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) We took for granted that we’d spend our 20s finding ourselves, whatever that meant, and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which of course would happen at the magical age of 30.That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith. One of the many ways in which our lives differed from our mothers’ was in the variety of our interactions with the opposite sex.
I was her first and only recruit, marching off to third grade in tiny green or blue T-shirts declaring: , and bellowing along to Gloria Steinem & Co.’s feminist-minded children’s album, Free to Be …For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community.It took more than one person to make a farm or business thrive, and so a potential mate’s skills, resources, thrift, and industriousness were valued as highly as personality and attractiveness. In the American colonies, wealthy merchants entrusted business matters to their landlocked wives while off at sea, just as sailors, vulnerable to the unpredictability of seasonal employment, relied on their wives’ steady income as domestics in elite households. Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women.As he and I toured through Manhattan’s men’s-wear ateliers, we enjoyed explaining to the confused tailors and salesclerks that no, no, we weren’t getting married. I retell that moment as an aside, as if it’s a tangent to the larger story, but in a way, it is the story.In 1969, when my 25-year-old mother, a college-educated high-school teacher, married a handsome lawyer-to-be, most women her age were doing more or less the same thing.You and Me (released the same year Title IX was passed, also the year of my birth).
Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda’s retelling of “Atalanta,” the ancient Greek myth about a fleet-footed princess who longs to travel the world before finding her prince, became the theme song of my life.
Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks.
But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort.
But what transpired next lay well beyond the powers of everybody’s imagination: as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind.
We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.
Once, in high school, driving home from a family vacation, my mother turned to my boyfriend and me cuddling in the backseat and said, “Isn’t it time you two started seeing other people?