Why do women wed?

A new book argues that women put much more work into marriage than men do, and asks why they bother.

Published March 28, 2002 8:06PM (EST)

My mother, I realized quite young, spent her day doing drudge work: the usual tasks of a suburban mother of two. My father commuted to glamourous Manhattan, where he moved important papers around in the elegant Chrysler Building. It was no contest. My brilliant and talented mother's daily life was so without dignity that I didn't so much resolve not to be a housewife as never even consider the possibility. But I was a child; I didn't view our family's situation in a cultural context until I read "The Feminine Mystique" in junior high school. While I was understandably bewildered by Betty Friedan's polemics on different sorts of orgasms, even at 12 I immediately recognized the truth in her depiction of the sorry lot of the housewife.

Susan Maushart's heartfelt and incendiary "Wifework: What Marriage Really Means For Women" is a brief against traditional marriage that took me back to the galvanizing effect of reading Friedan 30 years ago. Coming at a time when the 50 percent divorce rate in the United States, Great Britain and Australia shows no sign of falling, and 40 percent of divorces affect children not yet out of kindergarten, any discussion of reforming marriage is welcome. When President Bush finds it necessary to launch a $300 million initiative to promote wedlock among poor women, we have good reason to figure out if this institution is worth saving, and why.

But too much of Maushart's analysis and rhetoric are stale, and she focuses relentlessly on the personal and familial without much attention to the symbolic context of marriage, which alone can justify and, I believe, save it. To my surprise, I emerged from "Wifework" with the sense that the best defense of marriage would be based on factors Maushart ignores.

A 44-year-old mother of three and the veteran of two marriages lasting less than four years each, Susan Maushart begins with her own first wedding. On returning from her one-night honeymoon, the 27-year-old bride found herself obsessively cleaning the bathroom. Then she made a macaroni-and-cheese casserole for dinner. This was all at odds with the way the grad-student couple had lived during the previous two years. Avowedly a feminist, Maushart suddenly began acting like a Stepford wife, and didn't even notice the contradiction: "Like many young people starting off in marriage, I was too much in love (trans: too dazed by sex) to notice."

Over the next 200 pages, Maushart approaches the dissonance between what we think we believe and how we actually behave from a variety of angles. Much of her book is a brief against a caricature of contemporary dual-career marriage, Australian-style (she is an American living in Perth).

Maushart tells us that men think they are doing a favor by ineptly "helping out" around the house; men do the fun child-care tasks like playing and avoid the diapering, bathing and disciplining. Men trivialize the work they don't like, including cleaning, but are happy to enjoy its fruits. They won't "do intimacy" but require constant emotional stroking. They impose their food preferences on the whole family. They forget about foreplay as soon as they're married. They put their children to bed in their day clothes and wash dishes without detergent. It's a sorry litany, but also an old one, of which the most original part is Maushart's indictment of men's inability to reciprocate the emotional care they receive from their wives

Maushart is hard on men in ways that have gone out of style in American feminism but that recall Friedan's long-ago screed. She brings a take-no-prisoners attitude toward showing that "female subservience to the needs of men and offspring is not incidental to 'family life'; it is the very ground on which we have constructed family life." In the English-speaking world, Maushart tells us, wives, "whether employed or unemployed, perform 70 to 80 percent of the unpaid labor within families ... Wives also contribute 100 percent of the husband care -- the myriad tasks of physical and emotional nurture that I call 'wifework.'"

Maushart's sources are fewer and softer than I would like; the academic papers referenced tend to come from journals of sociology or psychology rather than economics, and some studies are based on Australian data. Nevertheless, the story Maushart tells about household responsibilities is borne out by the large volume of recent publications by respected American economists on these topics.

The discrepancy between the domestic burdens of working mothers and those of their husbands, though improving over time, remains staggering. A 2000 National Survey of Families and Households Working Paper by Lina Guzman studying data on working couples with children at home concludes, "Wives in the sample spend an average of 39.35 hours on housework compared to an average of 19.52 hours spent by husbands."

