Independent wives, independent daughters (and maybe independent husbands and sons)

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I read with interest a recent Wonkblog post:

When asked what qualities they want in in a wife, American heterosexual men said they value "attractive" and "sweet" women, a national survey recently found. Only 34 percent, however, said they wanted a romantic partner who is "independent."

But the story changes when respondents considered the qualities they want to see in their daughters. Beauty [11%] and a pleasant disposition [19%], for example, mattered much less than strength [48%] and intelligence [81%] ….

The results, gleaned from a survey of 881 men across the country earlier this month, show "an eye-opening disparity between the qualities contemporary men feel are paramount in a wife and/or partner and what they value for their daughters when they grow up," said The Shriver Report Snapshot: An Insight Into the 21st Century Man, which was published Friday.

I wonder, though, whether there might be a different explanation here, and one that's neither particularly "disturbing" nor "eye-opening." The traits represented by the words "independent" and "sweet" are traits that rightly vary by context and relationship. If someone asks you how important it is that your wife be sweet—or that your husband be sweet—you may well focus on her or his being sweet to you, not to the world at large. And you may well find that pretty important, since spouses ought to be sweet to each other.

But if someone asks you how important it is that your daughter be sweet "when she grows up" (that's the wording of the survey), or that your grown son be sweet, you may well focus on her or his being sweet to the many people she or he comes in contact with (what we often think of as a generally sweet disposition). That's a less important trait. The survey may thus be measuring two different traits: for those respondents asked about their wives, sweetness to one's spouse; for those asked about their daughters, sweetness to people generally. (The survey didn't ask the same respondents about wives and daughters; half were asked about wives and half about daughters.)

Something similar might be in play as to "independent." If someone asks you, "Please select which two or three qualities you most want in a wife or female partner," and gives "independent" as an option, you might be thinking "independent from me, her husband." That could bring to mind qualities such as her willingness to stand up for herself in family decisions. But it could also bring to mind qualities such as a desire to spend more time alone, or not to rely on you in daily life. To many men and women, including many that are quite egalitarian, this latter form of independence may not be that attractive: Marriage, to them, is supposed to be about interdependence, and even though they may value some forms of independence within a marriage, a spouse's "independence" as a general matter might not seem that positive to them (or at least not something that would be among the two or three qualities they most want).

On the other hand, if someone asks you, "Please select which two or three qualities you most want in a daughter when she grows up," and gives "independent" as an option, you might be thinking "financially independent from me, her father"—and you might well like that. Or you might think "financially independent, so she doesn't feel pressured to be with a man, or stay with a man, because of his money"; that too is good. (You might not see your wife's financial dependence on you as a problem, even if you love her and want what's best for her, because you feel confident that this dependence won't hurt her; you can't have such a confidence about the prospective husbands or boyfriends of your daughter when she is grown.) You might likewise think "independent of pressure from her peers," another thing that's good in a daughter, but probably not the thing you'd think of when asked about attributes of your wife. So again the survey may be measuring two different traits: independence from your own spouse, which has both pluses and minuses, and independence from peers, boyfriends, and financial reliance on one's parents.

(Note also that the survey asked what the "two or three qualities you most want" are. This doesn't mean that most men don't, for instance, want their daughters to be sweet—maybe they do and maybe they don't—but just that they don't list sweetness among the top two or three qualities, and might prefer intelligence, independence, and strength.)

Of course it's possible that, even if the survey were crafted better, it would still reveal that men value precisely the same traits more in their wives than in their daughters; as it is, we can only guess how the respondents interpreted context-sensitive terms such as "independent" and "sweet," and maybe none of them interpreted those terms in the way that I suggest. If the better study did indeed demonstrate such differences, we could then discuss whether that is indeed "disturbing." (Sometimes it's not disturbing, for instance, in men's listing attractiveness more often as one of the top two or three features in a wife, and less often in a daughter; sometimes it might be disturbing.) But it seems to me that the Shriver Report survey, as it was actually conducted, doesn't actually demonstrate much.