Before the state involved itself in marital relations, there were cultural and social norms that determined what men’s obligations to women amounted to. These were reciprocal, and women were expected to uphold their part of the bargain as well. In some cultures, brothers were expected to see to it that sisters were married to a decent man. In what our own culture used to be, that task fell on fathers. Those who couldn’t marry off their sisters or daughters were expected to provide for them, which made a dowry seem cheaper in the long run. In other cultures, the practice of bride price sought to compensate parents for the difficulties involved in handling a daughter and marrying her off. Although one might think that bride price shows more respect to the prospective wife, it tends to result in stricter conditions for the girls and women involved, because when you pay there is a sense of ownership. Furthermore, parents are incentivized to push their girls to be “better wife material” so as to make the sale, so to speak.
Western norms of dowry were humane and even somewhat indulgent by global standards. The girl may not have been perfect, but her father would sweeten the deal by giving her husband an incentive to marry her, as well as a sense of obligation to her and her family. In return, the daughter was expected to behave herself and refrain from bringing dishonor onto her family. A common act of charity for fatherless girls and young women would be to provide them with some dowry to make them marriageable.
This practice slowly faded away by the 20th century, and all but disappeared when women were granted property and voting rights. Yet the obligation to provide some incentive for men to marry women remained. Thus, the state stepped in and made efforts to make them suitable wives. Although it may seem hard to believe today, it was common practice up to even the 1960s to make efforts to prepare women for marriage and wifely duties in public schools.
Not far from where I live, there’s a park that is the former grounds of a public school for girls who were wards of the court — children of the original skid road. Girls who were prostituting themselves, getting involved in crime or who got pregnant as teens were sent there and received special training in basic homemaking skills. They were taught to be proper mothers and wives so that they could find a husband who would take them on.
In 1925–26, 38 girls attended the Girls’ Parental School. They ranged in age from 10 to 16. “In all things, the effort is to maintain at the school a home atmosphere. Many of the girls have never known what this means, and they frequently develop remarkably under its influence. . . . In addition to regular school work, the girls learn to do all the work of a home—cooking, serving, canning, sewing, mending, darning, laundry work, housekeeping, and gardening. Industrial work occupies about three hours per day for each girl.”
Can anyone imagine a public school today teaching girls how to be homemakers?
Finally, these vestiges of the old obligation to help women become decent wives went by the wayside as well. During the chaotic times of the 70s and 80s following the liberalization of divorce law, there was no standard cultural practice for ensuring that women’s needs would in the future be met by some individual man. The vacuum this created is what led directly to state-enforced obligations; if you can’t convince men to willingly support the women our society turns out, then you force them to do so at gunpoint.
However, in tandem with state enforcement of male provision to women, a new dowry system emerged among the middle classes and above. Instead of directly compensating the husband with cash or an allowance, parents train their daughters to be paid employees who will bring home a sizable contribution to the family, and who can support themselves financially. This is the upper-middle-class marriage norm today. Well-educated urban men simply will not marry women unless these women can provide an income to the family. This is the basis of the marriage gap that has emerged in recent decades.
Women in the lower classes cannot provide the income desired by higher-status males, and they have nothing to contribute to the home of a working man, so few men are willing to take the chance and marry them. In fact, for many working class men, it is cheaper and easier to pay child support and be a part-time father than to put up a woman who can neither run a home nor earn any income to speak of. I have noticed that a working class urban culture is slowly developing in which men no longer even take the idea of marriage – even to the mothers of their children – seriously at all. On a positive note, I see many more of these men out and about with their children today than I did a couple decades ago.
Neither of the above trends amounts to empowerment of women, and for most women they are a step down. It still may not look that way today, but the trend is headed clearly in one direction: a restoration of reciprocity. The short-lived era of one-way obligations in favor of women is drawing to a close.