Note that it is children that change everything. In a 1999 paper based on 1997 data, Harvard economist Richard Freeman finds that "in families without children, the genders put in a reasonably even amount of time to productive activities." While women in such families spend 5.1 hours a week more in household chores, men's greater paid work hours offset the difference.

Add children and the balance shifts, with 6.7 more hours of work each week for women. How is this affected by the relative incomes of the marital partners? In a subsample of couples where the women substantially outearn their spouses, it is true that men work fewer hours for pay and spend more time on household chores than in other families. But in this group, too, the wives do more housework than their husbands -- even when there are no children involved. Which is more shocking -- this, or the fact that only 50 percent of women surveyed want their spouses to do more household chores (as opposed to 18 percent of the men)?

Grim as this sounds, women continue to be the ones who press for the wedding ring. Are the marriages women get really the ones they want? On the subject of women's happiness within marriage, Maushart plays fast and loose with the evidence. She is correct to point out that Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's much-cited, and largely positive, book "The Case For Marriage" doesn't tell the whole story. But Maushart gives the misleading impression that much additional evidence points to marriage not being good for women, and concludes "marriage represents a poor bargain for any woman who does not see motherhood as part of her life plan."

Why might women still obstinately choose marriage, albeit at lower rates than in the past? The recent rise in the incidence of out-of-wedlock births show that many women don't even think that motherhood justifies getting married. The real reasons, I suggest, are very mundane. "Economic inequality remains at the core of today's marriages," Maushart points out, but pursues the idea no further. Maushart mentions that both men and women agree on "the sanctity of male employment," but she should also have devoted some attention to the evident fact that they also agree on the lack of sanctity of female employment. This is a double-edged sword; considering paid work to be a dispensable part of their lives can detract from women's dignity, but it also provides them with a built-in excuse for any failures in the work world.

Some women, like some men, have not met with the career rewards they believe they deserve, or have not found work that is meaningful for them. While men in this situation are not culturally entitled to drop out, women with sufficiently well-paid husbands are; all they need to do is say they want to raise their own kids. For many women, being the primary parent provides a position of power; if they give birth young, it is likely to be the first they have ever held. Power is alluring for both sexes. Being the biggest of all fish in the smallest of all ponds has its appeal.

A married woman's achievement in her career still has little effect on her social status; her husband's job defines her both economically and socially. The reverse is never the case. A woman is concerned to marry a man with at least as good a job as she has; a man is not. Until society no longer views a woman's prestige as defined by her husband's, women will not have the same ego incentives men do to invest in their careers. They will pour much of their energy into getting married, preferably "well." And if this proves a disappointment, they will experience the depression that Maushart correctly notes is much more common among married women than married men.

Maushart spends little time with the social factors that influence women's employment and marital choices, and this affects her somewhat idiosyncratic take on married sex. In her account, marital sexual life is nasty, brutish and above all short: "In three years -- tops -- the average sexual flame has more or less consumed itself." (A hundred pages earlier, she had claimed it takes just two years.) "Married women enjoy almost everything about marriage less than married men do. Why should sex be any different?" And the author insists on viewing marital sex as mainly another kind of "wifework," going so far as to give the example of a woman who rewards her husband with oral sex when he remembers to take out the garbage.

Maushart's nonanecdotal evidence for women's marital sexual unhappiness is slim, relying heavily on the research of a handful of sociologists. It also contradicts some recent studies that find that the security of married sex increases the enjoyment of many women. But she makes no bones that in her own opinion, "it is perfectly natural and entirely appropriate that a woman's interest in sex should abate after the birth of her children."

Without making the argument more ad feminem than it needs to be, Maushart's remarks on sex show certain limitations. Aside from her early reference having confused being "dazed by sex" with being in love -- and what about the sadness in that? -- she gives us no sense that sex can be fun, exciting, mysterious, tender, revelatory of the deepest levels of the self and a profound glimpse into the soul of another.

