Marriage and Anxiety: The Effects of Patriarchy on Women’s Self-Worth

[1] In 21st century America, we live in a world in which women have supposedly achieved equality with men. However, despite new emphases on women succeeding in the classroom and at work, many women still feel a lot of anxiety regarding the pressure to get married. This anxiety, coupled with the pressure to be successful in one’s career and the persistent disparities in American society, presents today’s women with a complicated knot of worries our foremothers did not face.

[2] In this article, I explore the worries of my grandmother and mother, and the cultural environments in which they came of age. In examining their lives, it becomes clear that they do not differ greatly from women today. However, patriarchal structures and institutions more strictly confined their generations of American women to certain gender roles. My millennial generation shares the worries about marriage because America is still bound by the patriarchal confines of its past, although the ways in which American society is inherently sexist are subtler. There needs to be a shift in American society to combat the hard and soft power of patriarchy so that we can build a country in which gender equality can actually be established and sustained. In this culture of equity, women’s worries would not focus primarily on getting married and making those marriages work, but rather their own self-fulfillment and vocations apart from their societal roles.

My Grandmother and Patriarchy

[3] Madeline Northcraft, my maternal grandmother, passed away in 2000. However, she left a book of memories in which she responded to prompts about her youth and married life. Reading the book, I was surprised to hear a voice that sounded very similar to my own. Madeline loved studying, especially English and History. One the other hand, she did not enjoy domestic tasks, to the extent that she listed her favorite Thanksgiving recipe as a can of cranberry sauce. She enjoyed school and found her career as a teacher very fulfilling. Had she grown up today, it would not surprise me if her life mirrored my own.

[4] However, because of her historical context, she was led down a very different path. Women in the 1940s married in their late teens and early twenties. Being single at age 22 could often mark you as a likely spinster.1 Like many women Madeline rushed into marriage because of World War II. In fact her wedding date, originally June 6, 1942, was pushed a day ahead at the last minute because her husband-to-be, Milton, had to ship out on the day of their wedding. This mirrored a national trend. In cities like Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Fort Wayne, marriage rates jumped 100% from 1941 to 1942.[2] The environment during and directly after WWII encouraged marriage as a stabilizer for a society that was, in every other way, unstable. Marriage was seen as a stabilizing force because keeping the home and family in order was a wife’s main duty.[3] Middle class white America viewed being a wife as such an immense responsibility and so time consuming that it was encouraged to be a woman’s sole vocation. Madeline herself was let go from her teaching job after marriage because it was understood that her career was now being a wife.[4] According to my mother, Madeline’s guiding principle for herself and her six children was “Keep Daddy happy.” This mantra also reflected how American culture in the 1950s stressed a woman’s place as deriving happiness from keeping her husband happy. Marriage manuals flooded homes in the 1950s for couples who had gotten married after very rapid courtships due to WWII. Kristin Celello in her book Making Marriage Work stresses how high a pedestal Americans put marriage on in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and how it was the wives’ responsibility to make these marriages work. Maintaining a husband’s happiness was achieved through a proper diet, making sure he was reaching his full potential at work, had a clean and inviting home to return to, felt like he was needed around the house without burdening him with household tasks, and was properly sexually sated. A woman’s value and self-worth in American society at this time was measured by how well she performed as a wife: her happiness was measured through her husband’s happiness rather than her own. Patriarchy’s soft power enveloped society, molding men’s and women’s views on gender roles. Although the hard power of sexism has decreased in our society, and generally laws can no longer be overtly sexist, echoes of these marital expectations reverberated into the next generation, and down into my own as well.

My Mother and Patriarchy

[5] My mother, Rebecca, came of age in a society experimenting with the idea of gender equality. However, it was not ready to fully commit to such ideas, still highly influenced by the patriarchal ideals of previous eras. My mother had a happy childhood in Quincy, IL, and like many middle-class white American women of her generation, attended college, the first generation of American women to do so en masse. However, despite the higher education she received, women were still on the whole limited to occupations such as nursing, secretarial work, librarianship, and teaching. The culture was changing, but it was moving slowly. Additionally, my grandmother stressed to my mother that the reason she needed a career was to have “something to fall back on” rather than for her own personal fulfillment or in case she did not get married—which would have been regarded as a personal failure. Getting married was assumed, but the ability of a husband to successfully provide for his family was not. This emphasis on a fallback plan further suggested a system in transition. There was an acknowledgment that the male breadwinner system had flaws. Yet there was an unwillingness to abandon this unreliable model on which the ideal American family was built.

