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Strange but true: two days before I interview Susan Shapiro Barash about her book The New Wife, I get an email from a twenty-four-year-old friend. She tells me she's engaged, and she's going to turn down her dream job. The hours would be too long, she wrote; it would be too emotionally draining, especially if she wants to start a family. By the end of her note, the theme from Alien was ringing in my ears.
Barash, a professor of gender studies, argues that my friend isn't an anomaly. According to her research, more and more young women are turning to a new kind of marriage, seeking something they're not finding elsewhere. During our interview, sometimes she made perfect sense to me. Sometimes I felt like I was on a different planet. ? Carrie Hill Wilner
Nerve: You talk of a dramatic shift from "the '90s wife" to the wife of today. Can you walk me through that evolution?
Barash: In the '50s and early '60s, "wife" was a very prescribed role. With the feminist revolution came the idea that women are entitled to more. This led to the na?ve '70s wife, who marched to work thinking that she could have it all. By the middle of the '80s, wives realized "this isn't all I had hoped it would be," and the '90s wife really crashed.
The twenty-first-century wife is someone who finally has taken a look at the examples. There's her grandmother, who's probably still married to her grandfather. There's her mother, the baby boomer, who's disillusioned. There's her aunt who's forty and has a great job as a lawyer, but is dealing with fertility clinics. The new wife wants the self-confidence that her mother had in the workplace, the education that the '80s and '90s made a necessity, and the glamour and nourishment her grandmother had. She wants to get married younger, she wants to be available to her husband. She'll be well-educated, but doesn't feel this pull of right or wrong over missing one beat in the workplace. Her attitude is "I'll have children young, I'll go back to work and use my degree as I see fit." Women have never said that before.
Presumably, if there's a new wife, there's a husband.
In the '80s and '90s, you had the husbands who couldn't keep up with their wives. The idea of a peer marriage was important to the '90s wife, and the husband fell short because there was no model. The new wife feels that this man can keep up with her, that he won't make false promises. The equality is in the emotional commitment.
So you interviewed a hundred women?
For each section of the book.
Do your observations cross racial and economic lines?
The attitude goes across all socioeconomic lines. You have women of lower-middle-class families who are highly educated now, so she understands the freedom of making money and education but wants a husband too. She'll either marry up or marry someone ambitious. And this is consistent.
What you're saying is difficult to accept. It seems to deprioritize many things that women older than me — my mother's age, I guess — struggled very hard with.
Your mother's how old?
For a lot of those women, with opportunities came a lot of the negatives. No one anticipated the glass ceiling. How could we? We'd never been there. Now there's this sense that you can do what your mother did, but do it better. You're not so afraid of rules.
Let me bring up the arguments of two recent books. Helen Fisher discusses how the euphoria of romantic love eventually shifts into what she calls "companionate love." Laura Kipnis' Against Love argues that romance and sexual passion are desirable and that spending a lifetime together might be inappropriate.
We're going to be hard-pressed to give up the idea of romantic love. It's an idea many of our social conventions are predicated upon. Marriage is one of the last outposts of this idea, but it's also the highest and most widely recognized expression of it.
The desire for romance is understandable, but do you think it's reasonable? Aren't these women going to have to make some serious adjustments eventually?
Lust and romance may not be indefinitely sustainable, but there's a depth to companionate love which these women are prepared to work with. They realize it will take a lot of hard work, and their optimism comes from their sense that they are making active decisions.
Would these women have affairs? Even in the '50s, there were fairly high rates of female infidelity — something like thirty percent, according to Kinsey.
Well, a lot of disappointment and disillusionment precipitates an affair. The new wives are intent on not having any part of that. They want a great marriage on their own terms. In the '50s, you didn't have both of these things, even in the most attractive marriages.
What about open marriages?
They're going to be less popular than they were in, say, the '70s. What this new young wife has taken from her grandmother's model is the very committed, very available wife who doesn't stray.
But now infidelity's become understandable, often forgivable.
Well, if a wife is unfaithful now, she can take that information and share it with her husband. It's not always going to be grounds for divorce. They can renegotiate the marriage.
How important is sex in marriage to these women?
In the '50s, a lot of women married just to have sex. Today, that's really not necessary. Sex becomes something you're doing for your relationship, not just to procreate. The new wife wants sex, romance, a best friend, and she knows she can have them. In the '70s and '80s there was this societal message that you could have it all, that you had to buy into without testing. The new wife doesn't buy into anything. She figures it out for herself.
Will gay relationships follow the same patterns?
Some of the same problems, practicalities and roles will be the same — especially regarding children — but these will set their own standards. There's not the same kind of history or precedent.
Prestige aside, are domestic partnership and marriage equally viable?
In our culture at this point, marriage is the be-all and end-all. Living together isn't going to get the same respect or be as rewarding personally. I don't think that's going to change for a long time. There are exceptions, of course. Like Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
What do you think about the segment of the gay population that believes the symbolic union isn't worth the struggle, that marriage is an archaic institution, not something that should be lusted after?
In America, marriage is considered the highest expression of commitment, and although this may come from a history of heterosexual couples, no one's exempt from the message. It's understandable if there are couples who feel that the term "marriage" isn't what they want, but if a gay couple wants their union recognized in those standard terms, they deserve it, and any children they may have deserve it too. n°
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|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Carrie Hill Wilner is a Manhattanite by birth and breeding. Still, she has lived in a lot of places and done a lot of things, and will probably live in others and do more. She is pretty sure she graduated from Columbia, but they never sent her a diploma.|