Random Walks: She’s a Rebel

Sillhouettte_1Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.

— Jane Austen, in a letter dated March 13, 1816

There’s been a great deal of heated discussion in the blogosphere this past week about that infamous Forbes column by Michael Noer. You know the one. It’s where he urges his male readers to marry any woman, pretty or ugly, so long as she’s not an example of that unnatural, emasculating, horrific hellbeast — the dreaded Career Woman. Because dude, that is just a recipe for divorce, according to Noer’s generic “social scientists.” Not because the fragile male ego can’t take the competition, but because such marriages run a higher risk of failure due to the woman‘s dissatisfaction with a mate who might not be able to keep pace with her fast-track professional goals and achievements.

It took mere nanoseconds for every feminist blogger (male and female) on the Internet to be up in arms over Noer’s crassly sexist scribblings; even Jack Shafer at Slate felt compelled to weigh in on the issue. Among the many other objections raised, Noer’s definition of a “Career Woman” is not the stereotypical senior partner in a law firm or corporate CEO bringing down six figures (or more), but any female with a college degree who works 35 hours a week and makes more than $30,000 a year. The accompanying readership outcry prompted the Powers That Be at Forbes to post a rebuttal by Elizabeth Corcoran, which now appears side-by-side with Noer’s original screed.

I wonder whether Noer would have considered the English novelist Jane Austen to be one of those unmarriageable “career women” he so clearly despises. She certainly didn’t fit his simplistic strict criteria: she lived quietly, had no formal education, and came from modest means. While technically her “career” was writing, she earned very little from her literary endeavors — rarely more than 100 pounds per year — and spent much of her life dependent on financial assistance from her brothers. Yet in her own quiet way, she was quite the rabble-rousing feminist revolutionary, particularly when it came to her ideological views on matters of marriage.

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in Hampshire, England, the seventh child of eight born to the local rector, George Austen, and his wife. Her father was a gentleman, with a respectable income supplemented by private tutoring, but the costs of maintaining such a large household meant that Jane and her older sister, Cassandra, didn’t have much in the way of dowries. Nor was there much opportunity for formal education, apart from a year-long stint at a nearby boarding school. But she learned to draw and play the pianoforte, and she was an avid reader, with full access to her father’s considerable library. She also loved to write, penning humorous parodies of Shakespeare’s plays and the more fashionable novels of her day for her family’s amusement at the age of 12. By 20 she had turned her attention to writing novels.

It’s quite telling that Austen’s heroines were rarely girly-girls, by Regency standards, where the only socially acceptable status for women was marriage — otherwise they were “doomed” to be spinster dependents, teachers, governesses, or lowly servants. Catherine in Northanger Abbey prefers cricket and baseball to more feminine forms of play, and loves “rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” But none of Austen’s protagonists are as modern as Elizabeth Bennett, the spirited heroine of Pride and Prejudice. She is pretty and charming enough to turn heads, but with no dowry, her marital prospects are slim. Nonetheless, she still refuses two proposals of marriage: one from her cousin, Mr. Collins, and one from Mr. Darcy (whom, as we all know, she eventually accepts — but only because she loves him). Either one of them would have been acceptable matches in Regency England — indeed, Darcy was quite the catch — but Elizabeth heeds her father’s warnings not to tie herself to a life partner she can’t love and respect.

That was a downright radical notion in Austen’s day: women simply didn’t have the luxury of marrying for love. Compare Elizabeth’s choices and attitude with that of her far more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, who marries the odious Mr. Collins simply because she has no better prospects, being both plain and poor — and, at 27, verging on desperation to avoid abject spinsterhood. Charlotte personifies the plight of the low-brow Regency gentlewoman, for whom marriage “was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.”

As Austen wrote, so she lived. She, too, had limited marital prospects because of her small dowry, despite being described in contemporary accounts as very pretty, lively, witty, even flirtatious — the kind of fun-loving, whip-smart girl-next-door many men would dearly love to meet and marry. Unable, for financial reasons, to marry the young man she truly cared for at age 20, she resisted attempts to set her up with a local reverend in Cambridge the following year. In 1802, then in her late 20s, she briefly succumbed to temptation and accepted a marriage proposal from one Harris Bigg-Wither, a man six years her junior, quite prosperous, but “big and awkward.” She repented the next day and rescinded her acceptance, choosing to live out her life as a spinster rather than marry for anything other than love — even if it meant sacrificing financial stability. In the end, Austen had the courage of her convictions. Noer would have just hated her, I suspect. She, in turn, would have found him quite ridiculous, no doubt making him the target of her razor-sharp wit.Austen_1

