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What's a Good Marriage and Who Decides? from 'Woman in a Man's Church' by Arlene Swidler

What’s a Good Marriage and Who Decides?

from Woman in a Man's Church pp. 83-105.
by Arlene Swidler
Published by Paulist Press, New York, 1972.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

If men have decided what they wanted women to be, it’s even more obvious that they have a stake in what marriage is. In the past few decades, especially as women got the vote and later went into politics, marriage has been in theory a union of two equals. Marriage was what the two individuals made it.

But this has been less true in the Catholic church. All the laws, theology, rights and rites are still determined by men, and for the most part by unmarried men at that. Take the New Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1967 (the last Catholic Encyclopedia was published in 1913, so we can expect this one to be with us a long time!). In this 1967 version, there are 20 signed articles on marriage, one on marriage counselling, four on abortion, one on contraception, one on engagement, four on divorce, one on sex, one on sex education, and one on sex in the Bible, one on courtship, and one on dating; these are all signed articles with only a few of the authors writing more than one of these 35 articles. And every one is written by a male. Most are by priests.

But while theologizing and legislating on marriage seems to be thought of as man’s work, current church thinking seems to indicate that the job of making the marriage work belongs to the woman. A man may be a salesman, doctor or teacher - and oh, yes, he’s married too; but a woman is primarily married, and then maybe a typist or nurse when there’s time.

This means a woman is pressured to plan for either marriage or a serious career, and not both together. The two options are made to seem opposed to one another. The desire for achievement - and this includes even intellectual achievement-is labeled aggressive, unfeminine. Dr. Matina Horner, who has studied the problem, writes, “Consciously or unconsciously the girl equates intellectual achievement with loss of femininity. A bright woman is caught in a double bind. In testing and other achievement-oriented situations she worries not only about failure, but also about success. If she fails, she is not living up to her own standards of performance; if she succeeds she is not living up to societal expectations about the female role. Men in our society do not experience this kind of ambivalence, because they are not only permitted but actively encouraged to do well.”

Dr. Horner’s technique to discover “motive to avoid success" was to give tests to a sample of 90 girls and 88 boys at the University of Michigan. As part of the test each was asked to write a continuation to a story: “After first-term finals, John (Anne) finds himself (herself) at the top of his (her) medical school class.” The girls wrote about Anne and the boys about John.

Fewer than ten per-cent of the men showed evidence of the motive to avoid success, but over sixty-five percent of the women did. Some typical responses:

She studies 12 hours a day, and lives at home to save money. “Well it certainly paid off. All the Friday and Saturday nights without dates, fun - I’ll be the best woman doctor alive.” And yet a twinge of sadness wonders what she really has. .

Anne feels guilty .... She will finally have a nervous breakdown and quit medical school and marry a successful young doctor.

Anne is talking to her counselor. Counselor says she will make a fine nurse.

The male responses were far different:

John has worked very hard and his long hours of study have paid off .... He is thinking about his girl, Cheri, whom he will marry at the end of med. school. He realizes he can give her all the things she desires after he becomes established. He will go on in med. school and be successful in the long run.

Sensitive parents have been aware of the problem for years. More and more they worry about the anti-intellectual and anti-achievement pressures their daughters suffer from television, magazines, and even in their schools and churches. Some parents go out of their way to find women doctors for the family; some make it a point to take children to concerts with women soloists or lectures by women specialists.

A survey of some prominent Catholic married women made in 1971 revealed they felt they had to fight the going image. One mother said, “Never let secretary, nurse, or assistant role be talked of without encouraging her to be doctor, boss, scientist-president.” And this woman added that she has special difficulties because her six-year-old daughter already tends to see herself as subordinate to her boss brothers. Another said that “the sky’s the limit” in encouraging vocational ideals for daughters.

Remaining to be tackled-and tackled vigorously-is the problem of the narrow stereotyping our society and educational systems impose on boys. Women have been complaining about being locked out of certain vocational areas. A few men are beginning to ask whether it’s any better to be locked in.

Marriage today is being seen more and more as a partnership, a sort of democratic commitment between two people. Today there is no more doubt about the equality of the sexes - it has been demonstrated that women are as intelligent as men, stay on their jobs as long as men do, have physical endurance equal to a man’s. A family is a team, making decisions communally. A lot of this new attitude comes as a result of women’s civic equality. If a woman’s vote counts as much as a man’s vote in a civic election, why should she suddenly be less important than he in making a family decision which will affect her even more immediately?

