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According to statistics cited in Whitehead's book, a quarter of 24-year-old college educated woman today are married, compared to more than half 40 years ago. In 1970, the median age for a woman entering her first marriage was 21. Today, it's 25. For college-educated women, it's 27. But, Whitehead warns, that latter statistic is misleading. It implies that women are putting off marriage to a later age, as if our would-be husbands are standing in line waiting for their cue. That's not the case. What Whitehead discovers is that, by the time many women are ready to marry, the social structure for courtship has all but evaporated, leaving single women and men at a loss to find each other.
According to Whitehead, there are three venues in which potential brides and grooms have traditionally met one another: school, church and family. In our mothers' youths, the rules were clear. You met a guy at school/church/via a family member and you dated. When things got serious, you were ceremoniously "pinned" or went "steady" as a step toward the altar. You might even have pre-marital sex, but it was just that: pre-marital sex, as in we've had sex so this is serious so we'll get married sometime very soon. None of this "let's live together first" business. The guy either bought the cow or went home without the milk.
Today, educated women tend to put off marriage. But when they do decide to settle down and start a family, the social structure to support that ambition has disappeared. School is over, the family's living five states away, and church isn't a necessity like it used to be. After the bar scene gets old and the workplace fails to deliver, what are we left with?
The courtship structure for older adults, Whitehead's "relationship" system, has emerged to take its place, but the rules are ambiguous, even nonexistent, the goals undefined. According to Whitehead, being a marriage-minded woman caught in a relationship-oriented world "is like being an Amish woman at a rave. . .the process of finding a life partner is often chaotic, unintelligible, and full of unexpected twists."
Take living together, for example. Three decades ago cohabitation was a social faux pas reserved for unshaven men dressed in wife-beaters and women of questionable repute. Today it's not only socially acceptable but is often viewed as a step toward marriage. Sometimes it is. Just over half of couples living together end up getting married, according to Whitehead's research. And the rest? Females often view cohabitation as an evolutionary step in the relationship, while men tend to see it as a free ride -- a way to avoid commitment while enjoying the comforts of home.
"I think there is a feminist case to be made against living together," Whitehead says. "It becomes really easy to fall into premature care-taking habits. I think even the most progressive and liberated women -- for reasons I can't entirely fathom -- still enjoy taking care of someone, and very often that becomes taken for granted. And without the rights as if you were married to put your foot down and say, "that's not going to happen,' women fall into the trap of doing too much."
Even as I write this I can hear the shouts and murmurs of women and men alike. Personally, I can only draw from my own experience, and, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I think she's right. For five years I lived with a guy whom, I assumed, I would marry. That never happened. What did happen was that we shared a home for which I, by default, became responsible for managing. I did all the cleaning and laundry, most of the cooking, wrote out the checks and walked the dog, all while working full time. We remained in a state of romantic stasis -- him not wanting to commit, me not wanting to rock the boat. When we did finally break up, I realized I had no rights. Consequently, he wound up with 60 percent of the profits on the house, the furniture and the dog, which I had helped raise.
The Girl Project
When I was growing up, my parents' goal for me was always college. The question was never if or when, but where. My parents bolstered my sister's and my academic careers with plenty of positive reinforcement. We were told how smart and talented and special we were. Even my sister, the pretty one, received sparse commentary on her looks. We were expected to exceed in upper level high school courses and to be accepted into major universities. Community college was out of the question, and trade school wasn't even in the Chesky vocabulary. My sister breezed through high school and college with the grace of a ballerina. My educational path was rockier, but I made it through nonetheless. My parents' collective sigh on my college graduation day must have spawned a tornado somewhere.