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Is Marriage a Prize?

By Amisha Padnani

 A Gimbels department store fashion show of bridal attire in 1965 in New York.
 
Robert Walker/The New York Times
A Gimbels department store fashion show of bridal attire in 1965 in New York.

Growing up, my parents — immigrants from India — emphasised school and career before marriage. They wanted me to be ambitious, get good grades and make good money (and stop asking them for some).

“You have to be financially independent,” my mother would say.

American social and pop culture taught me otherwise: Girls were to work toward one goal — getting married. I experienced it on TV shows like “The Nanny” and “Sex and the City,” that ended with the female protagonists married or heading that way; in women’s magazines (remember Glamour’s Engagement Chicken recipe, which was said to secure any man?); and in songs about romance that occupy many a wedding playlist.

That notion pervaded my upbringing, too. On the playground, the order of life was prescribed in nursery rhymes: “First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”

At sleepovers when I was 12, friends would bring out magazines and catalogues of wedding dresses so we could circle our favourite ones.

And there was a time when women were told to go to college not for a B.A. or a B.S. but for an “MRS. Degree,” with the expectation of walking right off the graduation stage and down the aisle.

Fewer and fewer women are letting those messages dictate how they live their adult lives, including when — or whether — to marry. The number of American women who had never been married was 30 percent in 2019, up from 23 percent in 1990, according to U.S. News and World Report. The median age for women who got married was 28 in 2019, up from 20 in 1956.

The Pew Research Center found in 2019 that 57 percent of women surveyed felt that marriage, while important, was not the key to living a fulfilling life; career enjoyment, on the other hand, was essential.

Ron Burton/MirrorpixPrince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day in 1981. Millions of Americans tune into the royal weddings, which depict a fairy-tale happy ending for women.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding day in 1981. Millions of Americans tune into the royal weddings, which depict a fairy-tale happy ending for women.

When women do choose to marry, more of them are keeping their birth names.

In fact the actress Zoe Saldana said Marco Perego took her last name when they married. “Men,” she wrote on Facebook, “you will not cease to exist by taking your partner’s surname. On the contrary — you’ll be remembered as a man who stood by change.”

So why is it, then, that even when modern women eschew the title of “Mrs.,” the idea of marriage as a prize still persists in our culture?

Women aren’t just half of a whole — they are whole themselves, whether they are married or not. That is a fact we should all be able to support in 2020. Right?

The fashion designer and entrepreneur Diane von Furstenberg said that very thought inspired her to start the podcast “InCharge with DVF,” in which she discusses life, career and relationships with celebrities like Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Kris Jenner.

“I realised to be in charge, first and foremost, it’s owning who you are,” she told me in a phone interview. She said she shares the sentiment with women in her circles that “the most important relationship in life is the one you have with yourself. As long as you keep that a priority, any other relationship is a plus and not a must.”

The New York TimesAn image from around 1940. “Our media does a really good job of ingraining in girls and women: Weddings are your day,” said Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, a sociology professor in Florida.
An image from around 1940. “Our media does a really good job of ingraining in girls and women: Weddings are your day,” said Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, a sociology professor in Florida.

The image of a woman as a wife has been a main focus of mass media since the end of World War II, she said, when the government began encouraging women to get out of the work force and back into domesticity.

More and more magazines, newspapers and advertisements showed women as brides; women outside houses with white picket fences; and women smiling while wearing high heels and pushing vacuum cleaners.

As the feminist movement continues building strength, women are feeling empowered that they can shift the way we’re represented in our culture.

Organisations like The Representation Project and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media seek to change how women are portrayed in the media and onscreen. And celebrities are speaking out on how women can maintain their individuality, whether they marry or not.

“I, like many of us, was taught to grow up dreaming of my wedding, not of my life. And I spent many years dreaming of my wedding, and also waiting to be chosen,” the “Black-ish” actress Tracee Ellis Ross said in a recent conversation with Oprah. “Well here’s the thing: I’m the chooser. And I can choose to get married if I want to, but in the meantime I am choicefully single, happily, gloriously single.”

But, she said, she wished there were more examples of women who expressed the same sentiment.

ShutterstockPrince Harry and Meghan Markle on their wedding day in 2018
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their wedding day in 2018

The shift is slow, but it’s happening. Cara Lemieux, for one, embodies it. Lemieux was a single woman in New York City pursuing her dream job as a TV journalist when she accidentally became pregnant, she said in her TEDx talk, “Rebranding the Single Mom.”

As she raised her daughter on her own, she still thought about one day getting married, she told me in a phone interview.

“I was still looking for my fairy-tale happy ending. I did things out of order. But,” she told herself, “I will still ultimately make the traditional choice.”

She tried to make it work. Rather, she tried to force it to happen while dating a single father she had known since high school. Her efforts backfired.

Finally she paused to think. She had everything she wanted. She lived near her family. She had great friends. She planned for, and had, a second child. And now she has two dogs.

She knew she had made the right choice recently when listening to her daughter, now 9, talk about the future she envisioned for herself.

“She said something like, ‘Well if I do get married, I want five kids, but if I have kids on my own, I only want three kids,’” she said. “There are more doors open to her as far as writing her future. I see that as a big win.”