Why getting hitched is the real hitch for women

By Carol Sarler (THE TIMES, 02/01/07):

For those who like to begin every new year with predictions of the end of civilisation as we know it, here’s a cracker: married women are officially in the minority for the first time. Furthermore, the rise of the singleton is clearly going to continue with some ferocity, given her marked showing among the younger set: fewer than one in three women in her late twenties is married, compared with 85 per cent as recently as 30 years ago.

Thus, in a single generation, crumbles the aspiration that has steered centuries, during which marriage has traditionally been the highest aim of women (and their mothers), propelled by a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of good sense must be in want of a husband.

The change, without doubt, is on the part of women rather than attributable to any increased reluctance among men — as evidenced by yet more figures from the Office for National Statistics, showing that men who divorce are far more likely to give marriage another shot, while divorced women, once bitten, are twice shy of committing again.

In other words, their own experience has taught them what their younger sisters are working out for themselves: that marriage, these days, simply isn’t much of a deal for women. Certainly it services men and certainly, too, studies consistently show that more children thrive in homes with wedding rings aboard. Then again, plenty also thrive outside such conventional arrangement — a consideration easily invoked by a woman beginning to ask: “Bully for everyone else, but what’s in it for me?”

The blurring of the once careful demarcation of the respective roles of husband and wife has not served the latter well. Early feminists predicted that the second part of their struggle would be harder than the first; Gloria Steinem, in particular, railed that equality in paid labour would fall far short of victory without equality in unpaid labour and she is now proved to have been right. Where a husband used to bring home the bacon and a wife used to cook it, now she brings it home and cooks it; where both husband and wife work the same hours outside the home, she still does five times the work within it; where there are children she is overwhelmingly likely to be the one responsible for their maintenance and the convolutions of, for instance, their childcare arrangements.

It is no wonder that we encounter newly divorced women revelling in what feels almost like leisure: all the chores they did while married still need doing in exactly the same way — the only difference is that now they’re not cooking his bacon too. Husbands, they have discovered, can be darned hard work all by themselves.

Not that the divorce came as much of a surprise. One of the selling points of marriage to a woman used to be that it would provide security for her into her old age, teeth, lines and jowls notwithstanding. By contrast, approximately half of contemporary marriages will end in divorce — so she can strike security from her list marked pro.

Another selling point was protection: the wide-shouldered, steely-jawed, testosterone-fuelled barrier between a woman and harm’s way. Today, if we are to believe research from some women’s organisations, a quarter of wives will suffer at the hands of the protector himself. Whether this represents an increase in domestic violence or just in its reporting we cannot know; its prominence in public awareness, however, cannot but add to the notes of caution.

And then, of course, there is the matter of money. Once, all manner of misfortune seemed a fair swap for the working man’s wages that would compensate in measures of warm roofs and full stomachs. Now, at one end of the financial scale, we have women forlornly chasing the price of a hot meal from the Child Support Agency — or whichever phoenix is next planned to rise from its discredited ashes — while slowly realising that if they had remained single and on state benefit in the first place, life would be greatly eased.

At the other end of the financial scale, new indignities are piling up. In my own social circle we already have three instances of this: the woman married in the time-honoured way. Fuelled by that crazy little thing called love, houses were bought in joint names. Then, taking advantage of evolving career opportunities for women, the woman became the main breadwinner; he idled around, she did the day job as well as raising the children, until he not only buggered off with another but took with him half of the value of the home for which she had effectively paid everything, leaving her in significantly reduced circumstances.

So what, I hear you say. That has been happening to men for years. And so it has — but men have very, very rarely been left to share those reduced circumstances with the children. Yet again, the new order merges badly with the old: the new lets her earn the assets he strips; the old says that nappies are still her job, not his. So she must now rue that if only she had kept all that was hers for herself, never cementing a partnership, what a wiser, wealthier gal she’d have been.

Politicians of every stripe profess to despair of the decline of marriage, even though we know they would be bereft without such a convenient — if wholly unproven — scapegoat for all ill. I suspect that they need not worry; that the decline will continue with or without their help. The scale of the exodus of young women from orthodox union, along with their reasons for it, are such that it will take an awful lot more than a tax break here or there to change their minds.