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Along the way, I never recall my mother mentioning the words "husband" or "marriage" to me -- in fact, considering some of my romantic choices, I'm sure she's happy that I've remained single. My parents' unspoken agenda was to prepare me to be self-sufficient, and my teachers, friends, the media and society at large reinforced that agenda.
I'm a graduate of what Whitehead calls "the girl project." The women of my generation were the first to be raised to take care of themselves, with or without a husband. Having come of age in the era of equal rights, Title IX and contagious divorce, we were taught not to count on hubby to foot the bills.
The girl project has been a raving success. Whitehead writes: "It is not an exaggeration to say that today's young single women represent something quite new under the sun. In Western history, only a handful of the most privileged or exceptionally gifted woman -- abbesses, heiresses, artists, princesses, and courtesans -- have been able to establish and lead independent lives as unmarried women. And to achieve this kind of independent adulthood, these women usually had to rely on family fortunes, male sponsors, or the resources attached to departed husbands."
Girl project graduates, she writes, have accomplished "an independence that rests largely or completely on her own accomplishments as well as her own resources. Even more remarkable, she achieves this goal at a young age."
Marriage doesn't easily fit into the girl project. It's not that the girl project directly challenges the institution, but it does encourage girls to postpone their wedding day -- and rightly so, I believe -- in order to grow intellectually, professionally and financially on their own.
"I think that all the signals girls get from the sort of larger society and from people who are very interested in seeing women get ahead and being well educated, the idea is that they should bypass the thought of anything that is going to slow you down," Whitehead says. "I think it's institutionalized. . . This cuts very deep. It's not just one or two women. If you're serious about your life, you don't think about marriage and family until much later on."
The Waiting Game
My mother was not only the first woman, but the first person in her family to attend college. I admire her for that. In 1952, she entered the University of Kansas. Her high school accomplishments had earned her a scholarship and she worked in the dorm cafeteria to put herself through school. She studied microbiology with some ambition of attending medical school, but that changed when she met my dad. They were married when she was a sophomore and he was a junior, and it was decided that he would attend medical school while she finished her degree and then went to work. One doctor in the family was enough.
My mother takes quite a bit of credit for getting my dad through med school, not only financially but by helping him study, what with her science and Latin background. Seeing as how my dad, at 65, just learned how to work the washing machine and still can't figure out how to check the voicemail on his cell phone, I find her claim easy to swallow. Once she got the M.D. placed firmly after her husband's name, her familial duty shifted to birthing four babies and raising them practically on her own. Dad was busy working, of course.
Her story is typical of college-educated women of her generation. You went to college to educate yourself, but you also went to college to land an educated husband. By the time I entered college in 1985, things had completely changed.
The women of my generation were raised to take care of themselves. You go to college, you graduate, you work, and then, a few years down the road after graduation, you start thinking about husband and children. Only one person I knew in college married before graduation, and we all thought she was nuts. As a matter of fact, most of my married friends met their husbands after college.
College was a time to study and plan for a career, and party and have fun. Boyfriends came and went, but none of them were considered serious, long-term partners. (Whitehead cites a University of Chicago study concluding that the more educated an individual, the more sexual partners he/she has over a lifetime, because, she concludes, educated people tend to put off marriage.)