Life on hold

They might be modern, they might be successful, but some women require a mate for real happiness.
Saturday, April 14, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:35 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Many women shudder at the thought that a modern-day female might define her life by the presence or absence of a man. Supporting the idea of strong independence are those highly publicized U.S. Census figures documenting that 51 percent of America’s women are unmarried. (Never mind that the data has been criticized since it includes women as young as 15.)

We laugh at the idea of past generations who waited for marriage before they bought a house, picked out their china patterns or generally decided what they were going to be when they grew up. We know women are getting advanced degrees, heading major companies and taking the political lead. Look at Hillary, Condi and Nancy for proof positive of the modern woman.

As a 21-year-old college feminist who admits to herself that a man is a major part of life’s formula, I wonder if today’s women are simply more determined than their mothers to hide their belief that a male is needed to balance the equation. Yes, we have our names on the deed, unhesitatingly commit to Crate & Barrel dishes and demand to be taken seriously. Still, I have friends who choose where they live because certain buildings seem to breed marriage material. I have a 60-year-old aunt who constantly laments not having a man, and I know highly respected MU professors who repeatedly seek dates on and then gigglingly compare results in front of other single women. No doubt they all see themselves as capable, self-directed, complete human beings. I don’t have the nerve to challenge them about that opinion. But what do we find if we explore the theory that women, no matter what their age, often put their psychological lives on hold as they wait to mate?

Back to those figures on marriage. If we count the 4 million who have live-in boyfriends, eight times more than just 35 years ago, things look a little different. Or maybe they look the same as ever.

Evolutionary psychologist Nick Neave, a man widely quoted on such topics, is not surprised. Neave, a professor at Northumbira University in the U.K., supports the theory that a woman’s biological and psychological makeup is ultimately responsible for her urge to seek a man. Dating back to the days of hunters and gatherers, Neave asserts women are so deeply pre-programmed to depend on men that he cannot see this need “ever being eradicated completely.”

“Women in the 21st century may boast that they are truly independent for the first time in our social history,” he says. “They may tell themselves and each other that they don’t need a man. But quite simply, women are pre-programmed to feel dependent on men.”

MU biology professor Michelle Scanavino agrees. Evolutionarily, she says, we are in fact pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. Historically women have chosen mates based on the security they provide, and males have chosen theirs on physical characteristics. Today’s women, unable to totally bypass biology and their own psychological make-up, are, she says, still looking for security.

“Most women grow up in households where mom either depends on dad or where mom wishes there was a man. This establishes a pattern in which women see their mother is happier when there is a man around, so they strive for the same things,” she says. “There is good evidence in both biology and psychology that the behavior of our parents dictates our behavior later in life.”

Biology aside, Scanavino adds: “You also have to take into consideration that society plays a role in setting up this ideal. In books, movies and TV shows, women are always striving to get a man, and women are most often happiest when they land a man.”

Gloria Steinem’s claim that life without a man is like a fish without a bicycle is not something with which a lot of women will openly disagree. As a young woman, however, I can’t help but feel that many of us are just kidding ourselves. More than any generation before me, I have been given the tools to succeed independent of a man. And I will. Still, although I am not aspiring to become the next June Cleaver, if I am honest with myself I know that no matter how much my career soars, eventually I want to get married.

CortneyJo Washington, a local 22-year-old financial advisor, agrees society makes women feel guilty for acknowledging their desire and need for a man.

“Sometimes, I feel as if it is bad to still desire a man,” Washington says. “Like I should somehow have an ‘if it comes, it comes, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t’ attitude. That’s just not the way women are.”

Washington thinks many women wait for a man before making important decisions, such as buying a house. Decisions she calls “the big choices.”

Washington is not alone. Other women, like Penny Priest, talk about how that state of mind transcends culture or generation. Priest, a 33-year-old MoDOT employee and married mother of two, says women’s inclination to wait for a man is rooted in our nature, regardless of our independence in professional or educational arenas.

“All women are like this underneath,” she says. “They want a man and someone to take care of them. This is a universal: Women want to be taken care of.”

Priest recognizes the barriers women have conquered but suggests that even the most successful professional woman wants a man at the end of the day.

“Women today want to go out and be the CEO of a company, and we’re doing that,” Priest says. “But even with all of this, self-worth is still attached to having a man for a lot of women. Even bright women make the mistake of waiting too long for the man to come along. That could mean not buying a house or not investing for the future.”

Piano teacher Lisa Brandt, 41, admires the personal goals today’s women set. But she too thinks hard-wired elements of womanhood take precedence.

“Today, it’s OK for women to want things for themselves, and there is not the same rush,” she says. “But at the end of the day, you want a man to come home and talk to, a stable friend and companion. That will never change.”

Ming Hsieh, a 23-year-old nail technician, says many women feel this way but will not admit it.

“I think there are a lot of women who are waiting for a man to spend the rest of their life with before they are truly happy or make any type of financial or long-term commitments independently,” Hsieh says. “If you have someone, you feel better about yourself and honestly, many girls are just waiting to be completed.”

Not all women agree, of course. Becky Graff, a 51-year-old home builder now in her second marriage, thinks women have come a long way from the days when marriage was the only truly acceptable path. Graff, who can remember when a woman couldn’t spend the night at a man’s house without being considered a “slut,” says contemporary women have overcome their need for a man and are truly independent.

“So many women have seen what their mothers went through and all the divorce,” Graff says. “They don’t want to go through that themselves. As a home builder, I see women at 29 who are buying their second home — I think we have really turned the corner. The women who do still attach themselves to men are the small-town girls in my opinion, the ones that are stuck in the 1970s.”

Lene Johansen, who was a feminism activist in Norway and is now a freelance writer in Columbia, sees women as stuck between the social expectations set by middle-class America and the professional opportunities they now have available.

In Norway, she co-led a group called Women for Porn whose goal was to promote freedom of speech and individual feminism.

Outwardly, her writing career and two divorces seem to indicate she sets her own course. Still, Johansen has about two dates a week with men she finds through friends or online in her daily searches. Although she says it is difficult to justify the time and is happy by herself, Johansen cannot give up hope that the right guy is out there somewhere. Eventually, she would like to have a family like the one she grew up in.

“Our social expectations come from growing up and watching our own families,” she says. “Also, we seem to confuse financial independence with excessive consumption.” That is why, she suggests, women want to share the cost of living with a man. The double salary, not the male himself, is the appeal. After all, today women’s average salary is only 76 percent of a man’s.

“From an outsider’s perspective, I see that a lot of American girls have been brought up with the idea that their parents will take care of them until they get married and then a man will take over.”

Some 60 years ago, “All About Eve’s” ferociously aggressive Margot Channing (aka Bette Davis) eventually confessed to similar sentiments: “It’s one career all females have in common — being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing is any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman.”

Scream at that if you will. Yes, Channing’s assertion that a woman is not truly a woman without a man may be offensive — jarring even — but to me, and, I think, to many women, it seems to be reality.

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Megan Kinkade April 15, 2007 | 6:11 p.m.

This is a beautifully written story, interesting and compelling. I'll be honest: I opened this article expecting to leave angry. But I'm not. It's honest, down-to-earth.

My only problem: would this question even be asked of men? Of gay or lesbian relationships? Would anyone ever think "why, hm, I'm just wondering why more men aren't settling down?" (By the census, if there are that many single women, there have to be *some* single men floating around, eh?) For this article to be really honest, we need to consider those things, too. Why are we even asking?

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