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Changes in Women and Marriage
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
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
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,
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
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
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
Cherlin, A. (1990). The strange career of the Harvard Yale
study. Public Opinion Quarterly, 54, 117-124.
Chollar, S. (1993). Happy families. American Health,
Crispell, D. (1996). Marital Bust. [On-line].
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),
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),
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,
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.
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