This said, it is worth discussing the author's contention that married women don't enjoy sex as much as married men. Why might this be so? One study she cites describes "deep acting," a temporary self-deception in which women impersonate the feelings they believe they should have during sex, "as a way of dispelling doubts about sexual compatability." If the sex isn't good at the start, why bother with "deep acting"? The answer is: for the prestige of having a man on hand and the prospect of catching a husband. We have all heard it many times. "Our first three dates weren't so great, I wanted to cancel," one woman told me. Would she have seen a female friend a fourth time if the first three get-togethers weren't fun? But one must have a boyfriend or husband, after all, if one believes that is how one's status is evaluated.

On a purely anecdotal level, I have long noticed that the women who proclaim self-righteously that they don't see the point of sex without "commitment" are the same women who admit, reluctantly, that they don't see the point of very much sex within their "committed relationship" either. My guess has long been that the much-discussed elusiveness of the female orgasm is to a large extent a problem of the woman who chooses her sexual partners without regard to her sexual feelings, but for reasons of status or practicality. The rest can be blamed on a culture that discourages the experimentation most of us need in order to discover our sexual nature. This is the secret of the female orgasm that a thousand sex manuals cannot dispel. Maushart might have worked her way to exposing it, too, if she had taken more seriously the economic and status factors involved in many marriages.

"Wifework" ends, disappointingly, with a sort of whimper. Maushart ends up reluctantly endorsing marriage -- for people with kids. "For many women, husbands really are expendable. The fallacy lies in assuming that fathers are too." One hopes her more easily swayed readers reach this point in the book before taking any drastic action. I can imagine women who only read through the first 200 or so pages of husband-bashing deciding to banish their husbands and then wondering why the children are upset.

Maushart even admits that if she had to do it over again, knowing of the negative effects of her second divorce on her children, she would have done things differently. Urging us to regard marriage as an institution for the raising of children rather than as a relationship, Maushart finishes where she began, by asking us to make marriage more fair for women. But how?

To reform marriage, she tells us to work at "getting the emotional division of labor right." Women need to feel cared for. Fair enough. The nitty-gritty of household task division must change. Men must not be allowed to cherry-pick desirable tasks, they must develop what businesses call "ownership" of those responsibilities they undertake and they must specialize in some sufficiently to become proficient at them. "Maybe it really is true that 'any idiot can do the laundry', but I've got a whole drawer of splotchy pink bras and underpants that says some idiots do it better than others," Maushart writes. Less compellingly, she also calls for us to "put sex in its place," which seems to mean having a lot less of it. She apparently hasn't talked with any of the married women who want more of it.

These are for the most part good, if hardly original, suggestions. The problem is in what Maushart doesn't say, and particularly in her refusal to look beyond the individual household to society. While Maushart notes that the nuclear family is historically aberrant, she fails to draw the conclusion that even two-parent child raising is too stressful for the vast majority of households who cannot afford domestic help.

Part of the trouble with marriage is that it used to involve whole families, not to mention servants; child care and household production was not concentrated in the hands of just two individuals. The best way of improving most marriages for women and children would be moving toward the European levels of affordable day care and parental leave that Ann Crittenden ably advocates in her 2001 book "The Price of Motherhood." I don't even think I saw the term "day care" in "Wifework," though many of the anecdotes she gives suggest that if it didn't exist we ought to invent it immediately. Compared to toddler tending, Maushart admits, "even the dreariest office work can seem like good sport. In my experience, many working mothers with young children regard their worklife as a form of leisure. I would gladly have worked for free."

