On marriage, gender, income, babies, single ladies

In her recent book, comedian and writer Mindy Kaling makes a comment about those articles that come out every year or so that declare the end of marriage and convention, and cause the women reading them to vow to buck the conventional marriage set-up, and seek moving instead into one of those single convents, to perhaps cultivate relationships with fellow cat ladies, or continue rocking the career and the single life where she is. She brings this up as one of the "non-traumatic things that have made me cry." An article I just read, from November 2011's Atlantic magazine, is just one of those articles. I laughed at myself, thinking of Mindy, as I enjoyed every page, nodded my head at each argument, and added a mere two books on the institution of marriage to my Amazon wishlist (out of the many works referenced in her article). "All the Single Ladies," by Katie Bolick, is a highly fascinating romp through our perceptions of marriages, monogamy, childbearing, and the usual suspects, and how in flux the institution of marriages has been throughout history and continues to be. But, don't roll your eyes and walk away yet, she explores things far more interesting than that old rant. And Bolick is interesting even when she is saying things like that.

Her main argument is that while women have been improving their livelihoods and social statuses and are ready and seeking men of equal caliber, the men counterparts are simply not there in as many numbers. Any way I try to say this, it sounds like I'm elitist and theoretical and that I've been in grad school (and on a college campus) far too long. How to solve this? How about a nice historical reference. No? (I just think this is truly a fascinating piece of history, on life in the U.S. after the Civil War, but more interestingly, the life of single moms in post-revolutionary Russia):

EVERY SO OFTEN, society experiences a “crisis in gender” (as some academics have called it) that radically transforms the social landscape.

Take the years after the Civil War, when America reeled from the loss of close to 620,000 men, the majority of them from the South. An article published last year in The Journal of Southern History reported that in 1860, there were 104 marriageable white men for every 100 white women; in 1870, that number dropped to 87.5. A generation of Southern women found themselves facing a “marriage squeeze.” They could no longer assume that they would become wives and mothers—a terrifying prospect in an era when women relied on marriage for social acceptability and financial resources.

Instead, they were forced to ask themselves: Will I marry a man who has poor prospects (“marrying down,” in sociological parlance)? Will I marry a man much older, or much younger? Will I remain alone, a spinster? Diaries and letters from the period reveal a populace fraught with insecurity. As casualties mounted, expectations dropped, and women resigned themselves to lives without husbands, or simply lowered their standards. (In 1862, a Confederate nurse named Ada Bacot described in her diary the lamentable fashion “of a woman marring a man younger than herself.”) Their fears were not unfounded—the mean age at first marriage did rise—but in time, approximately 92 percent of these Southern-born white women found someone to partner with. The anxious climate, however, as well as the extremely high levels of widowhood—nearly one-third of Southern white women over the age of 40 were widows in 1880—persisted.

Or take 1940s Russia, which lost some 20 million men and 7 million women to World War II. In order to replenish the population, the state instituted an aggressive pro-natalist policy to support single mothers. Mie Nakachi, a historian at Hokkaido University, in Japan, has outlined its components: mothers were given generous subsidies and often put up in special sanatoria during pregnancy and childbirth; the state day-care system expanded to cover most children from infancy; and penalties were brandished for anyone who perpetuated the stigma against conceiving out of wedlock. In 1944, a new Family Law was passed, which essentially freed men from responsibility for illegitimate children; in effect, the state took on the role of “husband.” As a result of this policy—and of the general dearth of males—men moved at will from house to house, where they were expected to do nothing and were treated like kings; a generation of children were raised without reliable fathers, and women became the “responsible” gender. This family pattern was felt for decades after the war.

If you're still here, go read the article. She talks about the gender imbalance in the African American community, with so many single moms, and the same gender imbalance on college campuses, which has created "hook-up culture"--which is an enigma and myth all its own. Very interesting stuff. She touches on biology and babies, having them and not having them.

She also talks about "matrimania"--a myth which proclaims, "that the only route to happiness is finding and keeping one all-purpose, all-important partner who can meet our every emotional and social need. Those who don't have this are pitied. Those who don't want it are seen as threatening." As much as we buck this convention, claim it's not holding us to this, we are held to it, on some level, and I think it must get harder to live with these expectations the older you get without marrying. Sorry if I still haven't rid myself of the college-sociology-class aura, but I find this all truly fascinating. Ask any history major about race, class, and gender within any topics, and you will have a hard time getting us to shut up. By the time she was talking about what defines womanhood--to many, having or not having children, I was already hooked.

If you found everything I have said to be obnoxious, well then don't read her article either. I'm not crying, as perhaps Kaling might be. But I'm also more determined than ever to be published in time to have a really good reason to keep my maiden name, and not be dismissed as one of those people who read and love articles like this. ;)