Does the change of women’s roles affect the divorce rate?

Someone married to improve quality of life; someone married to have children; someone married to stay with the love one for the rest of life. Although people married for various reasons, most of them expected to gain higher life satisfaction after marriage and considered marriage as a  long-time commitment. Despite of that, disagreement is always the biggest challenge to have a stable marriage. Once spouses found that their relationship no longer meet the anticipation, they decided to divorce. In the rest of paper, we will investigate the change of the US divorce rate in the history, and how the change of women’s role in the society affects the divorce rate.

Marriage and Divorce Rate Through Out the History

Marriage Rate and Divorce Rate, 1867-1967

Based on the CDC’s 100 Years of Divorce and Marriage Statistics, the US divorce rate was less than 0.5 percent per 1000 population when the collection first started in 1867. With the emerging ideologies of divorce, the divorce rate was slowly growing. As a result of social dislocation caused by World War II, many couples married in haste. Afterwards, many spouses divorced because of lack of marriage foundation. This caused a drastic increase in divorce rate till the war ended in 1945. After the war, many returning soldiers married and stimulated the US birth rate during 1950s and 1960s. The baby boom and reestablish the idea of familism reduce the number of divorce. For that reason,  the divorced rate had decreased from the provisional high of 4.6 percent in 1945 to about 3 percent within 5 years and stabilized for the next 10 years. After the Boomers reached their marriage age, the increasing trend of divorce rate was once again initiated. In addition to that, second-wave of feminist movement started in the early 60s rouse the demand of divorce. Influenced by the campaign of improving women’s experience in work and family, more states have set up the law for no-fault divorce, which does not require to prove one of the spouses must have committed a crime or sin to validate the divorce. Due to these reasons, the number of divorce case had dramatically increased and even broke through pre-WWII divorce levels and reached the historical high of 5.3 percent. Following the end of second-wave of feminist movement in early 80s, people become more conscious on both marriage and divorce. Therefore, the marriage and divorce rate are gradually decreasing as of now. Divorce Rate is affected by many factors, including economic status, social perception towards divorce, and laws that complicated the divorce process. We would scrutinize these factors into the change of women’s social status and explore their impact on marriage expectation.

How change of Women Status affect their perception towards marriage

In the early 20th century, traditional perception of gender roles had a strong influence on marriage. At that time, society considered marriage as a duty and having children is mandatory for an ideal family. As Kanazawa stats in his book, evolutionary psychology made public believing male are responsible for financial stability and women are responsible for taking care of the family. As a result, male accounted for majority of workforce. Based on statistics in Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States after 1800, more than half of the jobs in 1860s are in agriculture. Even though the US industrialization had changed the US economic structure, the majority of jobs were still physical demanding. In 1920, construction, manufacturing, and primary (fishing, farm, and mining) totaled  58.8 percent of jobs. Hence, only 21 percent of all lucrative workers were women in 1920. Lack of job opportunities made women considering marriage as a way to obtain financial stability. As Charlotte, who might be considered as “Depression Era” female protagonist, said in the book, her cousin rejected a men for financial reason and Charlotte accepted that marriage is a means to acquire financial stability. Besides the financial concern, having baby was another reason for marriage. Based on US Census Bureau’s statistics in Marital Status of U.S. Women at First Birth from 1930 to 1994, about 55% percent of premaritally pregnant women marrying before the birth of their first child. During that time, public did not emphasize on birth control education because birth control is religiously and morally undesirable. Therefore, many women were pregnant before getting married. Because single mother was not accepted by the public and many women did not have financial ability to raise the kid, more than half of premaritally pregnant women chose to marry. Influenced by the economic and social perception about marriage, women married relatively early. The median age of a woman’s first marriage was 21.2 years old during 1920s while the same measurement was 26.1 years old in 2010. Influenced by the rigid idea of marriage and financial situation, many wives had to accept the housekeeping role in the family even they were not happy with it.

The change of society structure have increased women’s opportunity to earn more income. Pressured by the feminist movement and public awareness for gender equality, states and federal government set the laws that protect women from gender discrimination and guarantee their natural rights starting from 1960s. As a result, more companies abandoned the tradition perception that married women should stay home and start hiring qualified women. In addition to that, technology improvement and economic restructuring increased numbers of jobs that does not require physical strength. At last, more percent of women receive college education than the past. Based on Census IPUMS samples, only  20 percent of women were with some college education by age 35. In 1975, the same statistics had increased to almost 70 percent and was even higher than male with 55 percent. The increase of education level makes women qualifying for more technical jobs. Because of these three factors, women now have more job opportunities than the past. In 2010, women accounted for 47 percent of the of all lucrative workers, which was 26 percent higher than in 1920. Even though women’s median income was still lower than the men’s, gender income gap has narrowed down. In 1920s, women’s median income was only 60% of men’s median income. In 2005, the same statistics increased to 75%. The increase in employment and income level not only helped women gaining social and financial independence, it also created a huge change in both male and women’s marriage preference. Unlike women in the past, most women will not marry for financial stability and following the traditional perception.

