COLUMN: Statistics show progress, 'Pride and Prejudice' in the women's movement

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 12:27 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” ~Jane Austen, "Pride and Prejudice," 1813.

Some interesting statistics came out last week regarding the strides women have made as economic forces in marriage.  “A larger share of men in 2007, compared with their 1970 counterparts, are married to women whose education and income exceed their own ... A larger share of women are married to men with less education and income,” according to the study “Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage" from the Pew Research Center.

The study found that among American men and women ages 30 to 44, 22 percent of married men had wives who made more money in 2007, as compared to just four percent in 1970. The study also found in 2007, 19 percent of married women had husbands with more education, while 28 percent of wives had husbands with less education.

It may not seem revelatory today that women have gained so much ground from 1970 to 2007.  Of course, to truly understand the current economics of gender roles and marriage, we must look to the past. Before the Women's Movement of the 20th Century, the economic progress toward equality for women in marriage was tortoise-like. 

To wit, I offer the case of Miss Jane Austen, whom published four novels from 1811 to 1817, and two novels posthumously in 1818. Miss Austen’s six novels centered around maintaining England’s social structure through marriage. While political action takes place off stage in the novels, the Napoleonic wars, the War of 1812 and the establishment of a regent at the head of the monarchy, were all causes of domestic unrest in Austen’s lifetime.

But, the “truth universally acknowledged,” is that young women were seeking a single man of good fortune in order to secure their own economic and social security (not the other way around, Miss Austen is a noted ironist). A woman could not inherit money or property, and upon marriage any assets she may possess became property of her husband. Divorce was nearly impossible, and mothers had no custody rights.

It is very little coincidence that many of the marriages in Miss Austen’s novels are not only for love or passion, but are also financially advantageous for the woman. After all, Mr. Darcy is worth ten-thousand pounds per year (the equivalent of $6 million today), while Elizabeth Bennet’s family is in danger of losing their land because the family had no male heir.

All of Miss Austen’s novels tend to paint a rosy interpretation of the marriage state in the nineteenth century. It helps that Hollywood and the BBC have made a specialty of filming these stories so they are particularly attractive to modern women; after all, Miss Austen was the originator of the RomCom. But modern audiences tend to lose sight of the basic fact that it was once a woman’s only destiny to be a man’s possession.

Miss Jane Austen’s world is fascinating, but it would be badly done to foster any desire to emulate it.

Which is why the statistics on modern marriage are so telling. Laws guaranteeing equality in heterosexual marriage have been established—it has been generations since a woman has been considered the property of her husband. But this change in law didn't have nearly the material effect on the economic power of women in marriage as a sea-change in cultural expectations. Once the popularly-held belief that a woman's sole purpose was to be a man's wife was expunged, rapid progress has been made.

“This reshuffling of marriage patterns from 1970 to 2007 has occurred during a period when women’s gains relative to men’s have altered the demographic characteristics of potential mates,” the Pew Research Center reported. Americans are marrying less, and at later ages, and more women are now graduating from university than men. The strides women have made in education certainly account for much of the economic gain, with and without marriage vows.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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