[6] My mother’s life after college reflects this time of transition between complete faith in the old patriarchal model and a new blueprint based on gender equality. Though Rebecca protested Vietnam and considered herself a “woman’s libber,” society still put her in a position where she had to choose between her own vocation and that of her husband. Rebecca put her career on hold once my father was drafted into the Vietnam War so she could marry him and immediately follow him to Hawaii, where he was stationed. She continued to teach after returning to the mainland, and she was not forced out of her job after becoming pregnant. However, according to my mother, after having a child, the idea of not staying home with him did not even occur to her. The soft power of patriarchal culture continued to guide her choice to put her career on hold for the sake of her children. Eventually after her children entered school she returned to teaching. It is therefore notable that when she gave birth to me, 14 years after my sister, she did not choose to stay home, for financial reasons. What had not occurred to her as a mother in the 1970s became a necessary and acceptable reality by the 1990s in which two working parents had become the norm. America was in transition. Although the institutional power of patriarchy in marriage was waning, the power of its influence remained strong and continued to be so through the 1990s down to the present day.

The Author and Patriarchy

[7] I myself grew up in the 1990s in a household where gender equality was assumed and actively taught, but not as present in the greater society as I was led to believe. Patriarchy did not have as firm a grasp on American institutions, but still greatly influenced the culture, particularly through the media. As a girl growing up, I never thought that I was in any way inferior to the boys in my classes. Our beloved Spice Girls were teaching us to scream “Girl Power!” and celebrate being girls. This led me and my friends to think we were in fact superior to the boys, who were gross. It was also a new golden age for Disney films, bringing Ariel, Belle, and Mulan as new heroines to admire. These young women were strong-willed and intelligent, and yet each of their happily-ever-afters still included finding their Prince Charming.[5] Even one of the Spice Girls’ most popular songs, “Wannabe,” which is seemingly about friendship, is in fact directed to a prospective boyfriend. As girls growing up, we were taught to be independent, but to still orient ourselves towards boys as a source of happiness, as the ultimate goal. Although I live in a society that operates very differently from the America of my mother and grandmother—I could never be fired because I was married for instance, or afford to be a professional homemaker—the patriarchal values underlying the American obsession with marriage are still embedded in our culture.

[8] Now that I am in my mid-twenties, my cohort of white middle-class women has begun to feel the wedding pressure: we have graduated from college, and the next major life step is marriage. The messages we received as girls about the importance of boys have evolved from subliminal cultural messages into a pressure to take the expected next step into womanhood and adulthood. With Facebook announcing engagement after engagement of women with whom we went to high school and college, it is easy to feel as if we are being left behind. A recent Huffington Post article by Amy Chan details the surprising empowerment gained by not actively searching for a spouse. The existence and tone of the article indicates that though this perspective does exist in America, it is one that is not taught. Rather it is discovered by a few only after a lot of trial-and-error in the dating game.[6] Embedded in the article is the assumption that being content without a spouse is not the mainstream American attitude, though the legion of people commenting and sharing the article show that it is not an unwelcome opinion. American culture pressures women today, like their foremothers, to worry about marriage, even though women can pursue full-time careers that render the breadwinner system unnecessary. The recognition of how much women are pressured by themselves as well as society to marry, despite the lack of economic necessity today, is a sign of a deeper cultural yearning for marriage. Why, when marriage is not economically necessary, do American women still have so much anxiety about finding a spouse?

[9] This desire for marriage stems from the fact that, though marriage is not the source of most women’s economic support any more, it is still often the source of their self-worth. bell hooks in her book communion: the female search for love discusses women’s obsession with finding love as being derived from being raised in a patriarchal culture. “Femaleness in patriarchal culture marks us from the very beginning as unworthy or not as worthy, and it should come as no surprise that we learn to worry most as girls, as women, about whether or not we are worthy of love.”[7] Rather than finding love from within, hooks asserts that women must keep looking to others to constantly be reassured of their worth, that “to know love we must be loved by others…our value, our worth…are always determined by someone else.”[8] In order to be happy and fulfilled, women in American culture are led to believe that they must be in committed relationships to be happy—marriage is the ultimate goal.[9] Though American society has shifted to allow women to have careers in many fields, this obsession with marriage remains because the patriarchal heritage of American culture remains as well. Women now can pursue any career they wish—they are not dependent on a male breadwinner. And yet the pressure to get married remains. This is because the pressure to get married, the system of patriarchy, is not solely economically driven. The side effects of patriarchy go deeper into the female psyche, anchoring women’s self-worth in receiving love from others, particularly their romantic partners. This system prevents many women from feeling fulfilled without “succeeding” in marriage, despite successes in other endeavors. In order to relieve this pressure from women, the manifestations of patriarchy must be driven from women’s psyche as well as the economic institutions of this country.

