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Did Feminism Cause Divorce?

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In her latest book, A Strange Stirring, historian Stephanie Coontz rewinds the tape to the 1960s, when Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, and points her historical lens on this book, which many believed sparked the feminist movement which in turn caused divorce rates to spike. Did Betty Friedan cause thousands of women to divorce? Yes, says Coontz, who is also the president of the Council of Contemporary Families and a respected Family Studies professor. But Friedan's teachings, she says, also saved many marriages and ushered in a marital era of more equality.

JB: On this site, one writer quoted Phyllis Schlafly as saying feminism was the cause of divorce and it sparked hundreds of angry comments. But in your book you agree that Betty Friedan's feminist writings did launch many divorces.

SC: Feminism didn't make good marriages go bad. But feminist reforms gave women the opportunity to get out of unhappy or unfair marriages, and in that sense feminism was the catalyst for many divorces in the 1970s and 1980s. When women no longer had to prove fault to get a divorce, many women whose marriages had been bad for years found it more possible to get a divorce. Before feminist-inspired reforms, for example, there were 42 states where a homemaker who could not prove fault in divorce (and often the criteria for fault were very stringent), had no claim at all on anything her husband had earned during the marriage, even if her housekeeping and child-raising had enabled his career. Furthermore, once feminist reforms gained women access to better jobs and outlawed discrimination in pay, hiring, and promotions, women who were unhappy in their marriages no longer had to stay married out of dire economic necessity.

There was another way that feminism destabilized marriage. When women went to work in the 1970s, whether from necessity or choice, they began to feel entitled to ask their husband to do more at home, and when their husbands resisted they felt entitled to press the issue, instead of "gracefully giving in," as the advice books of the 1950s had advised wives (but not husbands) to do in case of disagreement. So I think that feminism initially led to more outright conflict in marriages because women felt less pressure to simply put up with bad behavior or an unfair division of labor.

JB: In your book, you say that feminism still is the best hope for long-term marriages in the modern era, which contradicts what Schlafly believes.

SC. Betty Friedan was very optimistic about the possibilities for love and marriage in a more equal world and many women and men who read her book told me it helped them solve the problems in their marriages. But other women told me her book or the later growth of the feminist movement gave them the courage to leave a bad marriage.

There is no going back to a time when most women will feel compelled to enter or stay in a bad marriage just for economic security or social respectability. So today, the best way to get women once more interested in getting married and having children is for men to accept women's new insistence on equality. This is, I think, why educated women in America, once the biggest critics of old-style marriage, are now more pro-marriage and more disapproving of divorce than other groups of women who have less experience with egalitarian partners or less clout in getting their needs met in relationships.

We see the same pattern around the world today. In industrial countries where male privilege is still firmly entrenched -- in Spain, Italy, Japan, and South Korea, for example -- women are delaying marriage longer than in America, and often resisting childbearing as well. They are less likely than American women to say that marriage is a good deal.

JB: Why do men find it threatening that women may have economic power or want equality? Doesn't it reduce the pressure on them in these economically challenged times?

SC: Increasingly, men are realizing exactly that -- that having an educated, economically independent partner reduces the pressure on them to be the sole provider. Many men are also beginning to understand that participating in housework and childcare can be rewarding. But 50 years ago, most men were still very attached to the idea of having a wife who was dependent upon them both economically and intellectually. Back in 1950, female college graduates were much less likely to marry than women who did not graduate from college, and women with a PhD were especially likely to remain single. Today, however, the difference in marriage rates for college graduates or high-earning women and their less-educated or lower-earning counterparts has almost disappeared. In addition, women with higher education and/or earnings are so much less likely than other women to divorce, that by age 40, they are more likely to be married than any other group of women. Marriage rates have fallen since the 1950s for everyone except women with PhDs -- they are the only group of women who are more likely to be married today than they were in 1950.

JB: One fact I found fascinating in the book is that the average age of marriage during the 1950s was 20. Of course this generation was ripe for divorce since they hadn't yet truly discovered who they really were as people.

