What Do Women Want? #1 - Independence

Not necessarily what natural selection picks for.

Marital troubles have filled the news recently.  Governor Spitzer was caught fooling around with prostitutes, to his wife's dismay.  Hillary's remaining with her husband after his escapades with other women made some suspect that she might be far more politically ambitious than most people.  The stability, or lack thereof, of publicly-visible marriages is a political issue.

It's also a societal issue.  We've noted that Confucius documented the relationship between stable societies and stable families thousands of years ago.  Throughout history, no society has long survived a massive breakdown in family stability.

Marriages were far more stable in the past; both men and women had to struggle so hard for mere survival that nobody had much time to worry about self-actualization.  Wealth has brought us all a great many more choices, however.

What women want with respect to relationships with men matters a great deal, both to their children and to society at large, but what we've seen recently shows that what men want matters, too. In commenting on "Why Men Cheat," Dr. Laura Schlessinger touched on what a man expects when he gets married.  Women have expectations too, of course, and get unhappy when their needs are not met.

This series was led into by an article which pointed out that many American traditions which encouraged men to stay with women and help them raise their children have been abandoned.  Well-tested customs such as women insisting on premarital chastity, chaperonage, curfews, and long-term marriage covenants have disappeared.

Years ago, English Common Law gave custody of the children of divorcing parents to the father. Divorce was rare - women didn't want to lose touch with their children and men didn't want to have to raise their children without a mother's help.  This changed with the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, which gave some discretion to judges in child custody cases and established a presumption of maternal custody for children under the age of seven years.  This became known as the "tender years" doctrine.

Many states have replaced the "tender years" doctrine with gender-neutral laws, but many scholars believe that mothers still have an edge in custody disputes.  In any case, under no-fault divorce law, a woman can walk out at any time and the man has to pay alimony and child support; he can't walk away nearly as easily.

Given that it's easier for a woman to get out of a marriage than to get out of paying for a refrigerator, why should a man marry at all, particularly when so many women are willing to have sex without marriage?

This series explores the question of what modern women want because although a woman's wants are more complicated than a man's, women generally get what they want over time.  Traditional marriage came about because women wanted men to marry, settle down, and take care of them and their children.  Although most men would rather have wandered around from woman to woman, most of them married and settled down.

Then came the pill and women's liberation.  Instead of enforcing their old rule "no sex without marriage," women decided to see if they could enjoy recreational sex as much as men did.  This weakened the reasons for men to marry, so lots of men didn't marry.

Even when a man did marry, the wider availability of sex outside marriage made fidelity less tempting. As a result, a great many women have become extremely unhappy with their relationships with men, so much so that many women are deciding not to marry at all.

In general, people who haven't thought about what they want enough to state it clearly won't get it.  Given the huge amount of misery caused by failed relationships, it's worth thinking about what women want.  The last article in this series explores how a woman may be able to find a satisfying relationship with a man, if that's what she really wants.

What Do Women Want?

It's old news that as soon as birth control becomes available anywhere in the world, women have fewer babies than their mothers had.

There are several possible explanations:

  • Women never wanted so many babies in the first place. Given birth control, they limit themselves to the family size they really want.
  • Women don't really want children at all; they'd rather have careers.
  • Modern society may have defined motherhood so that women can't succeed.  In an article "The Bad Mommy Brigade" on p 20 of the Jan 21, 2008 issue, New York magazine said:
    When I became pregnant with my second child, I packed up my desk, tossed my framed diplomas in the attic, and became a stay-at-home mom. ... It was everything I thought it would be. ... Within a week I was bored and miserable.  But a Good Mother wasn't supposed to be bored and miserable. ... If I wasn't enjoying myself, then I was a Bad Mother.
    Why would women want to be mothers if they couldn't possibly succeed?
  • Women still want lots of babies, but neither they nor their husbands can pay for that many even with the wife working.
  • Women have been taught to think that they don't want babies; they don't realize that they do want to be mothers until their clock runs out and it's too late.
  • Sexually-transmitted diseases have damaged so many women's reproductive systems that a lot of women find out that they can't have babies - or at least, have such difficulties in doing so as to limit the effective maximum.