Sources: 1890 to 1987 C. Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, fig. 3.1, p.62); and 1988 to 2000, Current Population Survey (CPS), median for year-round, full-time workers


How Does Change of Women’s social status affect divorce rate?

Because of the influence of the social status of marriage, most women married at the young age in the early 20th century. In the research carried by Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor of family and consumer studies at University of Utah, he concluded that couples first married at younger age are more like to divorce within 5 years than couples that married at later. The research showed that people who marry at age 20 or younger have twice the probability to divorce than people who married at 25 to 29.  He believed that the causes of the high divorce rate at young age are most youthful couples simply do not have the maturity and social support to maintain a stable marriage. When they are facing ordinary marital problems, young spouses lack the ability to find suitable resolutions. Nevertheless, the divorce rate remained at the low level during early 20th century comparing to nowadays. This can be explained by two reasons. First, complicated divorce process and traditional perception towards marriage had stopped many couples to divorce. More importantly, women were afraid to lose financial ability after getting divorce. Therefore, some women who didn’t satisfy their current marriage status chose to stay in the family. Even though some wives tried to gain financial independence by working, companies declined hiring married women. Some of the companies even fired female workers who were just married and replaced them with single women.

With the increase of social status and the wealth level, women now have more option for their career. Marriage no longer holds the financial role for most women. The decrease of financial weight in the marriage can be explained by the change of divorce rate during the Great Depression in 1930 and the financial crisis in 2008. Before the start of Great Depression, the divorce rate was in the increasing trend. However, since the Great Depression, the divorce rate started decreasing until it reached 1.3 percent in 1933, when the unemployment rate hit the historical high. Since then, the divorce returned back to the increasing trend. As more couples were not able to afford the divorce fee during the Great Depression, they temporarily stopped the divorce procedure until the economic recovered. In contrast, the divorce rate stayed around the same rate during the 2008 economic recession, which was about 3.6 percent. It shows that economic status is no longer the only concern for modern spouses to divorce.

Instead, both gender put more weight on life satisfaction in their marriage this century. Based on the Child Trends’ Analyses of Add Health Wave III Data, more than 80% of men and women considered love and being faithful are the key elements of a successful relationship. Only 26 percent of men and 21 percent believe enough money is the key element for successful relationship. The trend can be explained by the increase of stress from work place.  In the research by Conference Board, the percentage of workers satisfied with their jobs was 47.7, 13.7 percent lower than when the survey first started in 1987. Furthermore, 60.6 percent of the interviewees believed  “people at work” make employees happiest at work.  No matter in work place or marriage, people in general consider relationship is the most important factor for them. As both men and women are working in an intense environment, psychology satisfaction becomes more important in the marriage. Both gender are looking more mate who has good personality and easy to talk with because they need a considerate soulmate to enlighten and relieve stress.

In order to find the best mate in the busy working schedule, delay of marriage becomes more often. As a result, the median age for women’s first marriage rate increased by  5 years comparing to 1920s. The maturity definitely helps them to solve the misunderstandings and arguments. On the other hand, couples spent more time on dating before getting married than before. In Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships project, leader researcher Dr. Ted Huston, professor of Human Ecology at The University of Texas at Austin, studied 168 couples in their first marriages, who were selected from public marriage license records in Pennsylvania, for 14 years starting in 1979. Most participants were white, working class and in their early 20s. He concluded that the less of love begin in the relationship, it is more like that love will endure. Also, he discovered that marriages start from romance only are most destined to divorce in the long-run. In the study, he states that happily married couples dated for approximately 25 months before getting married, which is longer than the divorced one. In another study started in 2008 and ongoing, couples on average married within 2.8 years after they got engaged and most of them are still reporting general satisfaction in their marriages. This may reflect growing trends in the delay of marriage. Setrakian believes that the growing trend in the delay of marriage has enhanced the spouses’ relationship.


Although divorce rate is higher comparing to the divorce rate back in the early 20th century, we cannot conclude that spouses are more likely to divorce comparing to the past. In the early 20th century, financial situation, traditional perception towards marriage, and complicated divorce process had stopped many spouses from divorcing. If these factors were applied to today’s society, divorce rate would be much lower. As women gained more financial stability, they now have more career options and this delays the marriage age for both gender. At the same time, the change of women role made both gender put more weight on life satisfaction of the relationship before deciding marriage. These factors help couples have more time to learn about each other and builds up the bonding before marriage. In today’s intense lifestyle, having tacit understanding is definitely critical for a long-lasting marriage. Therefore, we believe the change of women’s role have an important impact on the reduction of divorce, especially they put more consideration before marriage.


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