The Odd Women – and a possible mirror today

I’m just reading George Gissing’s The Odd Women, a curious novel centred on women’s prospects in the late 19th century.  These were pretty dismal on  the whole.  The novel focusses on three sisters caught in a kind of genteel poverty.  Two of them are past marriageable age, and also have hardly any chance of a decent occupation but must live on the tiny income bequeathed by their father. The third is still pretty and eligible, but works 14-hour days in a draper’s, with very little scope for meeting a suitable husband.

The title refers to something which I find hard to explain:  the apparent existence then of half a million more women than men in Britain.  How can this have come about?  There had been no recent wars to carry off the men.    Anyway, assuming that it is correct, it meant that the chances of women finding a husband were significantly reduced, just as they were after WW1. Hence the ‘odd’ women – not strange, but just unable to find a pairing.

Gissing includes quite a lot of debate on the nature of marriage, as well as on women’s education. It seems he can’t quite make up his mind.  In one of his letters he deplores the fact that women without education ‘resemble in all intellectual considerations the average male idiot ‘[his stress], but he’s keen for them to get a broad vocational education, and not be dependent on men.  Gissing himself married two women well below him socially, one of them a prostitute.

A perhaps contentious parallel occurred to me, inspired by two discussions with friends on successive days.  Both have daughters currently attached to men who are occupationally below them;  in both cases the woman has good professional qualifications and a ‘position’ (as Gissing might have said), whilst the man has rather poor qualifications and marginal employment.    So the mirror image of the ‘odd women’ notion is this:  as women increasingly outstrip men educationally, they will find it more difficult to find men who are similarly qualified.

For some time there has been increasing homogamy – ie people with similar education levels marrying/partnering, rather than across levels.  This is, as Goran Esping Andersen points out, a major driver of household inequality, as higher-earning graduates pair up with each other, leaving less qualified couples way behind them.  But now we may be seeing an emergent phenomenon of asymmetry, as more highly educated women do not find equivalently educated men.

Hanna Rosin’s End of Man describes something similar in the US, where she reports that educated women are increasingly doing without men.  I haven’t read the book (though I have heard her speak) so I don’t know how much she  sees this as a matter of choice, or as a problem.

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