Marriages are pretty precarious nowadays with so many of them ending in divorce. There is no shortage of advice out there on how to put the spark back in your marriage, how to make your marriage work, how to keep the romance going, how to save your marriage, how to fill in the blank. Are we flogging a dead horse here? If it’s so much work and takes so much darned effort, is it really worth it and should we be getting married at all? Should we just call the whole thing off?
The Israeli Merav Michaeli thinks we should. In her Ted talk Cancel Marriage, she tells us marriage is an outdated institution that began when a man needed to pass on all his earthly belongings to his rightful heir in the quest for immortality, but the only way he could do that was by owning a womb (a wife).
She also tells us the root for the word wife is the Hindu-European ghwibh-, which means shame, and vulva. Google it, she says, so I did. Etymology is nothing if not muddy, but there it was – shame and pudenda, along with a few other possible derivations.
I also discovered that woman comes from womb man and that the old German word for wife is weib which is now used if you want to insult a woman. Our language is still full of it. We say “the little woman” and “the wife”. Nobody ever says “the little man” and “the husband” do they? There’s also “wife swapping” but never “husband swapping”. There’s a long line of tradition where women are merely walking wombs and mere chattels.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Marriage keeps a woman in her place as keeper of the home, whilst the man is the master of the home. Feminism was supposed to change all that, but it didn’t, not really. Sure, women can now drive, vote, go to university and get a job, which is all awesome, but on the domestic front, it’s same same. Now instead of just working in the home, she gets two jobs, one in and one out. The childcare, cleaning, washing, cooking and shopping are still primarily her responsibilities, on top of her career or outside job. Women make up half the population of the planet but they work harder and longer hours for less money.
But this is 2015, you say, surely times have changed? But no they haven’t much. A U.N. Report just out this year states candidly: “It is clear: the global economy is not working for women.” Women spend two and a half times more hours than men on unpaid care and domestic work but the average global gender pay gap is 24%. From laborer to university professor, men earn more for the same work. Ironically, the more education a woman has and the higher up the ladder she goes, the bigger the gap. In every country from America to Australia, Botswana, France, England and Sweden, it’s the same story.
It’s not just less pay per month that is the problem but less money overall which ultimately leads to a smaller pension and poverty in old age for most women, unless they are married. “Over their lifetimes, women in Sweden and France can expect to earn 31 per cent less than men; this figure is 49 per cent for women in Germany and 75 per cent for women in Turkey.” Women get to bear our children, the next generation, but they are forced to suffer because of it. Having and rearing a child requires time away from “real” work. Even though childcare is probably the most important work of all, society punishes women for it.
With women doing most of the work around the world, they are obviously too busy to notice they own 1% of the property worldwide. In many societies, women are property. So maybe Michaeli has a point. Whichever way you look at it, the female of our species has always had a raw deal which is perpetuated by the institution of marriage, which in turn is perpetuated by governments and society.
Let’s cancel Tuesday too
At first the thought of cancelling marriage sounds outrageous, like cancelling Tuesday, as one of Michaeli’s detractors put it. But Michaeli explains that marriage is popular only because it’s the “default option” and that we have to cancel it before we even can start looking for other alternatives. When you really think about it, marriage is an institution and a social construct, not a natural law. The fact that most of us expect to do it and society, friends and family expect us to do it – get married and have the 2.3 kids – does not necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do. Maybe humans aren’t cut out for marriage after all.
The talk garnered plenty of comments, both positive and negative. Most of the negative ones were from men – the ones who stand to lose the most if marriage was cancelled but they seem to have missed the irony. Most of the women responded along the lines of “Hell, yeah!” This, of course, speaks volumes about the topic.
Years ago I read something about the happiest people in the world being single women, followed by married men, then single men and married women were a dismal last at the bottom of the pile. Go figure. Given that 66% of divorces are instigated by women, at least in the States, maybe this isn’t urban fiction after all.
Married men are also healthier than single men but married women don’t benefit health-wise that much. Married men make more money than single men and women who have ever been married are much less likely to experience poverty than women who have never been married. Hmm, let’s break this information down – marriage is good for men and marriage appears to make the world go round. If women want to be happy, they are better off not marrying but they will have to settle for being poor. I know that is a huge generalization but for millions of people around the world, this is the reality.
