This paper presents an in-depth discussion about the changing relationship between women and marriage. Economic factors, a rise in feminism, parents' influence, attitudes about sex, educational pursuits, and divorce statistics are discussed and their influence on women's attitudes toward marriage are explored. Cultural changes that have impacted women's lives are also examined. The purpose of the paper is to explore the changes affecting women, their attitudes toward marriage, and their expectations of marriage. This paper will primarily concentrate on the question of why women delay marriage. The sources used to develop this paper are published journals, the text for this course along with other books related to this issue, and the Internet.
The Changing Relationship Between Women and Marriage Over the past four decades there has been substantial changes in the attitudes toward marriage among women in the United States. These attitudes relate to gender roles and social changes in today's society and have contributed to women marrying later than their ancestors married. Studies show American women are waiting longer than ever to get married. Their median age at first marriage hit a record high of 24.5 years in 1994, up from 20 years in the mid 1950's (Crispell, 1996). That's the oldest age since the Census Bureau started to ask about age at marriage in 1890. Of course postponing marriage means an increase, at any given time, in the number of people who have never wed, and that is also reflected in the census study. From 1970 to 1994 the number of Americans aged 18 and over who never married more than doubled from 21.4 million to 44.2 million. Additionally, women may be less likely to marry in the future. Projections show the proportion of never married women increasing between 1992 and 2010 for all age groups under 55 (Crispell).
According to Allen & Kalish (1984), the timing of a first marriage is related to the attractiveness of the alternatives to marrying. When women value roles that provide viable alternatives to the role of wife, they delay marriage. The role of women has undergone significant transformation brought about by changes in society. Today's families are smaller and live longer, thereby allowing women to devote a smaller part of their lives to raising children than was the case in earlier times (Allen & Kalish). Thus, more time is left for other pursuits. A woman who enters her first marriage at an older age is less likely to exchange dependence on her parents for dependence on a husband (Unger & Crawford, 1992). Elder (1974) found that women who married later were more likely to have careers, financial stability and be middle class as opposed to lower class background. What has transformed societal attitudes toward marriage so that young women delay it, older women get out of it, and some women skip it altogether? Economic factors, a rise in feminism, parental influences, attitudes about sex, educational pursuits, and the divorce rate have all undergone significant cultural changes and are among some of the reasons being credited for influencing the ideas women have about marriage. Let's examine these influences and the attitudes of women which determine their decision to marry or delay marriage. We will also examine the expectations of marriage that today's educated women may have and how these expectations differ from other women's expectations.
Economic factors have resulted in women working outside the home, and have had a strong influence over a woman's decision to marry. "The ever increasing opportunities for women to work outside the home make her less and less dependent, economically, upon a husband" (Casler, 1974, p. 30). Late marrying women indicated that careers took relative precedence over marriage during the period of their lives when their "less achievement - oriented peers were opting for marriage" (Allen & Kalish, p. 141). Women now in the labor market want more than just a "job", and therefore, actively pursue a "career". Between 1969 and 1979, for example, percentages of women endorsing wanting to be "an authority in my field" increased from 54.3% to 70.5% and in 1979 were only 4.8% lower than the percentage for men. Women endorsing wanting "to raise a family" declined in these years from 77.8% to64.8% which equals the percentage for men. (Long, 1983).
Becker's (1981) theories of marriage and family behavior hypothesize that women's increasing labor force participation has had a critical and presumably irreversible impact on the family. If half of all marriages are to fail, and with alimony for ex-wives less common, a woman cannot count upon marriage for a lifetime of economic security (Allen & Kalish). Men's economic status has substantially deteriorated since the 1970's (Oppenheimer, 1994). The median income of men aged 25 to 34 fell by 26% between 1972 and 1994 (Koontz, 1997). The institution of marriage underwent a particularly rebellious and dramatic shift when women entered the work force. "People don't have to stay married because of economic forces now . . . we are in the midst of trying to renegotiate what the marriage contracts is - what men and women are suppose to do as partners" (Gleick, 1995). Studies show the lowest marriage rate of all is for women professionals (i.e., doctors, lawyers). While over three-fourths of all women in the United States aged 35 to 39 are married, fewer than two thirds of these are professional women. Further, when they do marry, professional women are more likely to divorce than their age peers. As for childbearing, these women have significantly fewer children than their nonprofessional counterparts, when they have children at all (Allen & Kalish). In the case of having children Oppenheimer argues that "the major component of the cost of children is the "indirect" cost - the cost of the mother's time" (p. 295).
