Back in the 1960s when Betty Friedan wrote that seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, she set a butterfly into the ethers of gender politics, one which would eventually cause a cyclone later. Many believed that this book was to blame for the sudden spike in dissatisfaction amongst the middle class married woman at the time, leading directly to the rise of divorce rates in the post 60s era. But would a book spike dissatisfaction, or would it merely hold up a mirror to something that has already begun growing mould and needs to be consigned to the bin of wrong decisions?
Author John Gray who wrote the bestselling Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus blames feminism for the spiraling divorce rates. To quote him from an interview back in 2014, which isn’t so long ago when you think of it, “The reason there’s so much divorce is that feminism promotes independence in women. I’m very happy for women to find greater independence, but when you go too far in that direction, then who’s at home?” There’s a fair bit of assumption in that statement that it is the woman who needs to be at home, but one lets that pass. As one does the implication that feminism should promote independence amongst women but in permissible limits so as to not rock the boat too much. But feminism is a spectrum of rights, which in turn have opened up a plethora of choices for women in terms of life decisions and career which might gasp, actually, empower them to think about themselves.
Perhaps it made women realize that they are important, and that they need to stand up for their needs and desires. Perhaps it helped the growing acceptance of divorce and remarriage in our society
But the moot point is, did feminism have an impact on good marriages? Did it make them go bad? Or was its impact only confined to the marriages where the women were already battling with a little niggle of dissatisfaction to begin with and feminism proved to be the tipping point.
Feminism concurrent with the pill, gave women reproductive independence. Many women got out of the house and into the workforce in the 1970s. What this meant is that women were no longer willing to do it all (though on most days, we are still guilty of it anyway while wearing our Mrs Martyr of the Universe sash and tiara), and need their husbands to pitch in more at home. Probably, conflict did intensify because women were tired of dealing with the very unfair division of labour that does still exist in most homes. (Ah, some battles of those battles we still fight on a daily basis including those of wet towels on the bed and night feeds.)
Feminism concurrent with the pill, gave women reproductive independence. Many women got out of the house and into the workforce in the 1970s
While Friedan’s writing did give women the courage to walk out of bad marriages, it also gave weight to the concept of equality in marriages. There’s one way of looking at what Friedan said in her book, she wrote that while women acknowledged that they were discontented with their lives, they often pinpointed the reasons down to factors often that had nothing to do with their discontent—the house, the husband and children being often the first casualties. Increasingly, men have realised that having an 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. What feminism did bring to the table is the recognition that not only is economic independence an exit route from a bad marriage, but it can also give a woman more negotiation space in a marriage.
A 2015 survey conducted of over 2000 heterosexual couples found that women were the ones who initiated divorce proceedings in almost 70% of the cases in marital relationships. In non marital relationships, the percentage of men versus women opting out of the relationship was equal. This is data from the US though. Relationship counselors state that when they do see couples coming in for therapy, and opting for divorce it is more likely than not the wife who is expressive about her need to change things in the marriage. The men, according to reports, are okay with letting things run along as they are and hoping time helps resolve issues. There is no one size fits all reason for divorce. Reasons can range from the pure and simple incompatibility, either regular or sexual, in law issues, financial issues, physical and mental abuse, neglect, adultery, addictions and more.
What did feminism bring to this table?
Perhaps it brought about increased expectations of what marriage needs to provide, not merely in terms of material value but also in terms of emotional and sexual fulfillment. Perhaps it made women realize that they are important, and that they need to stand up for their needs and desires. Perhaps it helped the growing acceptance of divorce and remarriage in our society—women (and men) aren’t compelled to stick it out in marriages that aren’t working for them anymore. There is also the wonderful divorce by mutual consent that is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to divorce laws—letting couples part ways without the animosity and unpleasantness that would inevitably become part and parcel of any divorce. All feminism did is that it made women know that marriage is no longer a necessity but a choice, and that in itself is an empowering realization.