Today sees the release of the 50th anniversay edition of The Feminine Mystique, a subject which I've written about over at Telegraph Books. However, what got me thinking was not the book itself - that it was and is fantastic and groundbreaking hardly needs saying by this point - but this excellent essay by Stacey May Fowles questioning how much the role of 'wife' has really changed since Betty Friedan first bemoaned its limitations.
In her essay, Fowles articulates pretty much my every fear about marriage, which all sit under the umbrella of 'it will insidiously chip away at my identity and will result in anti-feminist cliches converging on me from every side'. She observes how, as young feminists, it's easy for women to assume that the bored, depressed housewife on whom Betty Friedan shone a much-needed spotlight in 1963 will never be them. "Her concerns were far removed from my life at the time," Fowles writes of her student self, and I'm reminded of the 17 year-old students who told me they wouldn't call themselves Ms. "because I just don't think it matters now". Friedan was certainly on the money when she said "'Rights' have a dull sound to people who have grown up after they have been won".
But when young feminists turn into 30something feminists, and approach the terrain of marriage and childbearing, they're often blindsided by the retrogressive forces that await them. Having felt able to reject toxic gender stereotyping during their teens and 20s - we're outperforming boys in education, climbing the career ladder, having sex with whoever we wish - modern women suddenly come up against what Friedan called 'a tyranny of shoulds' if they decide to marry. And it is these 'shoulds', or as Fowles describes them 'tiny cuts of sexism', which accumulate into a giant wound of dissatisfaction which men will never have to contend with. It is also these 'shoulds' that largely explain why, even if I met someone I wanted to commit to for life, I would think long and hard about whether it was really worth it. Such as:
- the assumption you'll take your husband's surname
- the assumption that you'll want to be referred to as 'Mrs'
- the assumption that you require your partner to fork out a significant chunk of his salary to put a diamond on your finger, while you are required to buy him...nothing.
- the assumption that you'll want to announce the (likely untrue) state of your hymen to everyone you know by wearing a white dress
- the assumption that you'll be 'given away' by your father at your wedding, reinforcing the ultimate patriarchal act of defining women only in relation to the husbands or fathers who own them.
- the assumption you will be reproducing soon after getting married, or indeed ever.
As someone whose stock response to all these assumptions is to raise my middle finger, I empathise with Fowles' distress at realising her identity had been transformed, and not for the better, by marriage, while her hsuband had sufferened no loss of self at all.
People asked me why I hadn’t taken my husband’s name. When we met with a mortgage broker he wouldn’t look me in the eye or address me directly. Mail came to the house addressed to “Mrs. His First Name His Last Name” and “The His Last Name Household.” When I went to a job interview I was asked if, because I was recently married, I was planning on going on maternity leave. I would go to events and parties and people would always ask me where my husband was.
Eurgh. Exactly all the things I dread happening to me. Exactly why, even though I can certainly see the appeal of love, relationships and solidifying one's commitment to one's partner, marriage often appeals as much as stabbing myself in the hand with a fork.
I do wonder if, when it comes to an institution with such a dubious relationship to feminism, it's just a fact that you can't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. How can we take a practice that was traditionally a) nothing to do with love and romance, but a business transaction and b) about owning and controlling women, and reclaim it as an egalitarian utopia? As Stacey May Fowles shows, we may be able to promote equality within the small world of our partnerships, but as soon as we go out into the big bad sexist world, we'll be rudely shown that 'wife' still equals 'property of a real person, i.e. a Man' to so many people.
I've always been glad that I've never had the inclination to be a mother, because as one of the least respected and most exploited roles a woman can choose, it can be incredibly hard to reconcile with feminism. As one interviewee says in Rebecca Asher's excellent book "Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality", "I am meant to be a feminist but I feel very much that I am taking up those traditional female roles [now I have children]. And often I don't challenge it and I can't handle the battle". This is echoed in Fowles' words about the unwanted roles that she feels marriage has pushed her into:
There was a new burden to perform a role I wasn’t accustomed to, and perhaps didn’t even want — it was promoted by every piece of media I consumed, whether women’s magazine articles, filmic portraits of perfect families or well-coiffed wives Swiffering floors during the commercial break. It paralyzed me, this sudden preoccupation with wifely duties and responsibilities, bedding sets and baking pies, to be good at things I never cared about. And while everyone, including, of course, my husband, said, “Well, then don’t care about those things,” there was still an inexplicable push to perform as perfect, a nameless pressure I found impossible to articulate.
Caitlin Moran, controversial and widely disliked by feminists as she may currently may be, was right on the money when she said that the feminist litmus test for whether an activity is oppressive or not is 'Do men have to do this?'. And when it comes to marriage, Fowles observes that while the burden of expectation placed on her shoulders has suddenly become enormous, her male partner has not experienced any change.
My husband doesn’t wake up in the morning with the anxious concern that he hasn’t sent a thank-you card, RSVP’d to a baby shower or become a father yet. He doesn’t field questions about why he hasn’t impregnated me, or fret over how he will balance his career with housework, or whether or not he will maintain his culturally acceptable body shape by making it to the gym today. He certainly cares about these things, yet he doesn’t have the same ingrained aching need to please, to impress and to have it all together.
The women of our mothers' and grandmother's generations who were offered few, if any, options other than marriage and motherhood may wonder what all the fuss is about - didn't they fight so that marriage would be a choice, so why are women now complaining when that choice turns out to involve "tiny erasures of self, together carving out a loss"? No one has to get married any more, right?
No, they don't, and lordy am I glad that the days of marrying to legitimise children, open the Aladdin's Cave of sex or avoid the fate of being an 'old maid' are now over. But that doesn't mean that marriage isn't still held up as 'the ultimate accomplishment for women'. Why do so many women still change their names and don the title 'Mrs' - when there is no legal reason to do so, and many financial and bureacratic reasons not to - if not to make a statement about their new and improved status in society? And that's what lies at the heart of Stacey May Fowles' discontent with, and my suspicion of, the way marriage is still set up. We may have become feminists, but the institution of marriage didn't come along with us for the ride. It still so often represents erasure of one's identity, dependence on a man, and subservience to a breadwinning husband - and even if a woman enters marriage with the certainty that none of these descriptions will ever apply to her, it hardly matters, because as Fowles has demonstrated, society will go ahead and assume those things about her anyway.
I've wondered in previous blog posts if anything feminist can really be salvaged from the tradition of marriage - in 2008 I wrote "Gah, show me a 'tradition' and I'll show you an act of hatred dressed up as a respectable ritual by nothing more than constant mindless unquestioning repetition by enough people." But the part of me that wants to believe that it can be better, that rejoices when members of my friends and family find someone they want to spend the rest of their life with, doesn't want to give in so easily. Ultimately, I believe not that marriage is an utter anti-feminist writeoff, but that women entering into it still sadly have to be extremely vigilant to stop the sexist patterns of the past snapping at their heels again - because they will, and swiftly, given half a chance. And that itself shows, as Fowles concludes, "that we haven’t come as far as we like to convince ourselves we have."