Birth control is generally more available in industrialized societies than in agricultural cultures.  Health care and sanitation also tend to be better in industrial societies, so women don't have to have as many children to ensure that some will survive to adulthood.  Industrial societies also offer more work opportunities for women.  Women generally aren't strong enough to farm, but there are many jobs they can do in industrial societies.

Children pay off in agricultural societies.  If you visit Plimouth Plantation (sometimes referred to as "Plymouth" Plantation), home of the Pilgrims, you'll find child-size butter churns.  Children were put to housework as soon as they could walk and started doing farming chores soon afterward.  Even very young children could increase farm productivity enough to pay for themselves with some left over.  Children were profit centers.

In industrial societies, union-inspired laws often keep children from working, so children are nothing but cost - a financial loss if you will.  Children have to be educated for at least 20 years, and it can take a number of years for the child to become economically independent after leaving school.  Children are money-losers in industrial societies as opposed to being the profit centers they are in agricultural nations.

What's more, industrial societies tend to offer old-age pensions. People used to depend on their children to care for their old age and some societies make it illegal for younger people not to support their parents.

Old age is a special concern for women because men have always died younger than women, barring death in childbirth which is almost extinct in modern societies. Without some sort of government pension, most women reasoned that they'd better have enough children to have one or two sons to care for them after their husbands died.  If a woman believes her government's promises about old-age care, however, she doesn't have to spend so much energy and effort raising kids and teaching them to take care of her later.

Smaller families aren't solely due to the availability of birth control. The governments of India and of China both tried to reduce population growth by making birth control available at extremely low cost, but that didn't work. China instituted a draconian "one child" strategy which reduced population growth at the cost of future strains on society.

The Chinese and Indian experience show that families don't get smaller just because birth control is available; women and men have to change their minds about how many children they want. Regardless of the reason, family sizes are dropping in all industrial societies and in agricultural societies which have energetic, interventionist governments. Smaller families aren't news.

Changing Theories of What Women Want

Before birth control became widely available, it was thought that women naturally wanted children. Margaret Sanger watched her mother wear out and die of cancer after 18 pregnancies and 11 live births.  Although her mother died of cancer and not in childbirth, her pregnancies certainly weakened her.

My grandmother had such a hard time with her 4th pregnancy that the doctor told her that, given the medical technology of the time, another pregnancy would kill her.  Not wanting to lose her, my grandfather simply stopped making love to her.  He died decades before she did, partly, I think, from the stresses brought on by being what the Japanese call "congested" all the time.

Nursing a child suppresses ovulation.  The Autumn 2007 issue of the Wilson Quarterly has a p 78 review of the book Sex, Breastfeeding and Marital Fertility in Pre-Transition China.  The review says:

Chinese wives gave birth to between five and six children during their lifetime; their European counterparts, between eight and nine.

Despite their early start, and their near-universal participation in marriage, Chinese women's fertility rate was much lower than that of European women in part because of their child-rearing practices.  Chinese mothers typically nursed their babies on demand for about two years and such frequent breastfeeding tends to extend the periods of amenorrhea following childbirth.  Solid food wasn't introduced for a year while European babies might be fed gruel as soon as two months after they were born, a practice that led to earlier weaning and more frequent pregnancies.

The Chinese had much greater population growth than the Europeans; the average Chinese woman had more reproductive success than the average European woman.  Nursing babies longer would appear to transfer antibodies from the mother to the baby making it more likely that the child would live, and spacing pregnancies further apart reduced the stresses of pregnancy on the mother.  Overall, having fewer pregnancies and fewer babies led to more reproductive success.

A lactating woman is less likely to get pregnant than someone who's not nursing, but natural child spacing did not work well enough for Mrs. Sanger's mother.  Mrs. Sanger thought that women should use birth control to space their children further apart to improve the mother's health.

She also wrote that parents could pay more attention to their children if they had fewer, but she thought that babies wouldn't disappear. This idea has been proven wrong.  For all the talk of women rushing to have children before their "biological clocks run out," babies are simply not happening in many industrial countries.

Before it became so easy for women to support themselves by working, it was commonly believed that women wanted to get married. They might use their earnings to supplement their husband's pay and make their lives more comfortable, of course.  But it was still thought that women wanted to marry if they could.