A rise in feminism is credited for being another strong influence in women's lives. Feminism movements, with emphasis upon educational and vocational achievements for women, seem to encourage departure from traditional sex roles which were chiefly organized around marriage and children, and toward more extensive careers for women, especially those who are well educated (Becker). "Even though not all young women label themselves feminists, the idea that women can and should have aspirations other than wife and mother has been widely accepted" (Unger & Crawford, pg. 364). While it is true the woman's movement has made significant progress in its attempt to equalize opportunities, the situation continues to be blatantly unjust. "It has been said that marriage diminishes man, which is often true; but almost always it annihilates woman" (Casler, p. 30). Women, struggling to rise above the "housewife" role, have a strong desire to be valued for some of the same qualities men are valued for: ambition, intelligence, and independence. Unfortunately, subservient status of the married woman is deeply embedded in history. "Conventional matrimony is seen by some to be a major stumbling block in the path toward women's liberation" (Casler, pg. 177). "Modernization has inevitably led to the growth of individualism with its emphasis on the importance of self fulfillment as opposed to the subordination of individual needs" (Oppenheimer). As a result, women not only are beginning to lead less traditional lives, but are also increasingly tolerant of differences in life styles among others (Becker). The old status order that granted men a privileged position in the family is crumbling. Proponents of women's empowerment have emphasized the effect of women's education and income on their decision making authority within the household (Lundberg & Pollack, 1996). Policies that empower women have been supported with claims that they will increase the well being of children. The belief that "kids do better" when their mothers control a larger fraction of family has been proven (Lundberg & Pollack).
Parental influence and upbringing, no doubt, have a penetrating influence on a woman's ideas and her perceptions on marriage. Several studies have focused on parents' influence on a woman's marital timing. Late marriers had less dating experience and more parental restrictions than earlier marriers did (Elder). It was found that the parents of late marrying women did not stress education and career over marriage but, valued career in its own right in such a way that they provided their daughters with permission to pursue a non-normative path (Allen & Kalish). So, it appears that parents of late marrying women have put less pressure on their daughters to marry than parents of the normative groups. In studies of women's educational achievements and family influences, it seems that women who pursue higher education goals and careers during the average marrying years have, if not encouragement, at least acceptance of their choice by their parents. Furthermore, father's occupation and education and mother's education account for one-half of the variance in marital timing for women, which is consistent with the idea that both parents support their daughter in academic and career achievement if they themselves have achieved more (Allen & Kalish). In another study, parents of high educational and occupational level status, exert positive influences on their daughter's education and career plans. Working mothers or mothers who are career oriented, tend to influence their daughters in that direction. A close relationship with parents and identification with their fathers are also positive predictors of career orientations of young women. A number of studies also have indicated that women who marry late are close to their parents. Frequently, their career goals are consistent with their family backgrounds (Allen & Kalish).
Modern attitudes about sex are also influencing women. Traditionally, marriage was seen as a way to legitimize sexual relations. With the arrival of easily available birth control, sexual freedom is no longer a "reward" to be associated with marriage (Allen & Kalish). Premarital sex and living together arrangements have become more acceptable to many (Unger & Crawford). Women who married late will have been more able to have adequate sexual lives before marriage than women who married during the average marrying years. Late marriers considered premarital sex more acceptable than normative marriers. Willingness to participate in intimate personal and sexual relationships outside of marriage reduces the attractiveness of the marriage role (Gottman, 1994).