‘Way back in the last century when the whole question of women’s suffrage came up, there were many people who sensed that giving the vote to women meant the opening of the door to a lot of other possibilities. Today their fears are amusing. Orestes Brownson, the great American Catholic philosopher of the nineteenth century, predicted that husbands and wives would run against each other for office, women would run off to Congress or the battlefield instead of taking care of their children, abortion would increase “and the human race be threatened with extinction” - all as a result of giving women the vote.

Today in many places in this country women are still not treated equally by the law: they are forbidden to keep their own names, they are granted alimony, they may not go into business without their husband’s consent, they are more easily released from jury duty. But with even one woman in the US Senate and a handful in the House of Representatives women know that in theory they are equal collaborators in the government and are refusing to accept a lesser role in their marriages.

But laws are changed more easily than attitudes. And our traditions go back into dim history, where women have always been valued mostly as wives - as child-bearing animals - both in the classic Graeco-Roman tradition and in the ancient Hebrew tradition. It was Demosthenes who said, “We have courtesans for pleasure, slave women for personal service and wives to bear us lawful offspring and be faithful guardians of our houses.”

The ancient Hebrews considered women just another form of property, as did their contemporaries - and as do some of ours! A man’s house included his family, servants, animals and home, all of which belonged to him. The same concept can be found still in Paul’s writings (and other epistles) where slaves, children, and wives are told to be obedient to the paterfamilias.

This was the reason that adultery was considered so much more serious on the part of a woman. The husband’s property was being used by another man. A man’s unfaithfulness was considerably less serious; some people think it still is.

The patriarchal system of today’s family shows up very clearly in the horror with which many people hear of the suggestion that a woman should not give up her name when she marries.

A man’s wife, like his slaves in an earlier day, is expected to be identified as his. More and more women are rebelling at such a system, not because they love their husbands any less, but because they feel they too are people with their own identities. Can you imagine, they ask, a man wanting to be known by his wife’s name? A woman today expects to grow and mature all her life, not to settle into a rigid role, and she wants to continue being herself for all these years.

There are levels to the name question. If a woman does give up her own family name at marriage and take that of her husband, why should she also use his first name? Why shouldn’t she at least be Mrs. Mary Smith? In their own way, first names are perhaps even more important than family names. They are highly symbolic. In primitive cultures, to know a person’s name was to have power over himremember the story of Rumpelstiltskin? In religion a first name is extremely important. It is given in the sacrament of baptism; the name ordinarily is that of a saint with whom the child will identify and whom he or she will imitate.

Formerly sisters and priests in religious orders were given new names when they took their vows, as a symbol of a break with the past and the beginning of a new identity. The popes and some monarchs-still take on a new name as they assume office and become more an official than a person.

Some women are beginning to re-think their habits. Recently the Chicago Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women voted in convention that “Whereas, The need for communication among women for a more personal recognition is recognized; Resolved, That the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women compile all roster sheets with the woman’s first name and her husband’s first name an parenthesis. Example: Mary Smith (Mrs. John L.)”

Another level is the very use of the word Miss or Mrs. at all. The solution now being proposed is the word Ms., pronounced Miz. It’s an answer that makes a lot of people unhappy. One Catholic college chaplain protested, “But you’re taking women’s identity away.” It is true that to almost everyone it’s more important to be able to pinpoint a woman’s marital status than it is to know a man’s personal life. And unfortunately we do judge a woman to a great extent by her relations to men. The pressures on a woman to marry are strong.

When she does marry, she is most likely given the status of her husband. Perhaps this is why the higher the social class the more likely the woman is to use her husband’s first name on public occasions. Without his achievement she is nothing. When a woman on an important board was asked recently why all the women were listed by their husband’s first and last names, she said with a smile, “They prefer it that way. They know they wouldn’t be there except for their husbands.”

The status of First Lady we give the wife of the president of the country or a smaller political unit or even a corporation or university is another example of the way our society rewards nonachievement in women. Any First Lady is expected to be charming, beautiful and well dressed, but she’s not expected to do much. And none of these qualities is demanded of her. At the same time the woman who is a senator, a State official, a brilliant scientist or scholar will have far less status in the public eye: little girls will not hang her picture on their walls alongside their more glamourous role-models.