A New Phenomenon

What is news is that a number of energetic, well-educated young ladies in industrial countries are not only not having children, they aren't getting married and want nothing to do with men at all.

Recent news articles suggest that women don't really want to marry any more than they really wanted lots of babies. Articles like "New Girl Order" chronicle the doings of Single Young Females (SYF) and claim that a new lifestyle is emerging where women simply don't relate to men.  Women are refusing suitors and marrying later in Egypt and in England.  Japanese are inventing a whole new vocabulary to describe the new women's lifestyle, and many Japanese women say that they never intend to marry.

These findings suggest that contrary to earlier beliefs, women don't intrinsically want to get married. They'd rather live alone and run their own lives than make the many compromises needed to live with a husband, children or both.  Women who do marry often find that the strains that come with marriage don't seem to be worthwhile.

Why, then, did women ever marry and have babies? Because being dependent on a man was the only way a woman could survive.  Hanging around a man without birth control meant there would be babies whether she wanted them or not, but since a woman couldn't feed herself, she had no choice.

How it Used To Be

It's hard for most Americans to visualize the world as it was up until the 1850's. There were no infant formulas, so the only way a baby could survive was for the mother to breast feed for a year or two. The term "godmother" originally described a woman who took over nursing duties for a mother who couldn't make enough milk.

There are areas near the equator where a woman can gather enough food to feed herself, but in most of the world, women simply aren't strong enough to plow a farm and grow food. Even in hunter-gatherer situations where a woman can find enough carbohydrates to stay alive, she can't get protein without a man who hunts sharing some of his catch with her.

Carbohydrates can keep her alive when she's not pregnant, but if she is pregnant, protein is essential for her and the child to survive the pregnancy.  A pregnant woman needed a man's help to have a healthy baby who'd have a good chance to survive.

Women couldn't even hunt small game because they had to keep their babies with them. A crying baby would scare the game, so she'd catch nothing.  Protein came from men.

Men had to be quiet on the hunt, hunting teaches men not to talk much.  Women, on the other hand, gain greatly by talking to each other.  It does a woman little good to have a baby if the baby dies.  Talking with other women helps her keep her child alive.

If you watch a group of women with babies, it usually ends up that each woman looks each of the babies over pretty carefully; there's little chance that something can go wrong without someone spotting it.  Women ask each other, "what do you do for..." which makes sure that each women knows the best available solutions for local problems.

Not only that, women talk about "Mine walked at xx," "My second rolled over when he was yy," this helps women figure out what's normal.  Learning what other children did when is called "benchmarking."  Learning the best things to do in a given area is called "best practice."  Male engineers have discovered recently that these two practices help improve products a great deal, but women have been doing them instinctively for millennia.

Women also talk about how to please men.  Every woman in the tribe knows that men are prone to wander.  No woman wants any other woman's husband to wander off because it might give her husband ideas.  That's wrong in a way - men don't get ideas, men have ideas, but its worthwhile for women to help each other keep men from acting on their ideas.

Hunter-gatherer societies select for women who like to talk about what they're doing and for men who didn't talk at all while they're working.  This causes problems because women tend to measure the strength of their relationships by the amount and quality of the talk.  If a man won't talk to his wife, she tends to feel unloved.

The picture changed when agriculture came in, but only a bit.  A farmer can talk without scaring away the grain, but farming is less complicated than raising children so men weren't selected as strongly to talk as women were.

Women were still dependent on men to feed them.  Suppose a woman was strong enough to farm. She could survive so long as she didn't get pregnant, but her tendency to avoid men would tend to be bred out of the gene pool. Thus, the women who had the most children were either a) too weak to feed themselves and had to hang around men or b) wanted to hang around men for some other reason.

Over the generations before the industrial revolution, most women couldn't farm and needed men to feed them. The stronger the man a woman could attract, the better he'd feed her and the more children she could have. If she couldn't find a man at all, she'd probably starve.

Natural Selection

Although people don't like to think of themselves as shaped by the environment, natural selection has influenced human population and personality over the centuries. "Natural selection" is the process by which favorable traits that are heritable become more common in successive generations of a population and unfavorable traits that are heritable become less common.