SC: Yes in the 1960s, the age was 20 which is a historical fluke. A the end of the 19th century, the average age of marriage was 26. Even in the late 1600's, many people had to be servants or apprentice for a long time before marrying and then in the 19th century, middle-class guys had to spend time training a vocation and often didn't marry until their 20s or 30s. Today the average first marriages occur between 26 and 28 and a little later in urban areas.

JB: What is one of the myths you debunk?

SC: That Friedan caused male-female conflict. Friedan said something very interesting in her book. She said that women often misidentified their discontents. They thought they needed a new house, or a new husband. But in fact they just needed more meaning in their lives. Many women I talked to said that reading Friedan saved their marriages. Also when women finally had discussions with their husbands about their needs, there were husbands who responded with sensitivity and their marriages improved.

JB: Shouldn't we credit Betty Friedan for making men accountable in ways that were unheard of at that time so that women finally had choices? Some of the benefits my generation now takes for granted in our own relationships are because of her teachings. You said that was part of the reason you wrote the book so that people will realize this trajectory.

SC: Actually, many young women in the 1960s criticized Friedan for not taking on male power in the home. But after the formation of the National Organization for Women in 1966, feminists pressed to repeal the "head and master" laws that gave men the final say in marriage and for liberalization of laws that made it legally and financially impossible for many women to leave a bad marriage.

JB: Some may argue though that no-fault has not helped women -- especially those whose potential earning power is less than that of a husband.

SC: When No-Fault first passed, some judges misinterpreted it as meaning that men and women were equal and that women could just go out and get a job. But remember back in 1963, homemakers had no claim on their husbands' earnings in the vast majority of states. It was feminists who first pushed for the principle that a homemaker who enabled her husband's career through family activities had a claim on his earnings if they divorce. It's important to note that the impact of No-Fault divorce is more contradictory than people realize. In every state that adopted no-fault divorce, the next 5 years saw a big spike in divorce. But in the same period, there was also a 8-16 percent decline in wives' suicides and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence, as well as 10 percent less murders by husbands. And in the 15 years since no-fault has become practically universal, we have seen divorce rates fall. Today, the availability of divorce may well tempt some people to leave a marriage that might be salvageable. But it also gives the discontented partner some leverage to demand that the couple get therapy or the partner change the behavior. And it has also let other people out of marriages that were literally hazardous to their health and safety.

JB: How has Hollywood impacted our perceptions of marriage and divorce?

SC: Hollywood overstates both the romance of marriage and the prevalence of divorce. Celebrities have divorce rates that are atypical and higher than most couples. I suspect that in celebrity marriages, there are huge egos on both sides and they do seem to encourage unrealistic expectations about falling in love. The problem with our romantic culture is that you can love someone you don't respect and the marriage can run out of gas with that formula. Respect is essential -- not just respecting your partner but being sure your partner equally respects you.

JB: Do people give up too easily? If there is an affair, many feminists feel they have to leave?

SC: It is important to put historical perspective on this discussion. In the 18th century, it was acceptable to have men have affairs and even brag about it to their brother-in-law. It was mentioned in casual conversation. In the late 19th century, there was an epidemic of venereal disease in middle-class wives because their husbands so often brought diseases home. And yet women were supposed to close their eyes and put up with it. Today we have higher standards. Maybe sometimes they are too high and rigid, but in general, most people work at their marriages.

JB: Divorce is still necessary though, you said.

SC: Yes, I think that divorce is a vital escape hatch for people stuck in marriage and it is not a sentence of doom either for adults or children. We should develop better support systems for saving or restoring potentially healthy marriages.But we should also help people who decide to divorce have healthier partings.

We know that when parents are educated about how not to involve children in their conflicts and co-parent amicably, a lot of the ill effects of divorce can be alleviated. Divorce is always painful. But we do know that kids in a high-conflict marriage or low-conflict but contemptuous ones are often better off in the long run when the parent can disengage.

JB:: Fast forward to the present. What lessons can we learn from Betty Friedan?

SC: Wait until you're at least 25 or older to get married. Get an education and job experience because a woman's economic independence leaves her more negotiating rights in marriage and more protections if she doesn't marry or if her husband dies or divorces her. Make sure you have a deep friendship and actually like the person you want to marry, because love is not enough.