Divorce your glass ceiling

Making the personal political

you married who??


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If you’re a woman and you want to succeed professionally, marry a good man — not a nice man, but a man who is as invested in your success as you are in his. And if you happened to marry someone who is not that man, you may find a more equal marriage by divorcing him.

That’s the message of two pieces published in women’s magazineland this week, one by Jo Piazza about Caitlin Moran’s new book which warns that for women, “your partner is your glass ceiling,” and one by Lyz Lenz about leaving an unequal marriage and the relief of 50% custody. They both went viral, I suspect in part because of the degree to which Covid disruptions have laid bare the fundamental inequalities in many heterosexual partnerships: That pre-Covid, domestic labor was outsourced in a variety of ways, from sending your kids to school to hiring a housekeeper; now that those assists aren’t as easily available and parents have to do 100% of the work of raising children and keeping house, it’s mothers who are presumed and expected to do more. Jo Piazza put it like this:

Six months into the pandemic I personally know more than a dozen women who have quit their jobs, taken an extended leave, or significantly scaled back their careers in order to care for and homeschool their children. I know these women well enough to be certain that they’re all married to perfectly nice men who, despite their niceness, willingness to buy tampons, and Biden-Harris yard signs, think their own jobs are more important than their wives’ jobs. They might not say it out loud, but that is the subtext of your wife dropping out of the workforce to educate your children while you lock yourself in the bathroom and take Zoom meetings all day.

And that’s exactly right. “If she wants children and a job, a woman’s life is only as good as the man or woman she marries,” Moran writes in her new book. “That’s the biggest truth I know. All too often women are marrying their glass ceilings.”

Lyz Lenz is one of those women who married her glass ceiling and then had two kids with him. Her solution, eventually, was divorce, which meant “I didn’t have to bargain for child-free hours because we had 50-50 custody. I also didn’t have to convince someone else to let me outsource household cleaning. In the end I didn’t need to hire anyone at all, because my house was cleaner. In renegotiating my life, I had negotiated a better deal for myself, and it was court-ordered. I no longer begged to shift even some of the burden of childcare or housekeeping onto my husband. Our custody agreement mandated that he and I bear an equal share.”

A friend of mine who tweets at @flotisserie had an interesting, critical take on both of these pieces. She notes that divorce is actually usually pretty bad for women — women wind up poorer afterwards, while men do not, and women are much more likely to take on all or most of the parenting post-divorce. Because of the gender wage gap, and because women are more likely to drop out or scale back from work when they have kids — as Lynz did — they take life-long earnings hits and, when they lose a man’s financial support, are then predictably more likely to end up struggling or in poverty. For many women, divorce might mean that you’re no longer picking up after your husband and no longer supporting his career with your unpaid labor, but it also means a new level of financial instability that may never quite end.

Which is why the Jo Piazza / Caitlin Moran advice is good: If you get married in the first place, choose wisely, and definitely don’t have kids with someone who is unwilling to pull his own weight. Of course, this would more often than not mean not getting married or long-term partnered, and certainly not having kids, which isn’t what most women want. Many working-class American women are already choosing a third way: Have the kids, forgo the marriage. If a potential husband is going to be a drag rather than a help, a lot of women who can’t count on their male partners to do their fair share of the domestic labor and don’t have the ability to outsource it just skip the whole marriage thing. Which makes a lot of sense.

One criticism of the Piazza / Moran argument is more or less the same as the criticism of “lean-in feminism”: That a focus on individual choices doesn’t address the degree to which those choices are already constrained, and in fact reinforces the idea that unequal outcomes are primarily about individual choice, obscuring the systematic constraints and inequities that fundamentally hem women in, deprive us of opportunities and equality, and then tell us we’ve chosen our choice and made our bed. And to a degree, that’s right: The bigger problem here isn’t individual men, but a system set up to cater to men over women, on an assumption that American families still look like they did in 1950 (a setup that women bridled against and that brought us second-wave feminism). Women’s at-home labor is repackaged as love and maternal sacrifice to hide the fact that it is actually necessary work to both keep the capitalist machine running and to maintain the status and wealth of men. If we want that to change, we need a better solution than “marry a man who supports you, and divorce him if he doesn’t.” We need fair pay and particularly a bringing-up of the bottom — low-wage low-status occupations are female-dominated in the U.S. We need paid parental leave that both parents take. We need workplace cultures and worker protection laws that tamp down our culture of extreme over-work. We need all of the support systems that would allow women and men truly free choice in deciding when and whether to have kids: Contraception and abortion sure, but also universal healthcare, high-quality education that isn’t dependent on property costs, affordable housing that is physically safe for children and won’t poison them. These are basic things, but they are the baseline for achieving anything close to gender parity.

But there’s a both / and here: Focusing on individual choice to the exclusion of systemic change is short-sighted and frankly pointless. But suggesting that individual choice doesn’t matter is also ahistorical and obtuse. Cultures, politics, and systems are not things imposed from on high; we create them, we sustain them, we change them. Part of that change has to be individual, done via the choices we make in our lives. That’s not the whole of the transformation — not even close — but it needs to be part of it. And in an unequal world, some of the advice we give to each other is going to be about making beneficial individual decisions, because the kind of systematic change we need is massive and not going to happen (at least not in full) in the next month or year or years. That doesn’t mean we give up on it, but it does mean we need to survive in the meantime. Right now, in the radically unequal United States, Caitlin Moran’s advice is good and it’s something women need to hear and internalize. It will help some individual women — as many as heed it. That doesn’t make it a solution to pervasive inequality and sexism. But it is one part of a larger project.

xx Jill

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