The world lacks drinking games relating to women’s studies, so here’s a suggestion: If you can get a women’s studies stalwart to say the word coverture before the conversation’s second minute elapses, throw one back for the 21st Amendment. Then you’ll be comfortable as you receive a wealth of information about women under English Common Law. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention declared that coverture, a common-law concept that had crossed the Atlantic in the Colonial Era, “made [a woman], if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead” by legally categorizing husband and wife as one person. The angry ladies of first-wave feminism helped get women out from under their husbands’ pesky feathers for good. What it all means is that when your teenager drops her phone on the locker-room floor, you won’t be allowed to buy her a new one simply by virtue of being her mother if her father (your husband, by the way) has the account in his name. Why would the name you share have any weight beyond sentiment?
But you know how old habits are. Reboots of coverture are all over our legal system, which is why gay people needed marriage, rather than just a buddy system. Spousal privilege, probate law, and health-care directives all run on remnants of the idea that marriage has more to it than two plastic guys making out on top of a white cake. We have not yet thrown off radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s “vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled”—i.e., the biological family. (You can take another drink for Shulamith.)
Coverture isn’t the only retrograde problem still wrecking our society. All over this country, people are taking out second mortgages to send their daughters on a four-year vacation from reality. At the end, each girl receives a participation certificate signifying the flocks and herds she will bring to a marriage. Maybe you’ve heard of a system like this, but without the vacation? A dowry was a girl’s ticket into her proper place in the marriage market, and an insurance policy against catastrophe. Feminist-driven progress has not overcome the concerns implicit in a dowry’s function. Mom and Dad, it’s still your job to help your daughter gain access to suitable suitors and take out some marriage insurance. To most people today, that sounds like college.
Marriage has never been a risk-free prospect. The recently achieved vacuity of the marriage contract has hoisted the stakes for those who would hazard to marry, even among traditionalists. You can’t really escape the culture in which you live, move, and have your being. Are parents really to trust a young man who could easily rub out his name tomorrow from the certificate to which he applies a borrowed pencil today? So the dowry, like coverture, still dwells among us covertly to spare our enlightened feelings.
Dowries are economic and anthropological workhorses. Contemporaniacs understand well that dowries, like all old-timey things, existed to demean women. The reality is more subtle. Economist Siw an Anderson admits up front that her data on the subject “are synthesized from a patchwork of studies across periods, places, and even epochs.” The sprawling trove of anecdata associated with dowry research shows that dowries are hopelessly entangled with folkways related to inheritance, wealth, social status, home economics, and boring old historical situations like a ton of mothers’ sons getting killed in a war. This means that there is no one way to endow a daughter, and no one reason for doing so. Continental generalities apply, but significant variants between adjacent villages’ dowry customs are also par for the course.
The generality that applies to us is that dowries are characteristic of complex societies. An example of a complex society is one in which figuring out your own money requires lawyers, and movies like Bridesmaids get made. The driving force of the American dowry system is not sex imbalance in the population, nor do we really manage inheritance on such terms. Our task is to regulate the complications of wealth and social status upon the marriage market in which we must participate.
Before we continue, we should deal with two objections. First, why daughters? Well, why does the groom’s family get away with nothing more than the rehearsal dinner? Because all but the wokest among us have agreed to it. Moreover, if we believe there is such a thing as society, it balances out. Anthropologists Stevan Harrell and Sara Dickey commented in 1985,
Grooms and parents everywhere are interested in the value of a dowry that a prospective bride will bring in but this is natural enough in a system in which they will have to dower their own daughters . . . and where a dowry is an accustomed source of family resources.
As long as the occurrence of female offspring in the human population remains roughly half, reasonable people will remain roughly OK with the idea that girls and boys come with different expectations for parents. This brings us to our second objection: Who says we’re dealing with dowries here in the U.S. of A., and not bride prices? The rehearsal dinner reveals that we, like many societies, show a bit of reciprocity in our marriage customs. But the greater expectations for the bride’s family show that we remain within the norms of complex societies.
