Awakened to What?

While teaching Kate Chopin’s masterpiece, The Awakening, to my English classes this semester, Kate Bolick’s cover story for the November 2011 edition of The Atlantic keeps coming to mind. Bolick’s narrative is witty and engaging. Here are some of the statistics she throws our way:

In 1960, the median age of first marriage in the U.S. was 23 for men and 20 for women; today it is 28 and 26. Today, a smaller proportion of American women in their early 30s are married than at any other point since the 1950s, if not earlier. We’re also marrying less—with a significant degree of change taking place in just the past decade and a half. In 1997, 29 percent of my Gen X cohort was married; among today’s Millennials that figure has dropped to 22 percent. (Compare that with 1960, when more than half of those ages 18 to 29 had already tied the knot.) These numbers reflect major attitudinal shifts. According to the Pew Research Center, a full 44 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Xers think that marriage is becoming obsolete.

Today 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. This isn’t to say all of these women preferred that route, but the fact that so many upper-middle-class women are choosing to travel it—and that gays and lesbians (married or single) and older women are also having children, via adoption or in vitro fertilization—has helped shrink the stigma against single motherhood. Even as single motherhood is no longer a disgrace, motherhood itself is no longer compulsory. Since 1976, the percentage of women in their early 40s who have not given birth has nearly doubled. A childless single woman of a certain age is no longer automatically perceived as a barren spinster.

Over the past half century, women have steadily gained on—and are in some ways surpassing—men in education and employment. From 1970 (seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed) to 2007, women’s earnings grew by 44 percent, compared with 6 percent for men. In 2008, women still earned just 77 cents to the male dollar—but that figure doesn’t account for the difference in hours worked, or the fact that women tend to choose lower-paying fields like nursing or education. A 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30 found that the women actually earned 8 percent more than the men. Women are also more likely than men to go to college: in 2010, 55 percent of all college graduates ages 25 to 29 were female.

As of last year, women held 51.4 percent of all managerial and professional positions, up from 26 percent in 1980. Today women outnumber men not only in college but in graduate school; they earned 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in 2010, and men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma.

No one has been hurt more by the arrival of the post-industrial economy than the stubbornly large pool of men without higher education. An analysis by Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, reveals that, after accounting for inflation, male median wages have fallen by 32 percent since their peak in 1973, once you account for the men who have stopped working altogether. The Great Recession accelerated this imbalance. Nearly three-quarters of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the depths of the recession were lost by men, making 2010 the first time in American history that women made up the majority of the workforce.

I apologize for quoting at such length–that’s not supposed to happen in a blog!–but Ms. Bolick’s research suggests the potential for staggering shifts in the ways men and women relate to each other over the course of the next generation, not to mention marked differences between the ways women in urban America (should they be adequately represented by Ms. Bolick’s piece) and rural America (as made manifest by the women I know in Mississippi) think about their relationships with men.

But my curiousity today is more literary in nature. Will The Awakening, and books like it, have much substance for generations of young women who grow up believing that they are in every way the equals of their male peers? Can you imagine the lack of patience they would have for Edna’s coming into being? She doesn’t need to kill herself–she needs a lawyer! So what? She’s not happy with her marriage. She just needs to move out and let Leonce deal with the kids if he loves them so much. She is tired of society’s demands on her time? Who cares? I’ve always done what I wanted, and my parents have encouraged me. All this business about behaving like a lady? That’s for the birds. Besides, my cousin made her debut in the delta, and let me tell you, that party was hardly about acting like a lady.

Or so some new readers of The Awakening might claim. Obviously, it is not necessarily true that the advancement of women within their chosen professions will mean that those women abandon the social models offered by the cult of ladyhood. Yet it does seem that as those models become less cherished, not to mention less pervasive, some of the twentieth-century’s most beloved women in fiction–Edna, Blanche DuBois, and Scarlet O’Hara among them–will fade into the footnotes of dusty academic tomes. I suppose I must conclude that it will be worth it, but I’ll miss them.

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