in a very engaging and compelling way. I highly recommend Spinster.

The heart of Bolick’s tale is to ask why should women marry. Her book is personal, but it could also be a sociological study. The reasons why women today can decide not to marry is because of all the changes in society over the last two hundred years. Bolick’s five muses are five advanced explorers in feminist history. They represent the choice between wife and all the other possible roles women can chose from.

We can examine that history easily enough by asking what compels women to marry:

  • Biology
  • Love
  • Family and children
  • Religion
  • Financial security
  • Peer pressure
  • Cultural brainwashing

Young girls don’t decide to go boy crazy in their teens, but hormones drive them to seek out the perfect mate. Peers and society put a cultural spin on that impulse that we rationalize is a choice, but it’s not. In recent centuries society has created the story of love to cover over biology, but in earlier times women were married off for economic reasons. They had zero choice. Love gave them one choice. Even after the invention of romantic love most women felt compelled to make a good match for financial security. Men were seen as providers and protectors. Everything in church, school, pop culture and society pushed girls to believe marriage was their true goal in life. It’s amazing that any women broke free of this programming. They now have an infinity of choices.

The marriage myth started to break down when women began to earning their own living. Society still favors the man economically, so most women still choose to marry, but that’s changing. Even some of the women Bolick profiled eventually married, giving them economic freedom, and sometimes wealth.

What’s really changed things has been sexual freedom. When women discovered they could have romance and sex without becoming a household slave is probably the beginning of the breakdown of marriage. If all women become financially independent, finding romantic partners without cultural guilt, what reasons are left to marry?

Having children remains the strongest incentive to bond in pairs. Children are a lot of work, and a huge commitment, and having two people dedicated to the task makes it much easier. Because men are often not equal partners, many women have learned that being single moms is possible. Any women who grow up not wanting children and has the ability to financially provide for herself has little reason to marry.

Because most women go through a series of love affairs they quickly learn that passion does not last, and servicing men’s incessant unromantic desires puts the kibosh on wanting them around full-time. Many modern women prefer to have a series of romantic relationships; ditching the man when he becomes too troublesome. Some women have gone from casual sex to anonymous sex to maintain maximum free time and reduce  distracting obligations from her growing ambitions.

For us men, we need to ask:  Why do women need us? Because culture continues to sell the storybook concept of perfect love for life, many women remain disciples of Miss Austen, and we can still hope to play Mr. Darcy to our fantasy dream girl even if that’s not her fantasy. But that segment of the population is in decline. Because religion teaches that family and children are the highest purpose in life, many believers, both male and female, keep marriage and family thriving. Luckily, biology compels a large percentage of the population to raise the next generation of humans. So being a potentially great Dad will always be in demand.

What about friendship and companionship? I think society is changing here too. Many women love male friends as long as they don’t have to sexual service them. Modern women are learning to separate chemistry from friendship. Of course that means hot guys get lots of sex and average guys get to be just friends.

The experiences and decisions Bolick makes in Spinster are the same ones that millions of young women are making today. Just look at this chart of the percentage of women getting married over the last 50 years.

percent married by decade

The end of the 1960s was when the women’s movement started, but also when more women started working. Bolick’s story is a personal one that back these statistics. I know many women who chose not to marry, and not to have children. I have to ask though: Was this huge social change because of the freedom to pursue careers or the freedom not be be chained to men?

Some demographers claim those who marry today are from the economically better off segments of society because marriage preserves wealth. If you want to be rich, successful and have beautiful kids, it really helps to combine two incomes, and have the support of successful grandparents as mentors. In other words, the future of marriage might be those who are well-to-do. For woman, that might mean finding mates that are 50-50 partners. In other words, marriage might go from being a male dominated kingdom to a egalitarian corporation. Which is kind of pre-romantic love retro if you think about it.

JWH

What is the State of Feminism in the 21st Century?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I’ve been watching season two of Makers on PBS, a documentary series about the changing roles of women in America during the last century, with the focus of the massive social changes made since the 1960s.  Each episode is both inspiring and moving. We’ve all come a long way in the last fifty years, an amazing long way. For example, in the episode, “Women in War” they showed a history of women being kept out of the military, yet they were interviewing women generals, pilots, field commanders, spies, and grunts of today. We have all come a long way, but how far do we still have to go? Each episode of Makers, which are available online to watch, show how far women have made it in various fields, including film, business, politics, military and even standup comedy.

What I want to know is how far our society has to evolve before women are truly equal to men? These documentaries show a great progress, but also stark failures. One reason the public didn’t want women in combat was the fear that their daughters would be raped by the enemy. It turns our the real problem is their daughters in uniform are being frequently raped by their male comrade-in-arms. In another episode they showed how women pilots were kept out of the Mercury space program because they weren’t combat test pilots, even though many of the women pilots tested did better on the astronaut medical exams than the original 7 astronauts, and they also weighed less, so they would have required less fuel.

