Marriage and Female Vulnerability

American society prides itself on its social freedoms and egalitarian values. Democracy has had a rich legacy in American history, and indeed great strides have been made within our nation to construct a more equitable social code, one that deviates less and less from the promise of “liberty and justice for all,” recited daily in our Pledge of Allegiance. However, despite advances, tremendous sex-based inequalities still exist. A woman employed fulltime earns a startling 75 cents to the likewise fulltime employed man, more than one half of poor families are headed by a single mother, and more than twice as many elderly women are impoverished when compared to the number of men in the same age bracket.[1]

Vast inequalities between male and female social status are no longer borne out of legal mandates, but out of underlying conceptions about gender-based obligations. Though legal provisions have attempted to establish female equality within the workforce, few provisions have done the same for the protection of justice within the domestic sphere, and the advancement of women has continued to be tyrannized by antiquated social dictations and constraints. The expectation and actuality of the division of labor between household management and money earning within the home creates a dynamic of power that devalues female contributions and emasculates their social, economic and political influence. Moreover, despite rapidly expanding female employment, archaic gender expectations still define marriage and childrearing, forcing even working women to make unfortunate decisions between their careers and their families amidst great social pressure. Fundamentally, it’s the unequal distribution of paid and unpaid resources within the institution of marriage that leaves women economically and socially vulnerable; domestic inequality that transcends into every facet of American society. Wedding rings, in many respects, dignify the suspension of social justice.

The institution of marriage is a social relic; a vestige of a time when gender roles were cemented firmly in place and women wielded no political or economic power. Socially constructed concepts of “gender obligation” helped lay the framework for “matrimonial obligation,” and sex-based stereotypes became constituent to marriage’s existence. Certain sexes, it was once believed, were naturally relegated to certain spheres within society; men, of course, asserted themselves as being intellectually and physically dominant, and roles in society were sorted with such conceptions in mind.

The Awakening, a novel published in 1899 by Kate Chopin, poignantly depicts the repressive power dynamic within late nineteenth century domestic life. Edna, the novel’s main character, struggles to achieve recognition as an individual within a society that prescribes female subservience. The ideal women of the time, the book remarks, were those, “who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals” (18). Here, an important causation is established early on: a female’s role as the caretaker of her children and husband leads to the suppression of her individuality. This argument holds true throughout the book as Edna’s gender-based obligations create obstacles for her development as a person. Mr. Pontellier, Edna’s archetypical husband, comments that his wife had, “failed in her duty toward their children,” criticizing her, that, “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman” (20). The assumption and glorification of certain gender-based “duties” within society led to the fermentation of a rigid marriage structure that made women dependent on their husbands and defenseless in a world beyond the secluded realm of their homes.

Though many of the arguments made throughout the centuries about the biological inferiority of women have fallen out of favor, the patriarchal power structures that naturally extended from these beliefs so evident in The Awakening, to a large extent still exist and thrive within today’s society: despite increasing female participation in the workforce, it is still widely assumed that a certain division of labor should position women as the primary caretakers and men as the primary money earners. Marriage throughout the ages has served as a bulwark of the status quo, amidst great tides of liberalization. Though women have drastically increased their potential to affect change in modern society, a result largely achieved due to the efforts made during the upsurge of feminism within the 1970s, the institution of marriage continues to propagate a repressive power structure that prevents women from getting ahead.

The cycle of vulnerability perpetuated by marriage begins early. Society places tremendous pressure on women to vindicate their social status through matrimony; in fact, young women are significantly more likely than young men to regard having a “good marriage and family life” as extremely important factors for future happiness.[2] As such, the expectation of marriage becomes an important and dangerous factor in female career ambition. For example, in a 2005 New York Times article, highly motivated and disciplined Yale University student Cynthia Liu articulated the constraint imposed by domestic expectations, as she justified her decision to be a “stay-at-home mom,” remarking, “‘My mother’s always told me you can’t be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time…You always have to choose one over the other.’”[3] Simply put, the importance placed on marriage, compounded with female’s responsibility as the primary parent, affects the level of education and the fields of expertise sought out by females in today’s society. Such domestic expectations force women early in life to make the precarious choices between their families and their careers—decisions men simply don’t have to make.

When women envisage a future of familial responsibility, they naturally tend to choose careers that accommodate their positions as primary caretakers. Though it’s true that female education and employment have been steadily increasing, and that a small minority of women wield tremendous economic power, the vast majority of women are still relegated into facets of the workforce that provide lower pay, poorer working conditions, and fewer opportunities for job mobility—because of matrimonial expectation and domestic obligations. For example, though three out of five college graduates are now women, women are still far more likely to work in administrative fields such as secretaries, typists or book-keeper, which hold no prospects for advancement; in 2000, more than twenty-five percent of working women occupied this category, as a opposed to only eight percent of working men.[4] The social expectation of marriage thus perpetuates a sex-segregated workforce.

