‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth, in simplest form centres around a young woman whose mother is trying to arrange a marriage between her daughter and one of three suitors. The position of women, is one theme explored in the novel, but how this related to the institution of marriage is one that still resonates true, 27 years after publication.
We’ve all heard that behind every great man stands an even greater woman, so then, wouldn’t the opposite also be true? ʻAbdu’l-Baha wrote, “The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly.” The relationship between Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is perhaps the epitome of this statement. Famously, Martin, or Marty told the New York Times: “As a general rule, my wife does not give me any advice about cooking and I do not give her any advice about the law. This seems to work quite well on both sides.” This endearing role reversal is a symbol of equity within the home.
Ruth and Marty Ginsburg’s marriage, however did include Bader Ginsburg compromising as well. Early in her career, when her husband was diagnosed with cancer and unable to attend lectures at law school, Bader Ginsburg attended and took notes for Marty. Leaving her to work late into the night. Bader Ginsburg also changed to Columbia University from Harvard Law to complete her last year of law school, when Marty started work in the New York City. Their entire marriage seemed to be a two-way-street of consideration and compromise, so they each could achieve their goals.
Marty and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s marriage still is the exception, not the rule across the globe. But, at even greater odds with the Ginsburg’s, is a group of women in China I learned about during a course on gender leadership, ‘The Left Over Women’ or Sheng Nu. These group of women are over 27 years old, usually highly educated and wealthy, but unmarried, therefore labelled ‘leftover’. By gaining an education and career, these women without husbands or children are seen as worthless. This is an extreme, and blatant show of sexism, but iterations of this ideology is visible in the West as well, which I have experienced through my cross-cultural work and upbringing.
Even though I grew up with a father who celebrated and advocated for me, I clearly remember his hesitation as he dropped me off for business school. What I naturally assumed as his missing me, was later clarified when he said, “I wonder who will marry you if you continue to study and work as hard as you do? I’m so proud of your achievements but I’m also worried if you’ll ever find a suitable husband.” By now, my father had been in America for a number of years, after leaving India, but his programming somewhere in his subconscious set off alarm bells that men would feel threatened by my accomplishments. My father had embraced a gender neutral lens that he set for himself, but his cultural root was Indian, where marriage is a great concern for families with daughters. This cultural bias does not disappear, contradictions in views and beliefs are prevalent in our psyches, leading to inner and outer conflict, as my father displayed.
The pressure women feel ‘to have everything’ is still prevalent in modern society. In order to have everything, we cannot do everything. A man is rarely asked in business or socially “how do they do it all”. If they have a career, this is accepted. When a women does this she is questioned. Personally, I’ve been challenged and questioned on my career ambitions by several well-meaning relatives and friends. Even clients, as I travelled across Asia asked me, “how I manage to keep a family and husband with the travel demands of my career”. Likewise, many mid-career women who I’ve coached and supported through their career trajectories continue to struggle with their ‘biological clock’, familial expectations, and accommodating/supporting their husbands careers.
The balance we strive to reach societally will not occur with marriage being seen as the only aspiration for women. Across my home country, India, families still consider marriage and the festivities around marriage for women as their most important life moment. If parents are our leaders as children, and our teacher of values through adolescence, reflecting on what behaviours and pressures we are perpetuating is necessary. Ruth Bader Ginsburg would not have been able to open the doors for women, if she was told her marriage and family was more important than her career. Likewise, if Marty did not stand by and support her as she did him.