The American dowry system has two goals in mind. The first is to get a girl into the right dating pool. Harrell and Dickey observe that in complex societies, dowry “becomes a means to maintain social status by attracting a husband of at least equal standing for one’s daughter.” In our culture, college is the reckoning point of social status, as some hillbilly recently elegized. American public schooling effectively provides equal opportunity for socializing until age 18 (outside the gated schools of the elite). After that, participation in one’s natural social group must be pursued at one’s own expense. College is now seen as a necessity, and therefore a right, for most people. This means that a girl of even moderate intelligence will likely feel lonely if she elects to stay home or find her own place, rather than starting 13th grade next September.
The second purpose of the American dowry is to weave a safety net that we need not be jaded to see as prudent. Traditional dowries provided for a wife in the event of her being widowed or abandoned. A diploma’s value has certainly been eroded, but it is still easier to get a job with one than without. Furthermore, the two-income household has become standard for the middle class. We can complain about feminism wrecking wages by flooding the labor market, but the ship has sailed, and we’re on it. Many households that would prefer to run on one income have been squeezed out of feasibility. If any of these dowry scenarios plays out in the life of a daughter, parents feel relieved to have done what they can to provide for her and her children.
There are two approaches to dowering a daughter nowadays. The first is to get her through college either entirely, or by cosigning for student loans that will be hers to repay. The second is to marry her off debt-free as quickly as possible.
The conventional route—to attend college and acquire a career path and/or a husband there—makes sense if we disregard the colossal expense and complication. The complications begin early. Does a girl choose the best possible school that will have her, thereby gaining access to a high-status male population, of which a member could easily repay the debts she will incur as a low-average admittee? Does she take the scholarship she is offered to an unselective institution, and hope to snag a like-minded marlin from among the comparative bottom feeders? Or does she split the difference, banking on a moderate debt and/or a moderate provider?
One problem here is that the expected outcome of a college degree is a job, not a husband. A job is supposed to pay for itself. For a husband’s job to pay his wife’s educational debts in addition to his own is not really part of the deal. The amount of debt brought to marriage by both parties under the despotic pricing of higher education makes an old-fashioned Trollopian fret-fest over a girl’s fortune look like a blessed relief. There is some comfort in the freedom to say outright that “Frank must marry money.” Now we just hope Mr. and Mrs. Frank find a way to dig themselves out of the hole before their kids start college. Jacob’s seven years of indentured servitude were owed to a father-in-law who had his daughters’ well-being in mind. The bank on the other end of a student loan doesn’t care about anybody.
In addition to the problem of material debt, college normally entails an expectation of formal participation in the workforce. Those who find a spouse during college are pressured to feel that time and money have been wasted if both partners’ degrees are not put to reasonable use. For a woman to stay home with her children after others made payments on her diploma smells fraudulent. She herself may wonder why she bothered with all that rigmarole if the real goal was to change the right man’s children’s diapers.
Then there is the problem of diminishing returns on undergraduate education. Bachelor’s degrees are so widespread as to signify little about the holder’s merit. Should she need to find employment, a woman who has spent years at home with children is in a worse position than either a new graduate or working members of her own undergraduate class. She has no professional recommendations, little work experience, and no excuse for not having them.
Then there is I Am Charlotte Simmons.
But none of the above is necessary, and all of it assumes that a girl positively wants to go to college. She could simply get married, have babies, and skip all the money trouble, couldn’t she? Yes, if she has not been dissuaded from seeing that she’s allowed to want that out of life. But the dowry’s function as catastrophe insurance must still be taken into account. Should the worst happen, the employment options for a woman without a degree range from day-care aide to Sandwich Artist. The security of right-minded grandfathers under such a scenario requires that those grandfathers be quite well-to-do. Most potential grandparents choose college costs over the risk of total living expenses for the fatherless and the widow.