Among the upper classes, as well as those who like to think of themselves as upper class (and that includes quite a few people), a non-working wife is a status symbol. Certain groups seem to exert special pressures on their members to keep their wives out of paying jobs -doctors, armed forces officers, and ministers are typical. To some extent these wives are kept busy in their husband’s work, whether attending medical auxiliary functions, being very busy in local projects in a very visible way as service wives, or doing all sorts of unpaid sub-professional jobs in the local parish.

Betty Friedan quoted in 1963 from a “Suggested Outline for Married Couples’ Discussions” from the New York Archdiocese’s Family Life Bureau. The panels of married couples, she says, were directed to raise the question “Can a working wife be a challenge to the authority of the husband?” The engaged couples who made up the audience were to have pointed out to them that the wife who works “may be subtly undermining her husband’s sense of vocation as the bread-winner and head of the house. The competitive business world can inculcate in the working bride attitudes and habits which may make it difficult,for her to adjust to her husband’s leadership . . . .

A book on “The Executive’s Wife” states that, “Studies show that executives, more than any other group of husbands, do not want their wives to work. Unexpectedly, opposition is not primarily because of a challenge to their earning power, but because they ‘prefer their wives to be free to take care of their creature comforts and to provide the proper home setting for their own careers.’ ”

Proper home setting, of course, includes not only creating a pleasant atmosphere, but entertaining in the proper manner. The same author writes, “Today, it is agreed, very few men reach the top brass classification unless their wives are socially acceptable.”

All this makes it quite clear that among large segments of the educated and well-to-do, child-raising has nothing to do with a disapproval of working wives. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that many of these professional-wives are gone more than working wives, and that they are much more likely to be gone in the dinner hour and the evening when the children are at home.

On the other hand, devoting one’s life to raising children has never been the usual task for women in the past. Sociologist Alice S. Rossi writes, “. . . For the first time in the history of any known society, motherhood has become a fulltime occupation for adult women. In the past, whether a woman lived on a farm, a Dutch city in the seventeenth century, or a colonial town in the eighteenth century, women in all strata of society except the very top were never able to be full-time mothers as the twentieth-century middle class American woman has become. These women were productive members of farm and craft teams along with their farmer, baker or printer husbands and other adult kin. Children either shared in the work of the household or were left to amuse themselves; their mothers did not have the time to organize their play, worry about their development, discuss their problems.’’

So how does this all affect young people either married or about to get married today? Long before they are thinking about getting married or even thinking about thinking about getting married the pressures are at work.

Marriage is expected to be a partnership, with each person making a unique contribution toward the common goal. Husbands and wives ought to be chosen for most of the same qualities we choose best friends and business partners for, and then something else besides. Society however expects us to choose our mates on qualities like prettiness and vivaciousness or athletic ability and money. Pressures differ from age group to age group and class to class, but almost anyone honest can think of someone of the opposite sex who would make a great friend and companion but is too tall or too short, too athletic or too bookish, too dark or too light, or just not good-looking enough. Even priests were heard to complain about Jacqueline Kennedy’s marriage to someone as old and apparently as unattractive as Mr. Onuses.

When two people do find themselves attracted to one another, the whole question of sexual morals comes to plague them. There seems to have been a double standard of sexual morality from the beginning of time, or at least since primitive man discovered that those babies had something to do with what he and his cave woman had been doing lying on the bearskins at night.

As it’s always been the women who had the babies, it’s always been easier to see whether the woman had been having sexual intercourse; and as the children have been the property of the husband, the need to know that the wife’s children were also his has been important. The Old Testament treated adultery in women as much more serious than adultery in men. Women have protested this double standard. The women’s convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, which was the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement in this country, resolved that “the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behaviour that is required of woman in the social state should also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.”

Catholics too often support the double standard by stressing that the woman is responsible for keeping the relationship on the proper level before marriage. All sorts of unfortunate attitudes follow from this. The woman has been so imbued with the idea that men are so sex-driven that they are really fairly irresponsible that she often confesses to feeling insulted if the man doesn’t make some sort of attack at least the second or third time out. And the man can be made to feel that there’s something peculiar about him if he does have himself under control. The whole idea of “machismo,” strongly sexed masculine activity, thrives in many Catholic countries, as does the double standard.