One might be tempted to dismiss this past week’s hullabaloo as the proverbial tempest in a teapot were Noer a lone voice crying in the wilderness. My inner cynic insists that Forbes and Noer were deliberately antagonistic in order to generate just the sort of red-hot free publicity the article has since received. Even if my inner cynic is wrong, who really cares about the opinions of a clearly insecure man who lacks the stones to consider a potential wife his equal? Not me. The whole “Battle of the Sexes” debate seems so, well, 1970s. But there seems to be a disturbing broader trend at play: an abject terror that our society is changing as a result of the progress made over the last 30 years in terms of women’s rights, the roles they play, and the ever-widening array of choices they can make. And we all know how people fear change — even when it’s arguably for the better.

Consider a few examples from The New York Times, which has been running an alarmist series of articles on “the new gender divide.” For instance, on July 9 , Tamar Lewin reported on how women college students were leaving men in the dust, in terms of their commitment to achieving academic success — perhaps because most women don’t (yet) view education as an entitlement, having been denied the privilege for centuries. This should be a positive development, but apparently, it is evidence for a pending “crisis for boys,” despite the fact that, as Lewin writes, “[M]en still dominate the math-science axis, earn more money, and wield more power than women.” One gets the sense that Lewin was reluctant to jump on the “crisis” bandwagon, since she goes on to prominently quote the skeptical education analyst Sara Mead: “The idea that girls could be ahead is so shocking that they think it must be a crisis for boys.”

Further riffing on the “men are victims” motif, the August 6 installment of the Times‘ gender divide series detailed the growing number of men between 40 and 44, with less than four years of college, who are still (gasp!) single, in part because women have become economically independent. Again, this ought to be a positive thing. In fact, it’s a bit difficult to take such concerns seriously. Personally, I’m still waiting for the TIME cover story declaring that men over 40 have a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married; maybe then I’ll start to worry — in between chortles of delight at having the matrimonial tables turned at long last. But part of me bristles at the unspoken implication that the reason such men aren’t married isn’t due to choice, but because all those uppity, status-seeking, money-grubbing, over-educated females think they’re too good for the hard-working regular guy. That’s insulting to both men and women.

Yea verily, I exaggerate for comic effect, but even more unsettling is a nagging sense that there might be a wee bit of truth to that exaggeration. Lewin’s article quotes a young female college student as saying she would be reluctant to marry a man without a college degree: “I want to be able to have that intellectual conversation.” Eventually this young woman will learn that a college degree, even from an Ivy League school, is not necessarily evidence of intelligence — just look at our current president. Ironically, the over-40 single men featured in the August 9 Times article were described as healthy, youthful and happy despite their unmarried state, although they still desired female companionship. It is no longer a “truth universally acknowledged” that a young man of good fortune must, by definition, be in want of a wife. Ditto for young women of good fortune.

And let’s not forget last October’s pathetic “pity me” whine-fest by Times columnist Maureen Dowd, intended to help launch her new book, provocatively titled Are Men Necessary? (Check out Katie Roiphe’s witty, Austen-worthy smack-down of Dowd in Slate entitled, “Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?“) In essence, Dowd complains that men don’t want lively, spirited women who are their intellectual equals because they find them too threatening; instead, they want pliable women in positions of servitude: maids, for instance, or secretaries. At the same time, however, Dowd finds very few men she herself would deem acceptable based on her stringent, “I must marry up” criteria. Can you say “double standard”? Granted, it’s hard to marry “up” when you’re, well, Maureen Dowd. But why does someone as well-placed as Maureen Dowd even need to marry “up”? Why dismiss otherwise handsome, decent men as prospective husbands out of hand just because they’re a little lower on the socio-economic ladder? (What would Mr. Darcy do? Easy — he married Elizabeth anyway, despite her lower socio-economic status, because he loved her and could afford to choose with his heart.)