Marriages will also improve when wives and husbands alike assume that women will take as much pride, and invest as much ego, as men do in their work outside the house. This means accepting the bad along with the good, the body blows as well as the triumphs. It doesn't apply only to professional or managerial work, either. Men who are plumbers or welders or firefighters or gardeners, dry cleaners or cooks or bus drivers often take great pride and satisfaction in their labor. Women in these and more traditionally pink-collar trades do too.

There's another, very important way that Maushart's failure to look at marriage in a social context vitiates her argument. Our view of marriage has careered from institution to love relationship to Maushart's negotiated cease-fire, and the reasons why it is worth saving have been forgotten in the process. Maushart tries a list: "In order to raise children, in order to obtain economic security, in order to establish adult identity in the community, and in order to experience love and companionship."

I think these are all beside the point. Child-rearing is being accomplished quite well by any number of loving, responsible and committed cohabiting couples. Economic security is a contemptible reason for entering marriage. And while it may still carry some importance as a rite of passage into symbolic adulthood, these days, as Maushart notes, most of us marry too late in our lives for it to perform this role. (Nor would this explain the plethora of second and subsequent marriages.) Finally, love and companionship, by Maushart's jaundiced account, rarely seem to be found within marriage; she makes much of studies that show that married women often claim to be more emotionally intimate with a female friend than with their husbands.

Yet despite the divorce rate, many Americans still elect to get married rather than to live together. One in three American children may be born to unmarried parents, but two in three aren't. Apart from the legal benefits of matrimony, some of what people are after is symbolic. The riskier marriage gets, the more important it may seem. Maushart doesn't acknowledge that it's exactly the leap of faith that we crave, and the possibility of making it in public.

We must return to the ceremony itself -- the ceremony that seems to have a power all its own. Marriage is one of the few chances most of us have to stand up in front of our community, self-created or inherited, and affirm our capacity of pledging our word and receiving that of another. By doing so, we proclaim ourselves worthy of our own and others' respect.

We have paid too much attention to emphasizing the promise to love and to eliminating the promise to obey -- we've forgetten the injunction to honor. In an era when honor often means nothing, this is not surprising. But feminists ought to embrace this ancient word. Honoring one's husband means something much higher than doing his laundry -- in fact it probably means not doing it.

Women with a sense of honor will not sacrifice their capabilities and talents to become Stepford wives, both because this dishonors what makes them unique and valuable human beings and because it dishonors those of their gifts that can be used for the good of the wider society. Honorable men will not accept such unwise sacrifices. That they are offered out of love and trust is even more reason not to countenance them. If a bride has a word to give and honor to pledge, her groom has an obligation to treat her as an equal, with aspirations and ambitions and also crotchets, obsessions and sometimes unreasonable or inconvenient desires, as important as his own.

If marriage ennobles relationships and is worth encouraging, respect for one's spouse's time and capacity for growth is built into the vows. Acting on this respect doesn't look much like the traditional marriages conservatives endorse, but neither does it look like the grim (and sexless) truce Maushart proposes. It demands far more than both but offers unexpected gifts. One, I think, is to the children.

For many of us women who grew up in traditional marriages, what we saw of our mothers' lives poisoned our ability to give them the honor they deserved as our parents. What we saw our fathers accept left us unwilling to trust men to cherish our interests as their own. We may reflexively want to wed, but we have few good associations with the word. Hence Maushart's two bitter marriages and her preoccupation with the shortcomings of men.

If there is a way to reanimate the archaic institution of marriage, it is through a greater rather than a lesser generosity between the sexes, through a new liberality based on mutual honor. As my French teacher told me the other day, "When I came to this country I was astonished to find what 'liberal' meant. In my country, it means you are giving." That is what it once meant here, too. In the last line of her book, Maushart unexpectedly invokes the notion that in marriage's mutuality two become one, but this is a romantic interpretation of wedlock that arguably has harmed women. Husband and wife don't become one; they each decide, overriding everything they know about human nature, to accept the other's good as of the same value as their own. Can we find the courage for this equality?

By Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and "The Book of Trouble," published last month.

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