When a couple marries, sexual adjustment is made more difficult if the male has been brought up to display and encourage his sexual drives and the woman has been trained to call the halt. And if the woman has become accustomed to holding the power of decision, and directing the man’s impulses into all sorts of romantic channels, real live sex can come as a shock.

There are lots of other problems besides sexual adjustment after marriage, especially for a woman who wants to continue acting as a responsible self-directed adult.

Sociologists have studied family powersystems, measuring power by who makes the family decisions on things like choosing the husband’s job, the family car, and the house and deciding on vacations, life insurance and whether the wife will work. Recently Dair L. Gillespie has argued that our whole economic and social structure works against an equal voice for women in marriage.

The young couple may start out as more or less equal in the family decision-making process: they may even have talked it all over and decided that they will work together to keep things that way. But even the law is against them: the woman is obliged to take her husband’s name, and she is legally bound to perform the housework and take care of her husband and children and he is legally obliged to support the family. If the wife works too, that’s fine, but it’s just an extra.

Whether the wife works or not, the husband’s job will take a major role in determining the family life. If the wife works, she will automatically receive less money except in very rare cases, and with the husband the bread-winner, his job takes precedence. Sociologists have found that the higher the husband’s occupational prestige, the higher his income, and the higher his status, the more power he has at home. Of course where to live, when to take a vacation, whom to be friends with, all depend largely on the man’s job.

Later on, financially successful families tend to move to the suburbs. There, with the wife comparatively immobile, she will feel more and more isolated from what’s going on in the world. She will lose contact with her old friends and depend more and more on her husband for knowledge of the world and for social life. She feels less and less like an equally intelligent adult.

As children come, she devotes her time to them and feels less and less capable of coping with problems in the world. Often she gets to the point where she dreads going to new places or travelling alone; she doesn’t trust her judgments on politics or economics; she’s afraid to tackle any community problems involving organizing and decision-making.

More and more women are growing unhappy over the situation. The more they are educated, and the more they read about all those time-saving devices, the more wrong it seems for them to be out of the mainstream of life. Other women, though happy raising their children, find themselves with nothing to do as they get older. The idea of returning to a job prepared for years before sounds much easier than it really is, and going back to school takes more courage and energy than most people - men or women - can pull together. How many men are willing to undergo job retraining?

The husband usually gets the blame for all this. But, although he is less likely to say so, he may be just as unhappy and confused about how all this happened to two such well-meaning people.

He, for example, though he does get out of the house each day to go to work, bears all the worry about making a living and getting a promotion - no wonder the life-expectancy statistics favor women! His wife, remembering that she had to give up her job and chance at some sort of professional status to assume his status, feels she has a right to rise to executive-wife or First Lady. She’ll be helpful to him in climbing the ladder, but he knows that she is expecting him to be the man who gets the big promotionand so are the wives of nine other men. Nine of the ten will be disappointed, and nine men will be made to feel failures. When giving a wife the money to get the right kind of clothes and be active in the right kinds of activities is a sign of success, it does degrade the wife; but what happens to the man who doesn’t make that sort of money?

Granted that it’s difficult for a wife to have to move to a new neighborhood or a new part of the country to accommodate her husband’s job, but often it’s he who’s left with the responsibility of supplying her with a social life in his spare time.

The feminine wife can become quite a burden.

Lots of people who say they are shocked by the idea of the working mother really are more concerned about “depriving the male of his primary bread-winning role” or “reducing the husband to co -housekeeper.” Both of these are possibilities, and there are many people, mostly women, of course, who think it might be a good idea if these things really came about.

Children themselves need not really suffer. In fact, specialists who have studied the facts point out that psychological problems and juvenile delinquency are no greater for children of working mothers than for other children.

There can be great advantages to working parents. The father can grow much closer to his children if he takes on his share of child-rearing, and some men are discovering that being a father is just as fulfilling as being a mother is for a woman. Any woman who has been both a working and a non-working mother knows that when she has fewer hours with her children she really spends those hours carefully - it’s the quality, not the quantity, that matters. An intelligent educated woman with a job has her own plans and future to think about, and she is far less likely to become an overbearing mother directing her children’s lives.