Jane Austen would never have been so crass. She knew marriage should be first and foremost based on mutual love and respect, and that a union of true equals has nothing to do with their respective socio-economic status. She suffered the loss of her youthful suitor, an Irishman named Thomas Lefroy, because “society” — in the form of their respective families — didn’t deem him economically worthy. (He had the last laugh: he later became chief justice of Ireland, and told his nephew of his “boyish love” for Jane Austen.) Another young man who fell in love with her, and whom she might have loved in return, and married, died tragically before he could propose. (A similar fate befell Austen’s older sister, Cassandra, who was engaged for several years to a young man who died before they could marry.)

Marriage for women is no longer about economic survival, as it was in Austen’s day. Women have never had more freedom of choice, more options for what they want from life. And yet, it seems that the issue of marriage is becoming more about the social pressure to conform to the cultural stereotype than it is about finding the right loving partner. Anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional mold is viewed with extreme suspicion. The message to young women today is clear: Beware, because nobody will want to marry you if you’re too smart, too successful, too selective about your choice of man, because men like Noer can’t handle the competition. And that would be terrible! You’ll be an old maid! With a hundred cats! People will snicker behind your back and secretly pity you!

Thirty years into the women’s movement, and we still labor under the false assumption that marriage is the only acceptable state for a woman — or a man, for that matter.  Even Dowd has fallen into this trap. She’s beautiful, powerful, successful, and attracts equally successful, well-heeled men as paramours, even if she hasn’t married any of them. She clearly has a pretty high opinion of herself. And yet somehow even Dowd has bought into the notion that all her impressive accomplishments are negated by the fact that she’s “still single.”

Compare Dowd’s attitude to that of Austen, who found humor in her “old maid” status at 37, and even relished certain advantages when chaperoning young ladies at dances, “for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” She indulged in flowers and concert tickets, and delighted in being an aunt to her many nieces and nephews. And while her novels brought her only modest recognition and financial rewards, they did bring great personal satisfaction. When she died — probably of Addison’s disease — at 41, she was buried at Winchester Cathedral. Perhaps the only thing that would have piqued her ire was that her tombstone made no mention of her literary accomplishments, merely alluded to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind.”

Somehow I doubt Dowd’s eventual obituary in the Times will follow its respectful summation of her life’s work with the somber observation, “Alas, she never married.” That’s because we don’t live in Austen’s Victorian England, with its restrictive social mores and limited opportunities for women. There’s still progress to be made on the road to true gender equality, but I believe our society has changed for the better. Women marry not because we need to, but because we choose to do so, and can also choose when to do so. We don’t have to be like Charlotte Lucas and accept the first halfway decent guy (or, in poor Charlotte’s case, the first pompous insufferable jackass) who comes along. We can afford to hold out for the kind of man we can truly love. And in the long run, that can only be a good thing for both genders. Unlike Dowd, I have faith in the male of the species. I suspect most men, given the choice, would opt to marry a woman who truly loved them, rather than one who wed them out of necessity or raw, status-seeking greed. I consider Noer and his ilk to be the aberration, not the norm.

Austen’s Emma is a strong-willed young woman, perhaps just a wee bit spoiled, with enough confidence and economic independence to be able to view marriage as an option, not a necessity. She meets her friend Harriet’s horror at the prospect of being an “old maid” with good-humored disdain: “A single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable.” Indeed, Emma laments, “To be so bent on marriage — to pursue a man merely for the sake of a situation — is a sort of thing that shocks me.” Emma’s sentiments echo those of her postmodern kindred spirit, the feminist blogger Bitch PhD:

“If you define non-career women as all the ‘undereducated’ who work part-time and make less than $30K, it becomes painfully obvious why female careerists are more likely to divorce than non-careerists: They can better afford to get out of an unhappy marriage than their sisters. That may be bad news for all the schmoes getting dumped, but it’s great news for the gals. So, go ahead, young ladies. Get your degree. Even go to grad school. Gun for that corner office if you want to, and get the guy. If you divorce, make sure to stick him with the shared subscription to Forbes.”

[UPDATE:  I take responsibility for an inadvertent mis-attribution: the quote above was written not by BitchPhD, but by Shafer in his Slate article, who in turn linked to her. So Shafer is Emma’s kindred feminist spirit, and Jane’s spirit throws him a genteel high five for his eloquence.]

Somewhere, Jane Austen is demurely pumping her tiny, lace-gloved fist in the air with a big smile on her pixie-ish face, declaring in dulcet well-bred Regency tones, “You go, girls!” My inner hopeless romantic would like to think her lost first love, Tom Lefroy, who everyone said wasn’t good “husband material,” is laughing by her side.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses on science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.