Marriage: A feminist institution

By Glenn T. Stanton | February 9, 2016

What empowers women more than anything else? You might be surprised. 

G.K. Chesterton defined feminism as an effort to avoid being feminine in any way. He was accurate to the extent that everything radical feminists have advocated regarding sexuality and family relationships calls for women to deny their womanhood in an effort to be like men. This has occurred primarily in three areas: abortion, sexual aggression and cohabitation.

And yet, research shows that marriage, curiously, has done the most to not only level the playing field between men and women, but to actually shift the balance of power in women’s favour over the last few millennia.


Key feminist leaders have literally proclaimed abortion to be a “sacrament.” Pregnancy – a powerful, profound and obviously unique feminine quality – was not seen as a virtue, but as a weakness to be overcome. “How can women keep up if they are constantly being dragged down by bearing children?” was how the thinking went. What feminists failed to grasp was that a woman’s ability to present the next generation of humanity to the world might not be a weakness, but rather an immoderate power.

Interestingly, women who came of age since the 1980s and ’90s – many raised by these same feminists – have taken a more honest and higher view of the virtue of their fertility. As a result, support for abortion has been slipping among young women in recent years, according to Gallup polls. These younger women understand that abortion is contrary to their female hearts.

Sexual aggression

Sexual expressiveness was the second development pressed by feminists. Back in the day, we were told it was fine for a man to show up on his wedding night with his virginity long gone. But we had names for women who could not honestly wear white on their big day. Undeniably, it was a double standard.

The feminist solution was not to have men act more virtuously, but to encourage women to be more like men sexually. Women would no longer be sexual victims if they met the man on his terms, becoming more sexually aggressive. This was supposed to be empowerment. But it ended up hurting women and playing right into the male script of sexual opportunism.

In the last decade, there have appeared a number of very strong – and for some, unexpected – books on how this “levelling of the sexual playing field” has played itself out.

The first of these, Unprotected, was written in 2006 by Dr. Miriam Grossman, a campus psychiatrist at UCLA. Grossman recounts how she was growing increasingly disgusted to the point of anger by the way the campus hook-up culture was ravaging her students’ bodies, hearts and psyches. Her professional experience was exactly opposite of those who believe men and women are essentially the same, save for some obvious plumbing differences. She reveals that her patients – young students who regularly came to her office for physical and emotional help due to their frequent and casual sexual exchanges – were nearly always women. Clearly something was not right.

Next came Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp. It draws from her extensive research and interviews with students at leading universities on how they are experiencing the hook-up culture – an environment of supposedly quick, clean and impersonal sex. But Stepp discovered what the author of Unprotected realized through her work. “The girls I observed,” Stepp notes, “almost always ended up disappointed” by these emotionless, commitment-free sexual exchanges. And although “they don’t admit it readily,” she adds, “young men are as dissatisfied with hooking up as young women.”

Prof. Donna Freitas wrote a third book, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses. She interviewed college students nationwide, discussing their experiences and views on sexuality. She found that as these young women become sexually aggressive and more experienced, they are neither enjoying nor being fulfilled by the experience. “They slowly learn to shut themselves down emotionally, so much so that they don’t even seem to feel anymore,” she observes. “They tell me time after time they feel they can’t afford to.” This is far from empowerment.

Let’s just live together

Cohabitation was the third feminist development. Many factors led to its quick rise in the 1960s and ’70s. Among the earliest was the idea that marriage oppressed women because it was a confining transition to a life of housecleaning, cooking, doing dishes, providing sex on their husbands’ demand, chasing after hordes of children and giving up nearly all their important life goals and dreams. At least that was the picture feminists painted.

The solution, they believed, was cohabitation. The couple would bring both their incomes into the piggy bank and share it equally. They would rise above the oppression of the old domestic gender order and equally split the drudgery of household chores. And since women could easily leave the no-strings-attached relationship at any time, the man would be more likely to treat his woman the way she wanted to be treated, for fear of losing her to a better man.

As with abortion and sexual expressiveness, we’ve had decades to see how these ideas about cohabitation actually worked out. In Chapter 7 of my book, The Ring Makes All the Difference, I present the research showing that cohabitation hurts both men and women – but it hurts women more deeply because the female nature thrives within committed relationships. Women in cohabiting relationships tend to be given false hope from their man about the future of their relationship, have less influence in ending the relationship if it goes bad and are more likely than wives to be forced to work outside the home, whether they want to or not.

This brings us to explore why marriage is actually a feminist institution, in the best sense of understanding the empowerment and protection of women.

Women rule the world through marriage

Among all the human-driven forces in the world – business, education, media, etc. – there is one clear power that’s greater than each of these. It actually drives them all. It is simultaneously simple, but complex; soft, but strong; reserved, but highly influential; subdued, but controlling. This one thing drives humanity and shapes its future.

It is a woman’s prerogative to say “yes” or “no” to a man’s sexual interest in her.

Sex is a divine thing, the first activity God had Adam and Eve pursue. It is our most natural and powerful drive. However, all people in all cultures must be taught how to control and protect it, or very bad things happen.

