A t a time when gay marriage is eliciting widely divergent views about the nature and importance of the institution of marriage in general, it is as well to be reminded, as we are by Alison Wolf at the beginning of The XX Factor, that for most women in the developed world, whether or not they marry is less important now for their personal fulfilment than it has ever been in recorded history. For Jane Austen, refusing a proposal of marriage was an utterly life-changing event, something that could not have been said of any of the men in her society. In some parts of the world today, refusing a proposal is still impossible, however calamitous a young woman fears its consequences will be. But in Europe and North America in the twenty-first century, choosing a marriage partner has for many women become a lifestyle choice with fewer long-term consequences than choosing a school or a job. Alison Wolf’s twist on this turn of events, though, is to argue that it means very different things to the most educated 20 per cent of women than to the 80 per cent of their less educated sisters. These women, she writes, “have become a class apart . . . they are more like the men of the family than ever before in history. It is from other women that they have drawn away”.
more from Paul Seabright at the TLS here.