In Defense of Women is a sly polemic written by H. L. Mencken almost 100 years ago, basically accusing women of trapping men into marriage because, according to him, we are much smarter than men but they are our economic main chance. Okay, simmer down. Times have changed since 1918. Women did get the vote. We did permeate the public world and are still pressing on to make further gains in government, the sciences, and other previously male-only or male-centric realms. We routinely work outside the home, and we no longer have to marry to assure ourselves of a secure economic future.
But such was not the case nearly 100 years ago, although Mencken points out that by then the situation had improved from 100 years prior to his time. He claimed that previously, a woman “could imagine nothing more favorable to her than marriage; even marriage with a fifth-rate man was better than no marriage at all.” And isn’t that exactly what Charlotte Lucas says to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, written about 100 years before Mencken’s book? Charlotte marries the idiotic toady, Mr. Collins, rather than remain a spinster. Perhaps our modern love affair with Jane Austen persists in part because Elizabeth, speaking for Austen, is so disapproving of this marriage of economic convenience. As was Mencken 100 years later, when such marriages were already going out of fashion. And as are we today, when women who marry for money are despised as gold-diggers.
Still, it stings to read his claim that women were intent on trapping men into matrimony for the sole purpose of attaining economic security. Was the accusation true? Yes and no. It was probably as true as the counter-accusation that men married women just to have someone to cook and clean for them and produce offspring. Even 100 years ago, most men and women in our society married in the belief that they loved or admired the other person. Romantic novels had already existed for over 100 years by then. (The first English novel was a romance, remember.) Further, 100 years ago there were artistic archetypes in magazines of handsome young men and women to dream about. There were romantic songs. Movies existed and matinee idols were just around the corner. Even more significantly, marriage no longer involved a dowry from the bride’s family. Most men married for the woman herself, not for the money or land she would bring him. Did women marry for the man himself, or for the economic security? Sadly, because men had more economic options than women did, there’s a good chance that some women settled, as Charlotte Lucas did a century before. But even Charlotte Lucas acknowledged that a marriage based on true affinity would have been preferable. The problem with settling was that in an era in which divorce was uncommon and created a heavy social stigma, marriage was for life, and there doubtless were some unhappy surprises after the vows had been said.
Nearly 100 years after Mencken wrote In Defense of Women, many changes have occurred. Women don’t need to marry for economic security; they can create it themselves. Men don’t need to marry to have children; they can just live with a girlfriend who is willing to have babies without marrying. The microwave and commercially prepared meals mean that no one has to know how to cook. In between then and now, women and men spent nearly 100 years lightly chaperoned and going on dates that were essentially chaste in intent. A party or a dance. Dinner and a movie. Not so today, if the reports in the media are to be believed. If people like each other at all, they may end up in bed almost immediately. Only afterwards do they begin to decide if their relationship has any future. Or even if it’s a romantic relationship at all. Ironically, there is nothing new about this. It mimics the common situation of the past (whether 100 or 1,000 years ago) in which men and women courted formally or perhaps did not even meet before the wedding. Only after the marriage ceremony did they begin to learn about the real character of the new spouse. The relationship began once the wedding feast was over.
How, then, are we to judge Mencken’s dispatch from the past? Is the marriage of entrapment, made for economic purposes, dead and gone? Yes. Mencken’s outrage appears pointless in these days of men and women who live together without ever marrying, and households supported by the woman’s income, not the man’s. In fact, the conditions that Mencken observed appear to have been merely a stop along the way towards what we have today. Social mores quickly evolved even during his lifetime, and the carefully chaperoned young woman who tricked a man into marriage by putting on a demure act simply disappeared. Men and women dated freely throughout the twentieth century. More and more, they married entirely to please themselves, even crossing ethnic, social, and religious boundaries, to say nothing of not judging a potential spouse by economic standards. Of course there still are people willing to marry for money, both men and women, and even those willing to trap someone into marriage. But these instances are rare in our society today.
Is there anything to be learned from Mencken’s opinion of women? Yes, but probably not what he intended. What Mencken reveals by condemning women while seeming to admire them is that men also chafed under the old system. Modern courtship may be confusing, infuriating, and messy. But there is more freedom and honesty on both sides. Marriage has not been discarded as an ideal, but its main purpose today is seen as romantic, not material. People today look to marry their true love or soul mate, not a good provider or a good cook or baby maker. That nobody has to write supposed defenses of women anymore is proof that we’ve come a long way. But “He’s Just Not That Into You” and the current Jane Austen mania suggest that we’d like the courtship dance to be even more clear cut than it presently is. If that’s possible.