Therefore, sex is not only a private act, but also a very public one.

It is a human and cultural universal that the man usually approaches the woman, who then gives or has given him a subtle red, yellow or green light. If you doubt this, consider that men who take sex without the woman’s permission are seen the same way in all cultures: Nowhere are they idealized by either male or female, but instead they’re deplored and punished. Women control the turnstile to the world of sex.

The market price of sex

Roy Baumeister of Florida State University studies human sexuality from an economics perspective. This curious angle teaches us something essential about the importance of marriage: In all human cultures, female sexuality has greater market value than male sexuality because female sexuality is simply harder to get. Thus, women control the market by setting the market price. As such, they hold the upper hand; the man must negotiate with the woman.

This is colourfully described as a human universal by Margaret Mead in her book, Male and Female:

In these primitive societies, before marriage, it is the girl who decides whether she will or will not meet her lover under the palm tree, or receive him with necessary precautions into her house, or in her bed . . . He may woo and plead, he sends gifts and pretty speeches by an intermediary, but the final choice remains in the hands of the girl. . . . A mood, a whim, a slight disinclination, and the boy is disappointed.

Once again, if you question this power, consider that men who take sex without the woman’s permission are seen the same in all cultures: as criminals. In no culture are they idealized by either male or female, but rather they’re deplored and punished by the culture.

A man who must win the heart of a woman, not to mention her hand in marriage, before he gets access to her is a man who acts dramatically different than a man who has to expend no real effort for such access. This is perhaps the first and most basic sociological fact. And women tend to prefer the former as a gentleman while the latter is seen as a cad. All cultures have various names for women who go for the second type – and such names are generally spoken by other women.

Women make men behave

Anthropologists find the most serious social threat to every society is the problem of the unattached male. Gail Collins, the first female editorial page editor for The New York Times, wrote an important and deeply interesting book titled America’s Womenwhich examines women’s influence in American culture. In a 2003 interview with National Public Radio on her key findings, Collins bluntly stated, “The most important implicit role women play in society is to make men behave.”

Among her examples is the 1607 founding of Jamestown by British investors. The new colony was not producing goods and profits as intended; when investigated, it was determined this was because the colony consisted exclusively of men who were at “their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streets,” as one observer at the time noted.

Women weren’t present, so the men did what they wanted – which was pretty much goofing off. The work would be done tomorrow, they rationalized. The first women to come to the colony – sent by the British investors to become the wives and motivators of these men – found themselves “marooned in what must have seemed like a long, rowdy fraternity party, minus food,” explains Collins. In other words, men will be boys. But these women got the men working, one thing led to another, and presto! America happened – because of the sexual, emotional and domestic power of women.

This is no small thing, and it’s what has built every other civilization. Society develops manners and a work ethic because women exist.

Collins also clarifies that the battle women launched for the right to vote was not motivated by lofty feminist ideals of power and equality, but by something more domestic. In the 1890s, ten times more women in New York belonged to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union than all the suffrage groups combined. These wives united and organized to create a massive American social movement that eventually attained the right for women to vote, so that they could vote in temperance – fuelled by their desire to keep their men and their paychecks at home and out of the taverns.

Margaret Mead shows that this phenomenon isn’t unique to the founding of the United States:

In every known human society, everywhere in the world, the young male learns that when he grows up, one of the things he must do in order to be a full member of society is to provide food for some female and her young. . . . [E]very known human society rests firmly on the learned nurturing behaviour of men.

No society has found a more powerful mechanism than marriage for this essential task. Not even close. And it’s not just marriage that does it, but women who do it through marriage.

In his 1986 book, Men and Marriage, George Gilder surveys the effects of women’s influence through marriage:

[They] transform male lust into love; channel male wanderlust into jobs, homes and families; link men to specific children; rear children into citizens; change hunters into fathers; divert male will to power into a drive to create. Women conceive the future that men tend to flee . . . The prime fact of life is the sexual superiority of women.

Prof. George Akerlof of the University of California at Berkeley, awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, presents compelling evidence on how marriage changes men. In a celebrated 1997 lecture, he explained, “There is no question that there is a very large difference in behaviour between single and married men . . . that men settle down when they get married; if they fail to get married, they fail to settle down.”

Gilder sums up these truths succinctly: “Women control not the economy of the marketplace but the economy of eros: the life force in our society and our lives.” He adds, “What happens in the inner realm of women finally shapes what happens on our social surfaces, determining the level of happiness, energy, creativity, morality, and solidarity in the nation. These values are primary in any society. When they deteriorate, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put them back together again.”

Women rule the world, and they do so through the insistence on marriage. Where marriage is weak, women are more likely to be used and cast off by men. As a result, a marriage-lax culture is weak and on the road to disintegration. As with any market, women become more powerful when they dictate that access to their cherished sexuality happens only when commitment is high. The higher they set that price, the more powerful and influential they become. This is what marriage does and why it serves women, as well as men, so powerfully.

Originally published in the May, 2014 issue of Citizen Magazine © 2014 Focus on the Family.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.

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