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Review: Hard To Do - The Surprising Feminist History of Breaking Up
Image: Hard to Do, Coach House Books
The idea of containing the whole history of the breakup in a short book—everything that has led us to a moment when women (at least some women, in certain parts of the world) are able to freely leave relationships, all in 120 pages—is daunting to say the least. The study of how relationships have evolved, and how the historically socially-condoned male-female romantic relationship developed and came to dominate in Western culture—is gargantuan in scope. Yet it is one that Kelli María Korducki has pulled off, in a format that could easily be read in one sitting.
Hard to Do: The Surprising Feminist History of Breaking Up (Coach House Books) is a chronological study. It starts with the birth of the love-marriage, a union based on personal choice and affection rather than the demands of class hierarchies and property exchange. This form of relationship began to spread in the nineteenth century, as seen in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, during the aptly-named Romantic period. Following a discussion of Pride and Prejudice, Korducki goes on to trace the significant historical events that further shaped the romantic union. These include laws permitting divorce, the urbanization of the 1920s, the Depression that followed, the sexual liberation of women in the 1960s, and the increasing number of women entering the workforce and gaining economic freedom throughout the twentieth century.
Korducki’s study is framed by the personal narrative of her own break-up—a type of break-up that is unprecedented, she says, if we look at history. There is nothing ostensibly wrong with the person Korducki leaves. He is a “great” person who checks all the typical boxes for what to look for in a partner. This is precisely why being able to break-up with him is momentous—because it’s a marker in the history of women’s agency and freedom. It is something that past generations of women in her family would have been unable to do.
Korducki’s break-up is—in the neutral, not negative, sense of the word—self-centred. The reasons are there but they are not reasons that our grandmothers, maybe not even our mothers, would understand. It is not a matter of maltreatment, unemployment, or infidelity. Actually, Korducki’s reasons for leaving a “great” partner might not even be understood by her friends. The idea that partners, especially ones that have nothing “wrong” with them, should be held onto for dear life, is alive and well. And being single—as almost every rom com tells us—is a hellish state to be avoided at all costs.
Intrigued by the word “surprising” in the book’s subtitle, I looked for what was most surprising in the history of break-ups. The surprise was not that increased economic independence and more social freedoms correlate to higher numbers of break-ups being initiated by women. It was that despite knowing that the socially imposed heteronormative nuclear family unit serves a limiting, patriarchal agenda, the idea of a two-person till-death-do-us-part unit remains wildly popular and, for many women, their life’s goal. The reasons for this, as Hard To Do makes clear, are multi-faceted, though perhaps the strongest indicator of whether one is inclined to marry or will remain married and for what reasons is economics.
Working in the field of family law, and having to read hundreds of monthly Canadian court decisions related to relationship break-ups, I often feel like a secret anthropologist. The court decisions describe, in great detail, the history of the separated couple: their first meeting, their education, their salaries, their griefs, the birthdates of their children. My exposure to these peculiar documents is in large part why Korducki’s book was both attractive to me and why I cringed at the thought of trying to contain the history of break-ups in such a small format.
As a feminist, reading these court cases, the stories of the hundreds of couples’ break-ups each month, is discomfiting. As Korducki’s book shows, the main factor for women’s present break-up-able point is their increased economic freedom: the ability to own their own property, work outside of the home, and earn wages that (though still not at par with men’s) make it possible to live on their own. Yet it’s still relatively rare for me to come across a court decision describing a male-female relationship where the female partner has a higher annual income than the male, or where the male partner, not the female, leaves his career and job in order to be a stay-at-home parent and care for the children.
Cases where the male partner is seeking spousal support—which is awarded to make up for the economic loss suffered through roles adopted in the relationship and due to its dissolution—are also scarce. In fact, when I come upon these rare court decisions, I stop. I celebrate them—but then I’m immediately reminded of the flip-side of my celebration: that they are unicorns. It is eye-opening and more than a little frightening how potent traditional gender norms remain, how they still guide so much, how women are kept in certain, less favourable, positions. The way my great-grandmothers’ relationships were structured is how many women’s lives remain structured today.
Korducki’s book ends with a look at what the future has to offer. Despite the continued appeal of marriage, there is, for instance, the massively growing number of cohabiting, unmarried couples. There is also increased support, or at the very least more attention, given to “alternative” relationships, such as polyamorous unions. Korducki’s last paragraph lays out an even more forward-looking idea, one that departs from the nuclear-family unit and focuses on communities instead: extended familiar networks where friends and partners fulfil needs in a way that hopefully eases the uneven burden that invariably lands on women in the male-female relationship. It’s a fun exercise to think about what Hard to Do’s next chapter would look like, one written even a few decades from now, telling the story of our continued evolution from characters in a Jane Austen novel to individuals who (for the most part) can break up with partners and make other entirely self-centered, selfish life choices.