Changing the System

[10] The first step to achieving gender equality in our society in the 21st century is to reframe women’s goals away from roles such as wife and mother. While ridding society of patriarchal systems that are designed for a male breadwinner system, we must also dig deeper to remove the cultural pressure to find happiness in committed love relationships. bell hooks advises deemphasizing the search for romantic love in favor of creating “loving bonds, circles of love that nurture and sustain female well-being.”[10] Removing the societal pressure on women to marry leaves them free to explore their own paths and marry if and when they find it appropriate, rather than right after college or in their mid-twenties like all of their peers may appear to be doing.

[11] However, women’s anxieties do not end with getting married—they continue with how to make marriages work in a society that proclaims gender equality while not structurally supporting such a system. As a heterosexual woman coming of age in the 21st century, I am expected to have a career while also finding a husband and having children. The constant questions of “Are you seeing someone?” “When are you getting married?” and “When are you going to have a baby?” pester American women today, as they have for generations. However, we must also contend with the pressures of trying to cultivate a successful career in a society that does not have as vested an interest in that success. Although the general narrative of American society proclaims a belief in gender equality, the institutions of the society do not cultivate such equality to be a lived experience for Americans. bell hooks describes this phenomenon by stating, “Girls feel besieged by the mixed messages that come from being born into a world where women’s liberation has been given a small place even as girls remain trapped in the arms of patriarchy.”[11] These messages are driven home when girls are told that they live in a society where men and women are equal and yet women still make 77 cents to the male dollar, evidence that the hard power of patriarchy still exists and is exerting itself.[12] In addition, a lack of sufficient governmental support for women in regard to maternity leave and childcare inhibits many mothers from pursuing professional success after having children. Rather than women solely having to worry about being good wives and mothers, today women must worry about balancing a career and a family. This reality becomes particularly troublesome when it is becoming financially necessary for most families to have at least two incomes, or financially impossible for families to afford childcare, forcing one parent to stay home.[13] The anxieties pile up, for women as well as their partners. Though American culture is full of rhetoric about gender equality, the American society is still rooted in the breadwinner model, making it very difficult for marriages to function with two working parents.

[12] These financial difficulties strain the institution of marriage, which in turn stresses the fragile new system of gender equality feminists are working to build. Historian Stephanie Coontz describes this schism:

The big problem doesn’t lie in differences between what men and women want out of life and love. The big problem is how hard it is to achieve equal relationships in a society whose work policies, school schedules, and social programs were constructed on the assumption that male breadwinner families would always be the norm.[14]

[13] Because equality is not structurally supported in the American system, it becomes more difficult to live out lives of gender equality. This in turn continues to foster patriarchal attitudes and values, creating a cycle that needs to be broken. Coontz points out, “Today, even though most of the legal and economic basis for a husband’s authority over his wife and her deference to his needs are gone, we all have inherited unconscious habits and emotional expectations that perpetuate female disadvantage in marriage.”[15] Conscious effort must be exerted to eliminate such attitudes from American men and women on a psychological and systemic level. Until we change the actual institutions of our society to match our ideal of gender equality, we will not be able to create a truly equal society, and women today will be stuck bearing the burden of the pressures to be good wives and mothers who must figure out how to support their families emotionally and financially.

The Church and Patriarchy

[14] Although these problems may seem insurmountable, the Church has the power to reshape these patriarchal aspects of American society. Certainly on a practical level, Christians can work to lobby for gender equality in politics by supporting policies such as those that aid working parents and promote equal pay for women. Lutherans, utilizing the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, should also recognize the power of theology in this system. Examining how Christian theology, including Luther’s emphasis on marriage, affects women’s view of their place in the world is a starting place for this journey. Recognizing the tendency of many women to see their worries, including pain stemming from such crimes as domestic violence, as “their cross to bear” can also lead us to see how currently Christianity’s value on sacrifice rather self-actualization can hurt women. Examining how our theology is harmful to women is the only way to begin to rectify it.[16] Making a conscious effort to promote Christian teaching in the 21st century that puts new emphasis on discerning one’s own vocation and discovering one’s own God-given gifts is a way to begin to combat the soft power of patriarchy in our society. A new call from within the Church advocating for the support of women as individuals, rather than framing them as wives or mothers, can help reframe the role of women in this society. Women can then increasingly be regarded as individuals rather than as persons whose identities and ambitions are bound to their partners or their children.