Marriage continues this vulnerability set in motion by societal expectations. Women enter the relationship stifled by a sex-segregated workforce, frustrated by dead-end jobs, and disenchanted by poor working conditions; many women thus come to believe that they stand to benefit from the acceptance of their husband’s career as the number one priority, and find no reason to question the traditional structure of marriage. It is no secret that in almost every family in America, the wife does the majority of the child rearing and house maintaining. Many accept the traditional division of labor as efficient and biologically predisposed. However, this distribution of unpaid and paid labor that has been accepted for centuries leaves women economically vulnerable and politically codependent.

In a society where social power is measured by economic means, the reciprocation of unpaid labor such as housework for actual financial resources creates a power dynamic where the female is economically and psychologically dependent on the male; two-thirds of wives subscribe to traditional gender roles in the United States and stay at home fulltime.[5] The skills gained by the unpaid labor within the home hold little weight as career credentials and little esteem from society at large. Indeed, the traditional stay-at-home mother subjects herself to tremendous degrees of social devaluation and economic dependence, a structure that enables male usurpations of power. Men can use this economic leverage to supreme advantage, withholding money during disputes and even using economic threats to mandate tolerance of (say) infidelity or physical violence. It’s true that from a pragmatic point of view, many stay-at-home mothers are unable to support themselves free from matrimonial bond, and therefore at times must accept a position of subservience in order to secure economic wellbeing. Female psychology expert Linda Gordon concludes that, “The basis of wife-beating is male dominance—not superior physical strength or violent temperament…but social, economic, political, and psychological power…Wife-beating is the chronic battering of a person of inferior power who for that reason cannot effectively resist.”[6] The concentration of money in male hands neuters makes women substantially vulnerable.

Fortunately, it’s true that female economic autonomy is steadily improving, and therefore economic vulnerability is lessening; however, despite increased female (and mother) participation in the workforce, women are still expected to incur the vast majority to domestic duties. A double burden between the mother’s children/housework and her career is incurred, and her male counterpart seldom works to increase his own responsibilities of around the house.[7] Instead, the standards of child care and house maintenance are decreased or (among the elite) compensated through professional help—not through help from the husband. One study concluded that, “husbands of wives with full-time jobs averaged about two minutes more housework per day that did husbands with housewives maintaining families, hardly enough additional time to prepare a soft-boiled egg.” As a result, a fulltime working mother, who incurs a dual burden, works more statistical hours per-week than her husband, 71.1 hours compared to his 64.9 hours. More significant, however, is the fact that she is clocking more than 43 hours of unpaid labor, whereas he is only working about 9.s hours a week without being financially compensated. [8] This, once again, establishes a relationship where social power and societal value are maldistributed based on who is doing the majority of paid labor. Moreover, the female fulltime worker who is forced to incur responsibilities within both realms of society must compete within her job against males who face none of the same domestic obligations—a fact suppressing female success.

Finally, one of the most substantial vulnerabilities faced by women who readily exchange unpaid labor for their husbands’ paid labor, is the potential for complete separation from their husbands. The traditional system of marriage that stipulates gender codependence, where the male assumes the role as the provider and the female as the caregiver is irreconcilable with on-demand divorce and separation. The male within the relationship fosters economically valued careers skills that allow him to easily provide for himself independently; the female, on the other hand, is denied the opportunity to develop similarly economically valued skills, and is thus severely disadvantaged by such an absolute division. Philosopher Robert Goodin in his book Protecting the Vulnerable argues that asymmetrical vulnerability is acceptable only when no-harm withdrawal is plausible: “as long as the subordinate party can withdraw from the relationship without severe cost, the superordinate cannot exploit him.”[9] The female in a traditional marriage can only separate from her husband at the cost of her economic wellbeing, and therefore withdrawal without severe cost is non-existent.

