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A lot of fun has been had this month at the expense of longtime American feminist icon Gloria Steinem. After decades of pointing out the drawbacks of marriage, the 66-year-old Ms. Steinem recently surprised and titillated the world by going off and getting married.

The media have naturally had a field day trawling through her life’s works for the best anti-marriage quotes, the better to hold her up to ridicule. (There were some good ones, too: “Legally speaking, marriage was designed for a person and a half”; “You became a semi-nonperson when you got married.”) They couldn’t get over the irony of it, much as they have never gotten over the irony of feminist U.S. first lady Hillary Clinton sticking with her serial philanderer of a husband all these years — even after the humiliation of the Lewinsky debacle. Ideological opponents of Ms. Steinem have put it more nastily (“She was always sort of desperately eager to get married, poor thing,” said the editor of the conservative Women’s Quarterly magazine), but the underlying point is the same: All that female-independence stuff is a pose, a smoke screen, a fantasy. Who can take it seriously now, if they ever did?

Ms. Steinem, for one, still takes it seriously. “Though I’ve worked many years to make marriage more equal, I never expected to take advantage of it myself,” she deadpanned in a news release after the wedding. Interestingly, her fellow feminists seem to have had no trouble accepting that spin on the unexpected nuptials. There was some friendly ribbing and a few gasps, but on the whole, feminist opinion leaders from National Organization of Women President Eleanor Smeal to Cosmopolitan magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown have given their blessings.

Not only do they reject the view that Ms. Steinem’s about-face necessarily betrays feminist ideals, they see it as a straw in the wind. Attitudes to marriage, they suggest, have evolved — partly under the influence of feminists — and are continuing to evolve. The legal contract that Ms. Steinem lampooned for so many years is not the same as the one she accepted this month. And it is certainly not the same as the one that homosexuals in many Western countries now argue they have a right to. Why would they want it? Because they see it as bestowing more benefits than it used to take away — adding rights rather than diminishing opportunities. The institution of marriage has in fact become more equal, to the point where the political reasons for rejecting it no longer outweigh the legal and financial reasons for embracing it, from property and inheritance rights to shared health and welfare benefits to the right to authorize a partner’s medical treatment.

This was a special case, of course. Not everybody is going to be as “equal” as Ms. Steinem when they head to the altar (media gibes about her capitulation to patriarchal oppression rather missed this point). As an older woman of independent means, she obviously did this because she felt like it — the very opposite of oppression. Still, she is no anomaly. Her wedding was one more sign — like a swallow in spring — that marriage may be gradually acquiring a new cachet among educated, “liberated” women. As she herself said in a lecture earlier this year, as long as such things as marriage or quitting work to raise children are freely chosen, they can even be a form of rebellion. So, you want to go against the grain? Kick over the traces? Strike a blow for intellectual freedom? Just get married and stay home with your kids.

It’s easy to mock, but it really does matter how educated women feel about getting married. The dropping birthrates that are alarming many industrialized countries, including Japan, are a big reason. As it happens, the plunging Japanese birthrate correlates with both an upward curve in the age at which women choose to marry and a rise in the numbers of those who don’t marry at all. If present trends continue, demographers project that in a couple of hundred years there will be no Japanese left. Other Asian countries are affected too. Singapore, similarly threatened by the reluctance of highly educated young working women even to socialize, let alone get married and have children, has established a Social Development Unit — essentially a government-sponsored dating agency. But success in this and other efforts to reverse the population trend depends very much on changing the way women feel about marriage.

This is where Ms. Steinem comes in. Perhaps, having done so much to open women’s eyes to other options in life, she may now influence them to take a second look at marriage. They may find that, because they have changed, it has changed too. It could even turn out to be fun.

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