[15] Women’s anxieties today mimic closely the worries of our foremothers. Women worry about being loved and finding good partners in life. Unlike our grandmothers, once we have partners, we worry about how to make modern marriages work in a society still working on an outdated model of marriage created for a patriarchal breadwinner system. To help relieve the strain on women in this country, we need a revolution in thought and policy. The former would encourage women to seek their own self-fulfillment by deemphasizing the roles of wife and mother that have been so prominent in our culture. The latter would allow this shift in thought to be enacted on a practical level by enabling women to lead lives of their choosing.

[16] Christians have the responsibility to take up this cause as people who believe that all humans are equal. We are all members of the body of Christ: the harm done to another human is also done to each of us. Christians also have the power, grounded in God’s hope, to begin this shift by using their votes, as well as the already existent religious organizations, to work for gender equality on an institutional level in our communities and governments. Christian theologians, inside and outside of the academy and pulpit, also have the ability to articulate theological insights that stress the importance of finding one’s full vocation outside of solely familial roles. Women’s equality has been developing for decades, each generation taking a step forward. Although on the surface, it may seem like this work is done, anxieties about marriage strain today’s women in even more dimensions than those who came before: we must do what we can to remove this cross that women bear.



Celello, Kristin. Making Marriage Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Chan, Amy. “Why I’m OK Being Single.”Huffington Post. (accessed November 17, 2012).

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage: A History. New York: Viking, 2005.

hooks, bell. communion: the female search for love. New York: William Morrow, 2002.

“Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.”Bureau of Labor Statistics. accessed November 15th, 2012.

Mennecke-Haustein, Ute. “Windows on Life: Women in the Reformation.” Currents in Theology and Mission 29, 6 (2002): 429-436.

“Parents and the High Cost Of Child Care” Child Care Aware of America, report_2012_final_081012_0.pdf> (accessed November 18, 2012).

Transformative Lutheran Theologies, edited by Mary Streufert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.


[1] Stephanie Coontz,Marriage: A History (New York: Viking, 2005), 227.

[2] Kristin Celello,Making Marriage Work (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 47.

[3] In fact, this attitude towards marriage points to a shift in the philosophy of marriage dating back to Martin Luther himself, who elevated the institution of marriage beyond that of just an economic unit to a Christian obligation. For more information on this shift see Ute Mennecke-Haustein, “Windows on Life: Women in the Reformation,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 29, 6 (2002): 429-436.

[4] It was not until the Depression in the 1930’s that the policy to fire teachers who got married was instituted, due to the idea that each household only needed one employed person to survive economically, and that married women teachers were taking jobs from unemployed breadwinner men. The ideology about a wife’s role followed after this policy shift. Stephanie Coontz,Marriage: A History (New York: Viking, 2005),219.

[5] It was not until the summer of 2012 that a Disney-Pixar film—Brave—featured a princess who actively decided that she did not want to fall in love or get married at the end of the story.

[6] Amy Chan, “Why I’m OK Being Single.” Huffington Post. (accessed November 17, 2012).

[7] hooks, bell,communion: the female search for love (New York: William Morrow, 2002), xiii.

[8] ibid, xv.

[9] Thought the debate about same-sex marriage in this country incorporates many issues and values, it is interesting to note that it continues to elevate marriage as a pillar of happiness, something to aspire to. hooks does specifically point out that this phenomenon for women does not discriminate based on sexuality—women in the queer community were also raised in with this patriarchal emphasis in deriving self-worth from the love of others, however they seek this love from women rather than men. Ibid., xvi.


[11] hooks, bell,communion: the female search for love (New York: William Morrow, 2002), xvi.

[12] “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.”Bureau of Labor Statistics. accessed November 15th, 2012.

[13] For more information on the expense of childcare in the United States see “Parents and the High Cost Of Child Care” Child Care Aware of America, (accessed November 18, 2012).

[14] Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: A History (New York: Viking, 2005), 299-300.

[15]I bid., 311.

[16] For further discussions of Christian theology’s role in shaping women’s lives, see Transformative Lutheran Theologies, edited by Mary Streufert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.