The pursuit of an education is another significant influence on women, with the level of education achieved by women being directly related to their marital age (Elder). College attendance among women has doubled - one out of five women obtained some college education in the mid 1960's compared to two out of five in the early 1980's. "With their rapid increase in college attendance, by 1983 women constituted over half of the student body at two-year colleges and closed to half of the students attending four-year colleges" (McLaughlin, 1988, p.35). The most dramatic changes have occurred in the professions of law and medicine. The number of women becoming lawyers increased from 230 in 1960 to approximately 12,000 in 1982 up from 3 to 33% of all lawyers. Similarly, the number of women who received medical degrees increased from 3% in 1960 to approximately 4,000 in 1981, representing a jump from 6 to 25% of all medical degrees. Women are also rapidly growing in the professions of architecture and business administration, professions previously dominated by males. By 1985 women were earning half of all bachelor and master degrees and over a third of the doctorates, compared to the 42% of all bachelor degrees, 32% of master degrees and 10% of all doctorates in the 1960's (O'Neill, 1989). The result is that both education and experience levels of the female labor force have begun to increase at a faster rate than they have for the male labor force (McLaughlin). Koontz found that highly educated women in professional careers are less likely than women in general to be involved in marriage and parenting. In recent decades, the percentage of young women obtaining advanced degrees and pursuing a professional career has increased dramatically. Between 1971 and 1980 the percentage of women aged 30-39 who completed four or more years of college rose from 10.3 to 18.8 percent (Koontz). A positive relationship between educational attainment and the timing of marriage for women exists.
A woman's completed fertility level is also highly correlated with her educational attainment in part because of the effect of delayed childbearing on fertility. Educational attainment is negatively associated with the likelihood that women will ever marry and/or bear children. Educational attainment is also related to the likelihood of divorce, for women but not for men. Women who have completed six or more years of college have significantly higher rates of divorce than woman at all other education levels, except high school drop-outs. High levels of education by women is highly predictive of delayed and reduced involvement in marital and parental roles (Allen & Kalish).
Acknowledging the prevalence of divorce may influence a woman's future decision to marry. Plenty of young women have seen unhappy marriages as they grew up - giving them an understandable fear of committing themselves. This may account for the rapid growth in the proportion of women rejecting marriage. We all know the statistics - half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce and nearly a third of all children are born out of wedlock. As a result four out of 10 kids don't live with both of their biological parents (Chollar, 1993). Delayed marriage and continued high divorce levels will combine to shrink the share of currently married men and women in most age groups. In the 21st century, men will remain more married than women because of the surplus of adult women in all but the under age 25 group (McLaughlin). Gottman found that a major complaint of divorced women was that their ex-husband's had the majority of power. Moreover, it is still overwhelming women, not men, who are called upon to adjust their work lives to the demands of child rearing by quitting their jobs, working part-time or choosing a flexible job over one that offers higher pay (Cherlin, 1990). Women are also showing less patience with problem marriages as growing numbers unravel the marriage bond with divorce.
The decline in the ideal of marital permanence - one of the most well documented value changes among Americans in recent decades - also has tended to make persons less willing and able to make the needed commitments to and investments in marriage (Gleick, 1993, p. 28). While entering into marriage with the "utmost care and deepest consideration can only be to the good, it may be marriage itself - along with the most basic institutions like the work place - that continues to need refining" (Gleick, p. 28). Today's women, all too aware of the current divorce numbers, may be hesitant to enter into marriage.
I would say we're in a stalled revolution . . . women have gone into the labor force, but not much else has changed to adapt to that new situation. We have not rewired the notion of manhood so that it makes sense to men to participate at home (Gleick, pg. 56). Many married women report although their role has changed when they entered the work force, men primary have kept doing what they have always been doing, thus, putting additional burdens on women (Gleick). "However it seems that it is not the increased workload itself but rather the increased inequality that makes mothers less satisfied with their marriages than nonmothers" (Unger & Crawford, pg. 375). Men are making some progress though, in taking on household tasks, including child care, but women still shoulder most of the burden in families.