Indeed, it’s a philosophical truism that to treat unequals as equals is fundamentally unjust—however, in a liberal society that tries to provide equality for all, such a concept is oft-forgotten. No fault divorce, where financial assets are divided evenly, attempts to treat men and women as equally self-sufficient members of society; however, such equality is simply not the case. The majority of American marriages give priority to male work; when females do work, they account for only a small fraction of the family’s total income. Though tangible assets are split evenly, the prospect to make money is retained by the husband. Also, the female almost invariably gains custody of the family’s children, increasing her labor burden and limiting her economic and social independence. The extra domestic burden of childcare compounded with less auspicious career prospects causes female standards of living to plummet after divorce, decreasing by 45 percent as of 2000, whereas male standards of livings to rises sharply, increasing by 57 percent.[10] A woman who has contributed her fair-share of unpaid labor to a relationship built on the tenants of codependence is treated unjustly if she is fully estranged from her ex-husbands enhanced financial position. However, in today’s divorce realities, this is precisely what happens.

In a just society, women and men should share the same opportunities to wield economic power, to affect social change, and to develop their intellectual capacities as valued individuals. The United States’ today simply cannot say that it has achieved these goals. Marriage is an archaic institution that is a reflection not of America’s egalitarian achievements, but of its dark legacy of sexism and discrimination, an institution that makes women politically, economically, and social vulnerable, yet an institution that has proven tremendously important in the shaping of our nation’s moral righteousness. Indeed, the facile dichotomy between the political world and the personal world established by many is only a myth. Personal is political, and no justice can be claimed by the community at large if it fails to extend the same moral law to members in all facets of society. The intimacy of the family should not dignify the suspension of ethical judgment; instead, conversely, should be granted the utmost moral consideration as social unit that provides the backbone of our moral code of our nation. Families—through love or hate, through stability or chaos, and through displays of equity or servitude—serve as the earliest schools of social justice within our society. As Americans, how much do we truly value the equality of all citizens? How long can we deprive citizens of consideration based on sex? And how much injustice are wiling to tolerate and dignify based in the name of tradition?

Works Cited

Bergmann, Barbara. Economic Emergence of Women. New York: Basic Books, 1986. 263.

Bianchi, Suzanne, and Daphne Spain. American Woman. New York: Norton, 1989. 9.

Goodin, Robert E. Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1985. 197.

Gordan, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives. New York: Viking, 1988.

Okin, Susan M. Justice, Gender, and the Family. New York: Basic Books, 1989. 153.

Rathje, Kelly. "Male Versus Female Earnings – Is the Gender Wage Gap Converging?" Economica (2002). 10 Jan. 2006 .

Story, Louise. "Many Women in Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood." The New York Times 20 Sept. 2005.

United States. Bureau of Census. U.S. Department of Commerce. Current Population Reports. 2000.

United States. Bureau of Census. U.S. Department of Commerce. “Stay-at-Home” Parents Top 5 Million, Census Bureau Reports. 2004.



[1] Kelly Rathje, “Male Versus Female Earnings – Is the Gender Wage Gap Converging?,” Economica, Sept. 2002 < http://www.economica.ca/ew71p2.htm>.

[2] Bianchi and Spain, American Woman, p. 9, quoting Arland Thornton and Deborah Freedman, “Changing Attitudes Towards Marriage and Single Life,” Family Planning Perspectives 14 (November-December 1982): 297-303.

[3] Louise Story, "Many Women in Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2005.

[4] Current Population Reports, Population Profile of the United States 2000, U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census.

[5] “Stay-at-Home” Parents Top 5 Million, Census Bureau Reports, Newsroom 2004, U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census.

[6] Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives (New York: Viking, 1988), p. 251.

[7] Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989), p. 153.

[8] Barbara R. Bergmann, The Economic Emergence of Women (New York: Basic Books, 1986), p. 263

[9] Robert E. Goodin, Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 197.

[10] Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family, p. 163.

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2:02 PM  
Blogger Penn Habitat said...

I just read your essay on gender. You say that the institution of marriage is antiquated and repressive to women, and is a vestige of a time when women held no political and economic power. However, it is only with the coming of modern economic structures in traditional societies like in the Andes and with the Khoisan than women have been more marginalized. It was traditional structures that kept a nice balance of power complementarity between the sexes. The examples you cite are all after modern liberalism started to erode a lot of the traditional constraints to male tyranny. Certainly, there were a lot of institutions then that seem repressive now, but those are not overwhelmingly common and women often held more power then than now (Pre 1630s in the West, and Pre-nationalism and industrialisation in other areas).

Finally, you have to question the modern predicament of human trafficking. Even with economic liberalism, and indeed, largely because of it, slavery still exists, especially sex slavery, where it's mostly women who are denegrated.

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Democles said...

As well as being a dark, oppressive legacy, marriage can have the power to... make you happy.

Compare the following stats

43% of those married report being very happy.

Whereas

24% of those unmarried report being very happy.

(http://pewresearch.org/pubs/301/are-we-happy-yet)

That's almost half the happiness!
Hey, I kinda these social relics.


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