Just as the liberation of the Blacks means a liberation for the Whites, we cannot liberate one sex without the other. Sidney Cornelia Callahan, who is much concerned with what she calls “children’s liberation,” sums it up nicely: “With the proper safeguards for everyone’s unique situation, we can create social solutions in which men, women, and children can be liberated together.”

At the end of 1971 two lists of Most Admired Women appeared in the daily press. The first was a result of a poll by Good Housekeeping magazine, which sent a slate of 28 candidates to a sampling of one thousand members of its consumer panel. The second list comes from the Gallup Poll, in which 1504 persons, chosen to represent the entire adult population 18 years and over, were asked to list their choices without being given any suggestions.


1. Mrs. Rose Kennedy

2. Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower

3. Miss Pearl S. Buck

4. Patricia Neal

5. Mrs. Richard M. Nixon

6. Golda Meir

7. Mrs. Ethel Kennedy

8. Helen Hayes

9. Indira Gandhi

10. Princess Grace of Monaco


1. Golda Meir

2. Mrs. Richard M. Nixon

3. Mrs. Joseph P. Kennedy

4. Indira Gandhi

5. Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower

6. Mrs. Aristotle Onassis

7. Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson

8. Mrs. John N. Mitchell

9. Senator Margaret Chase Smith

10. Rep. Shirley Chisholm

What’s a Good Marriage and Who Decides?

How many of these women are on the lists by virtue of their achievements? How many are included because of their marriages?

How many are engaged in “feminine” professions? How many could compete on a bi-sexual list of most admired people?

What differences do you see in the two lists? How do you account for the variations?

Try making your own list.

A psychology professor tells about his experiences in Men’s Liberation discussion groups:

“A man must never admit to being hurt. That ruse starts with the young boy roughed up in a game who learns to shrug it off and say it’s nothing. In later years, executives are conditioned out of humaneness: they are promoted for their ability to make the ‘hard decisions’; which really means they’ve run roughshod over the human factors in a situation ....

“One man mentioned how embarrassed he was when he checked into a big hotel one day, and since he was carrying both his own and his wife’s luggage, she held the doors open for him. He worried about what the doorman, the reservation clerk and the other hotel guests might be thinking of him. Then he got furious with himself for even being bothered by the whole ridiculous thing. From that story we got into a whole thing about why he was carrying the bags in the first place ....

“Another fellow . . . found himself really threatened when someone in his family suggested they didn’t like their family name and wanted it changed. He suddenly realized that it was a traumatic thing for him to consider giving up his last name, and he said he’d never realized before that, ‘Only men have real names in our society, women don’t.’ . . . He worried about his professional standing, colleagues trying to contact him -all kinds of things that women face as a matter of course when they get married ....

“One of the things that came out in our discussion groups was that most of us had always been uncomfortable about sports. We knew we were supposed to be interested, and so we gradually fell into the pose. If you’re an American male and don’t recognize all the World Series players, you have little in common with other men-most of whom have learned all that stuff simply because it’s expected of them." (Jack Sawyer, interviewed in New Woman, Feb. 1972, pp. 74 ff.)

To what extent do women contribute to forcing men into a masculine stereotype?

Was Jesus a liberated man?

How do men’s liberation and women’s liberation complement each other?

In The Executive’s Wife, the author-herself both an executive and executive’s wife-writes:

“Today, it is agreed, very few men reach the top brass classification unless their wives are socially acceptable. In fact, at the annual meeting of one of the country’s most powerful corporations, the chairman of the board insists that the wife of each officer sit directly behind her husband. It is his public tribute to the invaluable performance of the distaff side.” (Ninki Hart Burger, The Macmillan Company, 1968, p. 119.)

How does such an attitude affect a marital relationship?

How does it affect the choice of mate a man or woman makes?

What happens when a board officer has a husband instead of a wife?

Ralph Nader writes:

“Our present retirement-security system is fragile at best, but particularly unfair to women. Our society encourages a woman, sometimes against her will, to stay home and take care of her family, and then penalizes her later for not having worked. Under the present law, a wife can receive only a portion of her husband’s Social Security benefit if he dies. Widows are regularly excluded from pension benefits their husbands have earned.” (“How You Lose Money by Being a Woman,” McCall’s Jan. 1972, p. 65.)

The Catholic Church has been one of the strongest forces in American society encouraging women not to take outside jobs. To what extent have we compensated women for their sacrifices?

Do we give them recognition for their talents? Do we protect them from financial need?

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