Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gender Imbalance and History

Randall Stephens

"Every so often, society experiences a 'crisis in gender," writes Kate Bolick in the new issue of the Atlantic Monthly ("All the Single Ladies," ht to Amy Wood). In a fascinating article on the state of marriage and the prospects for single women, Bolick muses on the ways that gender imbalance and social factors weigh on society.

Particularly interesting is her take on how this has played out through history:

Take the years after the Civil War, when America reeled from the loss of close to 620,000 men, the majority of them from the South. An article published last year in The Journal of Southern History reported that in 1860, there were 104 marriageable white men for every 100 white women; in 1870, that number dropped to 87.5. A generation of Southern women found themselves facing a “marriage squeeze.” They could no longer assume that they would become wives and mothers—a terrifying prospect in an era when women relied on marriage for social acceptability and financial resources.

Instead, they were forced to ask themselves: Will I marry a man who has poor prospects (“marrying down,” in sociological parlance)? Will I marry a man much older, or much younger? Will I remain alone, a spinster? Diaries and letters from the period reveal a populace fraught with insecurity. As casualties mounted, expectations dropped, and women resigned themselves to lives without husbands, or simply lowered their standards. (In 1862, a Confederate nurse named Ada Bacot described in her diary the lamentable fashion “of a woman marring a man younger than herself.”) Their fears were not unfounded—the mean age at first marriage did rise—but in time, approximately 92 percent of these Southern-born white women found someone to partner with. The anxious climate, however, as well as the extremely high levels of widowhood—nearly one-third of Southern white women over the age of 40 were widows in 1880—persisted.*

Certainly war takes a toll on society and on private lives in all sorts of ways that aren't imagined. Russia lost approximately 8-10 million soldiers in WW II and roughly 2 million in WW I. Talk about "marriage squeeze." Even in the United States--which, comparatively suffered far less in those conflicts--gender imbalance disrupted daily life and posed new challenges for the country.

Life magazine ran a photo essay on the troubled American family in 1948, lamenting climbing divorce rates and the breakdown of traditional families:

In the picture above an American family is shown in the sad process of breaking up. In city after city scenes like it are being repeated every day, each opening its own small cracks in our society, each a part of a cold statistical record which shows that last year 450,000 divorces were granted in U.S. courts, releasing a flood of children from these broken homes upon society. From such statistics emerges an unmistakable fact: the U.S. family, deep in the millrace of social and technological change, is itself deep in trouble.

American newspapers and magazines spilled gallons of ink on the family crisis and also worried about absent men. "The general fear of a shortage of eligible bachelors persisted even after the war," writes Kristin Celello in her Making Marriage Work: The History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (UNC Press. 2009). "As the average age of marriage dropped for both men and women, unmarried women as young as twenty or twenty-one often thought of themselves as 'old maids'" (77). In the Life story above expert opinion is trotted out to show the hazards of immature young couples getting hitched.

Those of us who teach in colleges and universities are well aware of the gender imbalance in our classrooms. And today, writers across the spectrum are wringing hands or celebrating the "decline" of the American male.

How will current trends shape the course of history? What will historians be saying about the topic in 50 or 100 years from now?

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