Our real problems are still another case of Pogo’s:

Pogo

I know I’ve had to constantly change to keep up with the demands of my women friends, and I’m sure I’ve got a lot to learn still. I think we all need to be feminists. Our culture does a number on everyone along the spectrum of gender issues. We still have never passed the Equal Rights Amendment. Most young people won’t remember the long battle for the ERA, but many of the vocal opponents were women, and there’s even an antifeminism movement by women. Hatred of women is often expressed in our society, both overtly and subtly. Most of it comes from males, but not always.

Back in the 1970s the word feminism was routinely heard in conversations, but I seldom hear it today. The entry at Wikipedia for feminism is very good, and talks about third wave feminism in the 21st century, and post-feminism. For many people, equal rights means equal opportunity for jobs, and many women feel they now have that opportunity, so they don’t feel the need to campaign for feminist causes, or worry about passing the ERA. But it’s much more complicated than that.

There is no way I could sum up the current state of feminism in a short blog essay, even if I knew it. What I can say is if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see the struggle for gender equality everywhere. For example, there’s been a number of stories about leading atheists being misogynists. Or the vile, repugnant views of some computer gamers in GamerGate.  Just watch Anita Sarkeesian video series on how women are portrayed in video games. Then search out articles and videos attacking her. The hate she received represents a psychological deep resentment of women by a younger generation of men that grew up with a more enlightened generation of women. Why did they miss out their generation’s gains? GamerGate is the tip of the iceberg because we don’t know how most males really feel inside their heads. GamerGate allowed anonymous males to vent, and it was tremendously ugly.

Another documentary I watched recently was Brave Miss World, about Miss Israel Linor Abargil, who was raped competing for the Miss World contest, and now travels the globe promoting rape awareness. One clip in the documentary had a Yale fraternity chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal.” If the modern well-educated young men at Yale don’t know any better, then I’m not sure how far we’ve actually come.

After I saw one of the Anita Sarkeesian videos, which everyone should watch, I saw an ad on CBS for Two Broke Girls. Is it freedom of expression for women to play up to male stereotypes, or is it still oppression? I highly recommend watching the two seasons of Makers. You can watch online, and season one is on Netflix streaming, and some episodes are on the Roku PBS Channel. Season one is on Amazon Prime, and season two available to rent an many sites.

I hope PBS Frontline, and other major news magazine shows like CBS 60 Minutes cover the GamerGate, because it deserves all the air time that Ebola has been getting. I also think it deserves as much attention as the NFL scandal, but so far I’ve never seen anything about it on TV. In fact, I have to wonder if video games do lead to violence, especially against women. Studies claim to show no relationship between game violence and real violence, but the GamerGate attacks on women seem to indicate otherwise.

And I’m only talking about events in the United States. When you think as a global citizen, understanding equality for women becomes exceedingly complicated. Like I said, you don’t have to read books or be a feminist scholar, just pay attention to your television or computer. Watch how women are portrayed in fictional stories, and how they appear in documentaries and in news stories. Apply the Bechdel test to everything you watch.

[I wish I could link to “Cassandra Among the Creeps” by Rebecca Solnit in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, October, 2014. On the cover, the essay is called “Silencing Women,” and that’s a more precise description of the essay. GamerGate, and so many other current attacks on women show a distinct desire to silence women. There is something deeply disturbing about individuals who protect themselves by shutting up others.]

JWH

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

I started reading Edith Wharton this summer with Ethan Frome.  Then I read her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence.  And now, I’ve finished The House of Mirth, which I’ve decided is one of my all time favorite books.  I’ve elevated Wharton into that crowd of writers that I love to study because their real lives are as interesting as their fictional creations.  My major favorites over the years have been Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Clemens, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens.

Wharton will be next when I start reading her biography.  By studying the works of these writers, their lives, and the history of their times, I’ve been able to build a rough mental map of the changes in English and American society.  This 4th dimensional guide chronicles the battles of the sexes from a hazy beginning in 1840 with the novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson, then with clearer focus using Jane Austen, and after that, with ever sharper focus with Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and others moving forward in time.