Greater harm may lie in the American dowry’s other purpose: A young lady must gain access to the population of men from which she wishes to come by a husband. Nobel laureate Gary Becker’s 1974 “Theory of Marriage” described a marriage market in which “Each person tries to find the best mate, subject to the restrictions imposed by market conditions.” Becker found that “sorting of mates by wealth, education, and other characteristics is similar under apparently quite different conditions.” A general correspondence of class and intellect is advisable between husband and wife, and most people seek it out. College pre-sorts young adults into communities of people who have certain basics in common. This means that a girl who opts out of college to embrace full-time motherhood and family cuts herself off from the widest pool of fit fiancés. In the American marriage market, it’s a husband whose price is above rubies, especially since men make up only 44 percent of college students.
Class, wealth, age, and intelligence are not the only similarities desirable between husband and wife. Becker also cites race, ethnicity, religion, geographical propinquity, and height among the correlations valued by those seeking comparative advantage through marriage. Interest-based communities are a traditional place for getting youngsters paired off. Churches are the most obvious such communities, and normally account for race and ethnicity in addition to religion. Residents of college towns could drop off marriageable daughters at Student Life Centers and hope for a result other than a citation for trespassing. I myself once knew a towering woman who met her husband at Chicago’s Paramount Tall Club (women qualify for membership at 5’10”, men at 6’2″). Matchmaking through organically occurring affinity groups may be preferable, but the increase of Bowling Alone is well known. Nothing so demoralizes singles as attending a singles group comprising three people whose compatibility can be immediately ruled out.
Although the problems with college are legion, getting out of college with a well-matched spouse is beyond appraisal. Young people would be well served by less scoffing at the MRS degree. In fact, parents who want to see their daughter married well should let her know they would be satisfied with that outcome from her time in college. A daughter would ideally become the wife of a man who, like Cordelia’s King of France, sees that “She is herself a dowry.” Situating one’s daughter to offer a worthy suitor his own sense of security is an act of goodwill, which in-laws usually need. In Becker’s marriage market, the “husband’s wage rate and [the] wife’s education are significantly positively correlated, even when husband’s education and wife’s wage rate are held constant.” In short, the hours a husband works are rewarded with better pay according to his wife’s education. Therefore, even a woman’s diploma that ends up at the bottom of a cardboard box brings real economic benefits to most marriages. A young man interested in a trad-wife might ask himself whether his degree can pay for hers in addition to his own if her dowry is small.
Parents would do well to work smarter, not harder, when it comes to dowry planning. Unless parents are very well-off, it’s hard to see how it would be wise, in our time, to counsel an intellectually inclined daughter to skip college altogether. Neither should parents go along with a child’s plan to pursue Instagram Studies at a $70,000 per annum diploma mill. Selecting a college on the basis of its graduate debt-load can double down on the cost problem by bringing students into contact with others who have prioritized financial security in their life planning. The Internet, with its malignant:useful ratio approximating that of college, enables communication among people who have things in common besides geography. While churches and social organizations do not have the participants they once did, their ancient infrastructures can offer a jump start on making personal connections. The American marriage market has a lot of problems, but traditionalists have the wherewithal to be smart shoppers.
The orderly social protocols of our forefathers have been replaced with a muddle of half-baked bad ideas. Considering a daughter’s future in terms of dowry restores clarity to the task. One thing the girls have going for them is that the impulse to protect and provide is the essence of patriarchy. Every dad checks his daughter’s brakes and buys her a carbon-monoxide detector. He wants her insured against shameless rakery, whether he sees it in systemic sexism or in individual jerks. He knows how life treats people. Since his little girl isn’t special to the universe, it’s his job to make up as much of the difference as he can. He covers her, and does his best to make sure that the guy who takes over that job for him is up to it, one way or another. Then he pours himself another drink.