“Feminism absolutely ruined things for women in this country.”
I sighed and didn’t bother to hide the fact that my eyes lifted toward the ceiling as I looked at my mother to my left. She sat in a one-piece bathing suit, legs and a great portion of her neck exposed to the sun as she sipped on a beer. The man who would become my stepfather—though he and my mother had been living together for years—sat to her left, talking with my brother as other people from the hotel milled about us.
I arched my eyebrow. “Uh huh.”
She either did not hear me or pretended not to and continued on her rant about how men used to be men and how everyone knew what they were supposed to do in society before feminism came along. Half of all marriages end in divorce, she said, and this was mostly feminism’s fault.
It would have been futile to point out to her that her no-fault divorce, the fact that she was able to live with another man without marrying him, and the fact that she could do so and still see her kids, were all thanks to feminism. So I just gave her my “you know you’re wrong” smirk, she lovingly called me “brat child,” and we moved on with our day.
But I’ve thought about her claims a lot over the past few years, and while I do not think feminism has at all made things worse for women, I do suspect that the advent of feminism is likely the root cause for the high divorce rate in our country. But, unlike my mother, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Today, Aeon magazine published an interesting and disturbing backwards-glance into the world of 1950s and 60s marriage counseling advice. While many people understand that the 50s and 60s were not bastions of opportunity for women, the blatant and unapologetic enforcement of gender roles and women’s subservience to men may be surprising to 21st Century readers. In one popular advice column, a woman writes in saying her husband beat her and abused her in front of people and children. The columnist’s response?
The counsellor wrote that Elsa was ‘jolted and shocked when I told her she was partly at fault’. This wife needed to be convinced out of her own self-righteous understanding of the situation, the counsellor argued. ‘If she wanted a serene family life, she would have to learn to give Josh what he wanted from their marriage and thereby help him control his temper.’
Sadly, the example does not appear to be isolated. The same magazine published another column that described the woman walking in with a purple bruise on her face, yet chided her for not accomplishing her tasks efficiently. Sure, her husband had a temper, but she was responsible for not provoking it.
The examples, even the less extreme ones, have the same ring to them: It’s the woman’s responsibility to fix her errors and adhere to her role. Her husband is right, and she must submit to him.
All the while, the divorce rate during the 50s and 60s is the lowest observed in the 20th and 21st centuries. If we assume that there was equal marriage satisfaction in the 50s and 60s as there is today (and I see no reason to assume otherwise), you have an incredibly low divorce rate, but half of married people—most likely women—were miserable.
At the end of the 60s, the divorce rate skyrocketed until it reached its zenith in the 1980s, after which it has been declining ever since.
It is no coincidence, I think, that the rise of feminism preceded the divorce rate increase. Feminism, in all its family-destroying ways, gave us the no-fault divorce, which removed the burden from women to prove in court that their husbands had wronged them, allowing them to remove themselves from an unhappy or potentially dangerous situations without airing all the dirty family laundry in public.
Even today, a majority of divorces are filed by women, despite the fact that women are more economically disadvantaged after divorce and are deeply attached to their children. In spite of all this, women consistently report being happier after divorce than they were before.
This is what feminism has given us. Feminism allowed women—and society—to believe that women’s happiness was worth persuing. That they too were individuals and had the right to seek fulfillment and enrichment outside of their roles as wife, mother, and maid. It taught women that instead of sacrificing everything that they were to the men around them, they, too had a destiny and had the right to pursue it. And it taught us that we did not need to submit our emotional or physical needs to the approval of men.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that divorce is inherently a good thing. I am a child of bitterly divorced parents whose divorce and subsequent mishandling of being separated caused a lot of anxiety, angst, and hurt for me and my brothers, which, I hope, as we get through our early adulthood years, we can move on from. But I am saying that, all other things being equal, had my parents (and many like them) stayed married, things would have been a whole lot worse, particularly for my mother and probably for my brothers too.
So when social conservatives pine for the good ole days of the U.S.’s low divorce rate, remind them that it came at the cost of women’s happiness and sanity—and that cost is too high.