I wish I had read Wharton as a teenager, but I’m not sure if I could have understood her then.  So I’ll change that wish.  I wish I could have understood Wharton as a teenager.  In high school all I knew was I wanted a girlfriend, but never entertained the idea of why a girl would want me as a boyfriend.  It was physical craving.  At the time, girls appeared to want boyfriends just as much as us guys wanted them, and we falsely assumed they craved us in the same way.  Of the girls I did get to date, they kept their true desires well hidden from me.  I think few teen males recognized the torture teen girls go through in judging their worthiness, and fewer still understood what girls wanted.  Even the most toady of young men automatically assume a pretty girl will want them.  If I had understood Edith Wharton as a teenager I would have understood why I wasn’t that appealing to the opposite sex in high school even though I wasn’t bad looking, had decent manners, a job and pocket money.  All boys want is a female body to play with, what girls want is illustrated in The House of Mirth.

Edith Wharton writes about communication between men and women, and the nature of women, in such a way that it could have saved me years of miscommunication.  Wharton’s observations on society and sexual politics are so enlightening that I wonder why she isn’t given more credit as an early founder of feminism.

The House of Mirth is about Lily Bart, a woman who wants to capitalize on her beauty, but in the process of various negotiations realizes that closing the deal won’t give her the complete freedom she desires.  Lily’s motives are unclouded by romantic notions.  Marriage is a business arrangement, and a great marriage means high social status.  However, as she reels in each potential groom to the point of getting a good look at them, Lily ends up deciding their price is too high and throws them back.  She is sidetrack from this husband hunting by the charming, but poor, Lawrence Selden, who pollutes her mind with ethical considerations.  She is attracted to Selden but she cannot consider him an appropriate catch for her matrimonial fishing.

What Lily discovers over and over again is women of her time are totally dependent on men.  At the dawn of the twentieth century there were women who could make their own way, but they led miserable lives.  The House of Mirth (1905) makes a great companion novel to Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser, a novel about a young woman moving to the big city to live on her own.  Carrie and Lily even live in New York at the same time for a short overlapping period, but in different social strata.  Jump ahead to The Sun Also Rises (1927) and see how Hemingway presents Lady Brett Ashley, but think of her as Lily Bart recast and sexually liberated, after having evolved through Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence.

The history of the development of the female mind in the twentieth century can be shown through these characters and other fictional women.  Their security and happiness is dependent on men.  Wharton shows through Lily Bart what happens to women when they fail to negotiate a deal with a man.  Wharton holds out hope that men and women can find paths of communication and even understanding, but in the end of each novel there is always failure to communicate.  I like to think The Age of Innocence is graduate work for where Wharton left off with The House of Mirth.

Both books are about men and women trying to decipher the cryptic messages thrown across the gender gap.  Even during moments of honest straight talking, like the scene where Simon Rosedale offers a very practical marriage arrangement, or the one where George Trenor explains what he wants for helping Lily financially, the two sexes can understand each other’s words, but not each others needs and desires.  Wharton seems to imply that men can fulfill women’s fantasies by buying them, or women can manipulate men by outsmarting them, but in either scenario one or both of the sexes must live in a fantasy.

I need to read more Wharton, and to read about her, to understand Wharton’s real position on the battle of the sexes, but I get the feeling that she is gloomy on whether or not either gender can understand the other.  Women often claim men are transparent to them, and believe that men haven’t a clue in understanding women, but I think Wharton goes way beyond disproving that cliché.

These novels suggest that Wharton thinks both sexes are opaque to each other.  Naturally, I assume that Wharton knows the female point of view, but I also feel she has some insight into males.  She goes way past the stereotype that men only have one thing on their mind, and she doesn’t seem corrupted by the philosophy of romance.

Wharton grew up rich, married well, but probably didn’t achieve her own freedom until after her divorce in 1913, a period between these two novels.  I’m hoping that reading more about Wharton’s life will reveal greater depths to her novels.

The Value of Women

Lily Bart is exceptionally beautiful and everyone expects her to marry a very rich man, one that would position her near the peak of society even though her own family has lost its fortune.  Lily dwells among the upper crust, without wealth herself, by the grace of her beauty and knowledge their society.  She makes herself useful to her rich women friends as a social secretary, but beyond the skill of dressing fabulously and being an attraction at parties, Lily is helpless.  Simon Rosedale, a Jew trying to break into high society, wants to marry her because of her connections, but Lily is repulsed by his social climbing and personal manners.  Rosedale even tells Lily that he doesn’t expect her to love him and that his ambition is to have a wife that could lord it over all the other society ladies through access to his wealth.

The more Lily tries to live up to insights inspired by Selden, the harder her life becomes.  I don’t know if this was Wharton’s intention, but The House of Mirth illustrates how women are property, and their value is set by a commodity market of men, with their price rising and lowering depending on the rumors of the day.  Lily’s stock takes a nosedive when she becomes a pawn in a game between a vicious woman friend and that woman’s husband.

What Do Women Want?

