Is “A Marriage Agreement” Still Needed?

The 50-50 Split?

In 1970 Alix Kates Shulman wrote an essay titled “A Marriage Agreement” and instantly became one of the voices of the burgeoning Women’s Liberation Movement. She was ten years into her second marriage when she came up with a set of rules that she and her husband agreed upon to make their relationship more equitable.  At the time the idea of sharing housekeeping and child rearing on a 50-50 basis “was so outrageous that the piece appeared in many magazines including New York, Ms., Redbook and Life, which gave it a six-page spread, and was attacked by Norman Mailer, S.I. Hayakawa, and Russell Baker, among others.” (p.163, Alix Kates Shulman, Women on Divorce .)

In the essay, Shulman wrote that “Before we made our agreement I had never been able to find the time to [write]. Over the past two years I’ve written three children’s books, a biography and a novel and edited a collection of writings. Without our agreement I would never have been able to do this.”

Ironically (or inevitably?), Shulman’s marriage ended after 25 years. Was it the 50-50 split that did it? There are those who would have us believe that Shulman’s feminist principles are what doomed her marriage. After all, before the feminist movement, women were happy unselfishly giving up their lives to take care of home and family. Weren’t they?

These days it is a given that women have the right to pursue their interests–as long as it doesn’t interfere with their responsibilities at home. This is what conservatives and traditionalists (read: “anti-feminists”) would have us believe. And yet most women, even if they don’t identify as feminists, know that they’re not being treated fairly. Why shouldn’t their husbands and boyfriends shoulder as much of the chores as they do? Why should women be the only ones who are blamed if the house isn’t a home and the children aren’t well-adjusted?

Even among couples who attempt to share the responsibilities of marriage equally, the housekeeping and child rearing rests more on the woman’s shoulders than it does on the man’s, even though both are out earning a living. Many young women have expressed their anger with Second Wave feminists’ assurances that a woman can have it all.  They’d be glad, they profess, to be back in the home full-time, if only to relieve the pressure of having to work and take care of the home and children anyway. Lisa Belkin called this the “Opt-Out Revolution” in a 2003 New York Times article of the same name. Apparently, young women who were groomed for careers are opting out to stay home with their children.

It’s not clear how much of a phenomenon this is. But what is clear is that something has got to give. These young mothers will find their opportunities limited when and if they return to the workforce. Their Social Security benefits will be less than their husbands’ because they didn’t work as much over their life spans. And that’s not even taking into account the talents that go unused when women eschew careers for home-making.

[Let me say here that there is nothing wrong with being a homemaker–unless the homemaker in question wants more out of life. If her partner really loves her, he (or she) should make it possible for her to explore all her options. No woman should have to take on more than her share of the household and familial duties.]

Shulman writes today:

“[“A Marriage Contract’s”] limited success is hardly surprising, given the economic, social, and psychological arrangements that continue to impede equality, in marriage and out…Probably not until the polity is more child- and woman-friendly, not until men and women are equally valued – economically and otherwise – not until free or low-cost quality childcare is universally available, will the ideal of equality in marriage be other than radical.” (Shulman’s complete remarks here.)