Marriage is sold to us in chick flicks, advertising, romance novels and of course, fairytales. Well it’s not really marriage that they are selling to women but the grand event, the wedding. This is every little girl’s dream, or so we are told, the white wedding. Ever notice how the fairytales always culminate in the wedding and not the 10 or 20 years down the line in the actual nitty-gritty hard part of the marriage? You know, the drudgery part, where she alone is in charge of her husband’s jocks and socks. Women are seduced by the whole day of ritual and ‘the dress’, the virginal white gown that can cost enough to feed a small village in Africa for an entire year.
And don’t get me started on the engagement ring scam. Diamonds are not a girl’s best friend, they are not forever, they don’t represent eternal love, they are not an investment, size doesn’t matter and they aren’t even rare. They are overpriced sparkly bits of compressed carbon that are “intrinsically worthless”. De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer admitted this in 1999. The ‘tradition’ of dropping a few months’ salary on a speck of rock is a purely invented one. It’s the result of a carefully engineered marketing strategy from 1939 designed to make us believe diamonds are everything they are not. Pictures and stories of diamond engagement rings were cleverly inserted into fashion magazines, newspapers and movies and sentimentalized with the “Diamonds are forever” campaign. Before then, they weren’t even a thing.
Men were somehow convinced to tie their status and self-worth to the amount they shelled out for a diamond ring. The hitch was that if a woman was involved in choosing said ring, she generally chose something cheaper. So the surprise proposal was born or rather concocted. It ensured that letting a man loose on his own trying to prove how successful he was would make him forget reality and spend more dosh. Brilliant – because bigger is always better.
Social media hasn’t done us any favors here with those dreadful little viral videos of one upmanship proposals. Sure, they’re terribly romantic and creative but what happens after that, when the hormones have settled down and real life sets in? Proposals just reinforce the idea of male ownership and female submission – it’s the man who buys the ring and gets down on his knee and it’s the man who asks the parents for permission to take the daughter’s hand in marriage.
The marriage register is another ‘tradition’ that isn’t. In the 1920s a Chicago department store realized the commercial potential of getting everybody to buy wedding gifts for the bride and groom. Before that it was customary only for family members but now, as long as you are invited, you feel obliged to buy a gift because it’s tradition!
We’ve all been had
From the ring to the dress, the make-up, the shoes, the reception, the photographs, the gifts and the honeymoon, weddings are a great big moneymaking industry. The dream wedding is neatly packaged and presented so successfully to women all over the world that they fall in love the whole idea of getting married and forget to pay attention to what happens afterwards. Men, on the other hand, love the whole idea of being married. Who gets the short end of the stick? She gets to be a princess for a day and he gets to be king forever. We’ve all been had folks.
In Ms. Magazine in 1971, Judy Syfers, herself a wife, describes the expectations that accompany being a wife: “I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue to care for me and my children when I need a rest and change of scene.
When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife’s duties.
My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?”
Who wouldn’t indeed? But who wants to be a wife? No matter how much men may bleat about life being hard for them, we have to face the fact that women have been getting shafted for centuries and marriage is largely to blame. It doesn’t matter how fat, ugly or old an unmarried man is, if he has money, he’s an eligible bachelor but an unmarried woman is just sad, a spinster. And because men control the vast majority of the money in the world, the unspoken notion that marrying rich is a woman’s ticket to the good life is alive and well in the 21st century.
People who earn more money automatically have more status. In a marriage, that’s generally the man because that’s the way our society has set it up. If he works whilst the wife juggles work and the children, he is likely to make more money and it’s an unwritten law that he gets to make the major decisions. And so it goes on and the rich get richer. Yup, I think it’s time to cancel marriage and come up with a better plan that suits the other half of the planet just as well as marriage currently suits men.
Autonomy is the God of women
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, says “Automony is the God of women.” Ok, the woman is married but her advice still holds true. She says her mother taught her: “ONLY BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO WOMEN WHO WAIT TO BE SAVED.” This is what the expectation of marriage does for many women – it stops them from getting out there and making a life.
“When you are waiting to be saved, after all, you see everyone who crosses your path as a potential rescuer. This is the most dangerous worldview that could possibly exist for a woman. A woman who is waiting to be saved will run into the arms of ANYONE, hide behind ANYONE, give her up power to ANYONE. A drowning woman (or a woman who perceives herself to be drowning) will climb up into any lifeboat — no matter how sketchy and dangerous that boat may be. And what happens next can often turn very quickly from a fairy tale to a horror story.
We must learn to save ourselves. We must learn to build our own lifeboats, or to swim for shore.
Teach your daughters well, Dear Ones. Teach them how to save themselves.”
If we can’t cancel marriage just yet, we should at least start here, by teaching our children well.