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Women Now Choose If and When to Be In a Relationship

A more gender-equal society places less pressure on women to get married.

Key points

  • Ending the stigmatized identity of being a single woman.
  • Strong relationships between a woman’s level of education and age at first marriage have been found.
  • Increased gender equality allows more women to flourish outside of traditional relationship arrangements.
Women Now Choose If and When to Be In a Relationship
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 Our World In Data on Wikimedia Commons
Are married women required by law to obey their husbands?
Source: Our World In Data on Wikimedia Commons

The shifting role of women in society, particularly in the West, has led to reduced rates of marriage and fertility, as well as older age of first marriage, and greater gender equality in the workforce [1] and education [2].

In turn, a more gender-equal society places less pressure on women to get married and have children. Instead, such a social environment provides opportunities and encourages women to advance academically and professionally.

Indeed, strong relationships between women’s level of education and age at first marriage have been found [3, 4]. The reason for this link: Young women in education do not want marriage or motherhood at that stage and that increased career resources are associated with women postponing or avoiding having children [5].

Therefore, it may be reasonable to expect interactions between being single and living in communities with higher levels of equality and education, as well as higher women’s salaries and increased rates of labor force participation. Notably, the advances in gender equality have given more reason to expect interaction between gender equality and singles’ demographics [6].

Advances in gender equality and changes to the role that women play in society have also affected the way in which men evaluate relationship prospects. The argument here: As gender equality progressed, and particularly during the second wave of feminism, increased women’s independence, freedom of choice, and autonomy were unappealing to men, who sought women with more traditional values and approaches.

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Singlehood and Women’s Status in Society
Source: Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

Simultaneously, the change offered by increased gender equality allowed more women to flourish outside of traditional relationship arrangements, leading to a decline in relationship formation [7]. Indeed, some believed that feminism and equality are in direct conflict with relationship formation [8].

The advancement of feminist issues in the workforce has been coupled with steady increases in the level of women’s education, particularly across the OECD, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [9]. In turn, through case studies on Italian women, Blossfeld and De Rose [4] showed how higher levels of education have both direct and indirect effects on the marriage rates of women. Direct since individuals still in education are less likely to get married, so higher levels of education result in a shorter period when an individual is on the marriage market. Indirect since higher levels of education are associated with more emphasis and priority on a career when compared to family.

These arguments are strengthened by more recent research showing that even in countries (such as Norway) where policies supporting individuals choosing to start families during studies have been adopted, enrollment in higher education significantly reduces marriage and birth rates [2].

Particularly in recent years, medical and technological advancements are also playing a part in women’s decisions to enter relationships, get married, and start families. Where fertility treatments have become both more effective and more easily available, there is less time pressure on women to get married and start a family at a younger age when they are likely to be more fertile [10].

It should be noted that many governments even subsidize fertility treatments for both single and partnered women, providing increased flexibility in options for having children: women who want to delay marriage can afford to do so with reduced risk of being unable to bear children.

Indeed, investigations of the effects of mandated insurance coverage of assisted reproductive technologies have found connections between increased access to fertility treatments and marriage age. In the US, for example, where fertility treatment is available, women are significantly more likely to marry for the first time above the age of 35 [11]. This is particularly true for more affluent demographics, who presumably have better insurance coverage or access to fertility treatment.

Also as a result of increased fertility technology and options, women who would like to have children but prefer not to enter a relationship can now do exactly that, with sperm banks also serving single women.

In addition to providing the physical ability for single women to become pregnant, the sperm bank industry has, in some contexts, allowed for the de-commodification of sperm [12]. By personifying donations and romanticizing the donor-recipient bond, sperm banks can add significant emotional context to a sperm donation that provides a representation of the enchantment that is often desired from a living male partner, thereby facilitating and easing the choice of many women to start families while staying single.

Elyakim Kislev is the author of Happy Singlehood and Relationships 5.0.


1. Inglehart, R. and C. Welzel, Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. 2005: Cambridge University Press.

2. Lutz, W. and V. Skirbekk, Policies Addressing the Tempo Effect in Low‐Fertility Countries. Population and Development Review, 2005. 31(4): p. 699-720.

3. Quisumbing, A.R. and K. Hallman, Marriage in transition: Evidence on age, education, and assets from six developing countries. The changing transitions to adulthood in developing countries: Selected studies, 2005: p. 200-269.

4. Blossfeld, H.-P. and A. De Rose, Educational expansion and changes in entry into marriage and motherhood. The experience of Italian women. Genus, 1992: p. 73-91.

5. Blossfeld, H.-P. and J. Huinink, Human capital investments or norms of role transition? How women's schooling and career affect the process of family formation. American journal of Sociology, 1991: p. 143-168.

6. Surkyn, J. and R. Lesthaeghe, Value orientations and the second demographic transition (SDT) in Northern, Western and Southern Europe: An update. Demographic research, 2004. 3: p. 45-86.

7. Barnett, R.C. and J.S. Hyde, Women, men, work, and family. American psychologist, 2001. 56(10): p. 781.

8. Messner, M.A., “Changing men” and feminist politics in the United States. Theory and Society, 1993. 22(5): p. 723-737.

9. OECD, The Future of Families to 2030: Projections, Policy Challenges and Policy Options, in International Futures Programme. 2011, OECD: Paris, France.

10. Gregory, E., Ready: Why women are embracing the new later motherhood. 2012: Perseus Books Group.

11. Abramowitz, J., Turning back the ticking clock: the effect of increased affordability of assisted reproductive technology on women’s marriage timing. Journal of Population Economics, 2014. 27(2): p. 603-633.

12. Bokek-Cohen, Y.a. and L.D. Gonen, Sperm and simulacra: emotional capitalism and sperm donation industry. New Genetics and Society, 2015. 34(3): p. 243-273.

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