I think The House of Mirth makes an excellent sequel to Pride and Prejudice.  Jane Austen set the standard for novels about women looking for a rich husband.  Lily Bart wants her own Mr. Darcy, but Edith Wharton goes deeper into examining the bargain women make when selling themselves into money.  Romantic writers like to suggest its all for love, but really it’s about freedom.  Just another retelling of Cinderella – escape from floor scrubbing.  When do we get a new story where Cinderella gives her step-sisters the finger while shouting over her shoulder, “I’m out of here, I’m going to make my own damn fortune, and buy me my own castle.”  Is it any wonder why Scarlett O’Hara became a towering heroine to women in 1936?

From 1905 to 2008 women make fantastic advancements.  Many, if not most, can live on their own in the developed western world, although often poorly.  Times have changed too, in the marketing of women.  In 1905 a woman is valued as a merger of family assets, for running a house, raising kids, cooking, and having social skills.  Today it seems women are valued for their bodies and sexual talents, at least in common fiction, although that depends on which gender creates the fiction.  Strangely enough, what women want hasn’t changed much since 1905, they still want freedom, protection, and wealth, but what they are advertising for sale has changed.  I wonder if Wharton would be shocked by the blatant sexual bargaining of today?

Wharton never suggests that Lily might study stock investing with George Trenor, so she could make her own riches.  Lily refuses to trade sex and become a well-to-do mistress.  She only considers work when all her other options are gone, and she’s a failure at that.  Wharton could have written a novel about Lily starting a fashionable business and succeeding on her own, but she didn’t.  Happiness always comes down to finding the right man, and Lily, literally worth her weight in gold and diamonds, loses at negotiating because of miscommunications and failures to close deals.

Lily’s beauty is powerful enough to attract armies of average men, with average incomes, but she doesn’t consider lowering her asking price.  She could have easily gotten a reasonable wealthy man, an up-and-comer, but she doesn’t.  I assume Wharton wants us to see the corrupting influence of the idle rich.  At one point Lily is dining with a roomful of society’s best and she realizes they are all twits and not a single Mr. Darcy among them.

I have to wonder if the frantic desire by modern women to be thin and beautiful is just compulsive perfecting of their product.  Is looking great the feminine form of ambition?  It’s surprising that the winners at Miss America pageants aren’t decided by bids, like at art auctions.  Lily Bart could have been married several times but she always takes herself off the block when she learns too much about who is going to buy her.

And I have to wonder what Wharton is telling her lady readers.  Settle before it’s too late?  Don’t be greedy?  Learn a trade?  Wharton had been married twenty years to her wealthy husband by the time this novel came out.  She’d be divorced in another eight.  Edith is no Jane Austen, her eyes were not clouded by thoughts of love.  Lily wasn’t even expecting friendship.  She wanted to be free and rich.  She was an alpha female believing she deserved the alpha male.  So what was Wharton telling us?  I don’t think I’ll know until I read books about her and then reread The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, but here is something to think about now.

As a male I can fantasize about living in the world of The House of Mirth and meeting Lily Bart.  If I was realistic, I’d picture myself middle class, having to work like Lawrence Selden, and I do identify with him and what she says to Lily.  I can easily imagine being very attracted to Lily and wanting her, but if I was having a realistic historical daydream, I’d realize that owning Lily would be like winning a yacht on a bet but not be able to afford a slip in a marina, or afford to hire a crew, or even have the money to take it out on a trip.  Selden lived in a modest apartment and I can’t imagine him marrying Lily and parking her there for a new life after the world traveling and luxury that Lily considered basic needs.  It’s easy to have a sexual fantasy about a beautiful woman, but it’s much harder to create a fantasy that will make her happy too.

Women reading The House of Mirth will learn different lessons than men who read it.  Like men in Wharton novels, I can only guess at what women will think.  Most women are inflicted by the romance gene and I assume many will rationalize marrying Selden.  Most women do not marry rich men, so they settle for the Lawrence Seldens of the world.  There are plenty of women who’d accept boredom and marry Percy for his immense wealth.  And I imagine that there are lots of women who would have jumped at Simon Rosedale’s offer, or even George Trenor’s proposition.  And many women would consider it perfectly fine to exposed Judy for what she was and take her rich husband.  The real question is how many women would find another way out?  One that doesn’t involve men?

I think that’s the difference between now and then.  I’ve often wondered why so many modern women over fifty prefer to live single.  Some of my single women friends joke they would give in and marry again if the man was very rich, but anything less, and a man is too much trouble.  I guess many of my lady friends would be like Lily, and reject those rich guys too.  The difference between 1905 and 2008 is millions of woman can afford to be picky, whereas Lily did not.  That’s what the core of women’s liberation is about – being able to live without a man.

Jim

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