One of the most likely reasons for the decline in marital success is an increase in what persons expect of marriage. The levels of intimacy, emotional support, companionship, and sexual gratification that people believe they should get from marriage differ because of the breakdown of what it means to be husband or wife. Whereas, until recently, the rights and obligations of spouse's were prescribed culturally and fairly well understood by just about everyone, they have become a matter for regulation in the individual marriages for some this has led to discord and disappointment (Gleick, p. 26).
Altogether then, cultural changes related to sex roles would seem to produce different expectations of marriage. A woman who has supported herself to the age of 25 or above and has lived on her own until that age has had time to get more education, be exposed more to a variety of view points and experiences, and therefore, is more likely to expect a peer relationship with her husband. "All in all, she is more likely than a younger woman to enter marriage with a well developed sense of self worth and broad horizons for her life" (Unger & Crawford, pg. 364). Compared with a woman who marries younger - she is more likely to expect a more traditional relationship in which the husband is dominant (Everett, 1991). According to Everett, younger women expect greater communication, companionship, and compatibility with their spouses than older women. Possibly younger women, still maturing, have not yet developed their own sense of self worth and, therefore, depend on their spouse to fulfill their needs of worthiness. As opposed to older women who, in most cases, have a more stronger sense of self worth.
The traditional bargain struck between men and women - financial support for domestic services - is no longer valid. Women have shown outstanding improvements in education, and played a major part in the work force. With education and occupation in their hands, women do not need to rely on men for economic support, thus marriage is not an immediate concern anymore. However, it should be noted that when both husband and wife are employed the marriage is given an economic boost.
Nonetheless, all of these changes have spurred women to greater autonomy. Each has affected marriage in a different way, but all have worked in unity toward the same result - to make marriage less urgent and more arbitrary. Marriage may change for the better if people are committed to making the institution work, although in a new format. Still, studies show young adult women still care about marriage enough that the conflict between work life and family life remains intense. It's resolution remains a major issue on the public agenda for the future.
- Allen, S. M. & Kalish, R. A. (1984). Professional women and marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 46(5), 375-382.
- Becker, G. S. (1981). A Theory of Marriage: Marriage, Children and Human Capital. Chicago, IL:University of Chicago Press.
- Casler, L. (1974). Is Marriage Necessary? New York:Human Sciences Press.
- Cherlin, A. (1990). The strange career of the Harvard Yale study. Public Opinion Quarterly, 54, 117-124.
- Chollar, S. (1993). Happy families. American Health, July/Aug., 52-57.
- Crispell, D. (1996). Marital Bust. [On-line]. Available:http://www.marketingtools.com
- Elder, G.H. (1974). Role orientation, marital age, and life patterns in adulthood. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development, 18(1), 3-24.
- Everett, C. A. (1991). Marital Instability and Divorce Outcomes. Binghamton, NY:Haworth Press.
- Gleick, E. (1995, February 7). Should this marriage be saved? Time, 48-53, 56.
- Gottman, J. M. (1994). What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
- Koontz, S. (1997). The way we weren't. National Forum, (75), 11-14.
- Long, B. (1983). Evaluations and intentions concerning marriage among unmarried female undergraduates. The Journal of Social Psychology, 119, 235-242.
- Lundberg, S. & Pollack, R. A. (1996). Bargaining and distribution in marriage. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 10(4), 139-158.
- McLaughlin, S. D. (1988). The Changing Lives of American Women. Charlotte, NC:University of North Carolina Press.
- O'Neill, W. (1989). Feminism in America: A History. Princeton, NJ:Transaction Publishers.
- Oppenheimer, V. K. (1994). Women's rising employment and the future of the family in industrial societies. Population and Development Review, 20 (2), 293-337.
- Unger, R. & Crawford, M. (1992). Women & Gender: A Feminist Psychology. Philadelphia:Temple University Press.