Why Are Women around World Opting Out of Marriage?

Marriage isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

That’s the theme Boston University anthropologist Joanna Davidson explores in her new book, Opting Out: Women Messing with Marriage Around the World (Rutgers University Press, 2022).

The collection of 12 essays, from anthropologists working around the globe, chronicles women moving away from “traditional” marital arrangements in societies where marriage is widely considered obligatory. Essays include analyses of young, single women in India, extramarital intimacy in Japan, and women enjoying “absent” husbands in Senegal. A BU College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of anthropology, Davidson’s contribution examines widows who choose not to remarry in Guinea-Bissau, where she’s long performed fieldwork.

Joanna Davidson says her new book is about ways women are “protagonists in moving the needle on marriage.” Photo courtesy of Davidson

It’s important to note that Opting Out, which Davidson coedited with Dinah Hannaford of the University of Houston, isn’t a summary dismissal of marriage. Rather, the volume chronicles the subtle ways in which women are “protagonists in moving the needle on marriage around the world,” says Davidson, who also serves as associate director of Kilachand Honors College. “It opens up the question, what are they opting out of, and what are they opting back into?”

The answers are as varied as the locales featured in each essay. That’s entirely purposeful, according to the coeditors. “All of the contributors have done really sustained fieldwork in the places they’re writing about,” Davidson says. “[We] really wanted to make this an edited volume in which we were all challenging each other in order to enrich our ideas, experiences, and ways of analyzing what we were encountering in these very different places.”

Davidson talked to The Brink about her new book, her research, and what, exactly, it means to opt out of marriage.

Davidson conducting research and chatting with a collaborator in rural Guinea-Bissau, where she’s long performed fieldwork. Photos by Bobby Milstein

Image: Book Cover for
Opting Out: Women Messing with Marriage Around the World is a collection of 12 essays examining nontraditional marriage arrangements.

This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

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