Some people get angry at the thought of being subject to natural selection, but it's self-evident truth.  A man who's born without reproductive organs can't reproduce himself; all of his other traits are out of the gene pool forever.

Being unable to reproduce at all is rare, most variations aren't that drastic.  Most changes shift the odds a bit either for or against, but over time, small changes add up.  It doesn't take as long as you'd think - researchers are finding that natural selection changes humans faster than had been thought.

For women, being able to attract a man was a favorable trait. Women who attracted men had more babies than women who didn't, so women became more and more attractive to men over time.

This worked on men, too. A man who didn't want anything to do with women had fewer children; his traits became less common in the gene pool.  Natural selection is seldom all-or-nothing; it merely shifts the odds.  As being able to attract men helped women have more babies, being attracted to women helped men have more babies.  Having children who have children makes you a grandparent.  That's called "reproductive success," and it's the only goal of the natural selection mechanism.

Just getting women pregnant wasn't enough to guarantee a man's reproductive success; a woman who's pregnant or lactating can't feed herself very well.  Being willing to stick around and feed a woman during those times increased a man's chances in the great gene lottery.

Natural selection shades the odds; it's not destiny.  Not only that, natural selection tends to operate at the instinctive level, it doesn't affect the intellect very much.  Thus, any person who thinks about what's going on can do things that are not what natural selection would dictate.

The problem is that most people don't think about relationships at all.  When you don't think, your instincts rule.  If you don't know what you want, you aren't likely to get it.  People who let their instincts rule play natural selection's game.

We've seen a number of high-profile marriages get into trouble, bringing great grief to the wives and not making the husbands very happy either.  If you believe that your friends are messing up their relationships and you want something different, this series of articles will help you understand enough about men and women to get a better outcome.

The next article in this series goes a bit deeper into the effects of natural selection to help you figure out a) what your instincts want you to want b) whether that's what you really want and c) how to get what you want.

Lee Tydings is a guest writer for Scragged.com.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Lee Tydings or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
lee, isn't is possible that there are other possibilities? i would say that women want a combination of all of those things with the strongest parts being affected by the influences of their family and friends. we've all heard of feminists who have changed sides and are now arch anti-feminists. how is that possible if you can define what women are all about? you can't. the truth is that women, like men, can change what they want simply by association of the people around them and the situations they become part of.
March 15, 2008 11:11 AM
I think that Lee is saying that nobody is sure what women want given that they have so many more possibilities open to them than they used to. I think that the point of his article is to note a) many women are unhappy in their relationships with men and b) ASSUMING that a woman decides that she DOES want a man in her life, how should she conduct herself so as to minimize the pain and maximize the gain of the relationship.

There are gazillions of web sites out there with try to match singles up for "compatibility" of interests, personality, or whatever. Lee is addressing a more fundamental issue - what are the BEDROCK, more or less hard-wired characteristics of men and women which have to be addressed if you'd like to have a happy relationship? If a woman wants a man, what does that mean? If she wants a man, how can she find satisfaction with a man as opposed to misery?

If a woman GENUINELY doesn't want a man, fine, but how did she get that way? If she started out wanting a man and got hurt so often that she decided to give up, that is very sad.
March 15, 2008 11:44 AM
yes, all that is clear by the article. i understand what the author is saying. my point is that the author or you or anyone else cannot say "what a women GENUINELY wants" because they - like men - are all too different. what about homosexual men or women? do you consider them freaks of nature? there is no "bedrock". there is no "hard-wired".

some women want men; some want children; some want a career; some what bits and pieces of everything.

there is NO way of defining any of this as the default characteristics because there simply aren't any. people become what their experiences and affiliations and pesonality traits make them into.
March 15, 2008 11:51 AM
"people become what their experiences and affiliations and pesonality traits make them into"

I 100% agree with this comment. Men like to paint women in a way that accomodates how they would *like* women to be, thus justifying centuries of misogyny.

In the end, as twilight said, everyone is just a reflection of how they grew up.

(I should add that this is also why I believe homosexuals are not "born that way". They are also a reflection of how they grew up. That's why children of gay or gay-tolerant parents are more likely to *be* gay themselves.)
March 15, 2008 12:16 PM
In Japan, home of the SYF, a robot girlfriend ha been put on the market.

June 17, 2008 6:14 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...