Rebuttal

07.09.13

Boris Johnson Is Right: Some Women Go to College to Find a Husband

London Mayor Boris Johnson is under fire for suggesting that women go to college only to meet a husband. But as awkward as that sounds, he’s not all wrong, writes Janine di Giovanni.

“Boris tell [sic] jokes. We all know that. End of story.”

That comment, posted Monday on the website of The Guardian, basically says it all about Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and his latest crime.

According to the accompanying article, “Johnson has been accused of sexism after joking that the increase in the number of women attending university in Malaysia was [due to] their desire to find a husband.”

The comments came at the launch of the World Islamic Economic Forum at City Hall in London, where Johnson appeared alongside the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak. So possibly not the most sensitive of moments, Boris. But whatever.

Asked about the role of women in Islamic societies, Najib said: "Before coming here, my officials have told me that the latest university intake in Malaysia, a Muslim country, 68 percent will be women entering our universities." Johnson characteristically interrupted him, suggesting that the female students went to university because they “have got to find men to marry.”

Nevertheless, it would be too easy in this case to say that Johnson—one of the funniest and best-educated mayors in the world—is a sexist slob. He’s not.  

The fact is, feminism is not what it used to be.

In fact, Johnson is surrounded by strong, intelligent women. His sister, Rachel Johnson, is a fierce feminist in her own right, a former Financial Times journalist, and now a novelist. His wife, Marina, is a lawyer. His first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, was one of the most clever (and beautiful) women at Oxford. In 2012 he asked her to work for him as part of his Muslim Engagement Task Force. Johnson has had his scandals, but he is not the kind of man to go out with a Russian mail-order bride.

And in truth, Johnson was not so far off the mark, though of course he could have been more delicate. On some level, the comment was most insulting to the hijab-wearing professional women in the audience, who apparently let out a common groan as Johnson delivered his punchline. Had he not alienated the Muslim audience, he might have gotten away with it from the politically correct thought police.

But let’s give Boris a break. The fact is, feminism is not what it used to be. While there are many young women who still strive to carry the feminist mantle and attend higher studies so that they can be economically free of men—how many of them have read Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and aspire to be men’s true equals?—I would guess that most would aspire to be a hedge-fund manager’s wife before they would become a suffragette.

In 2011 Catherine Hakim, a prominent sociologist from the London School of Economics, conducted a highly controversial study that suggested women are marrying more for money now than they did in the 1940s. She told the BBC: "There is this myth that women invariably choose to have a relationship of total equality.” She concluded: "More and more women are choosing to marry men who are substantially better educated than them and therefore have higher earnings capacity."

Based on her findings, Hakim believes that after decades of campaigning for gender equality, women are having a difficult time admitting they would prefer to be housewives than career-minded women.

That is perhaps not what we feminists would like to hear, given the fact that women like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer spent most of their lives battling for women to have the right to earn the same amount of money as men—and thus not have to marry. And given that most of us would rather die than be put back into the mold of an apron-wearing 1940s housewife, Hakim’s findings were uncomfortable.

But there is truth to it. There is also truth to the fact that women are not the only ones to go hunting.

As one male blogger admitted in the Guardian following Boris’s gaffe:

Is this a good moment to mention that I went to university, at least in part, in the hope of finding a wife/girlfriend/soul mate/life partner?

Obviously it's sexist to suggest that this is more of a factor for women than for men. And obviously Johnson is an utter buffoon with an astonishing talent for making a fool of himself with an ill-judged remark or gesture.

Most people, regardless of sex, are primarily motivated to go to university by a combination of the love of learning and a desire to expand their minds, improve their prospects etc.

But surely relationships are also one of the major things many of us are thinking about when we decide to leave our homes and go off to meet lots of like-minded, similarly aged people?

Full disclosure: I went to university as an eager young feminist for many reasons—to get away from my parents, to soak up literature and knowledge, to cease being a child, to expand my mind and my world. It just happens that I also met my (first) husband at university. I’m not sure that finding a husband at university made me any less of a feminist or an academic. I still soaked up Susan Faludi; I still read Doris Lessing. But I did it at the same time I met someone who I felt was my soulmate.

So give Boris a break. We learned long ago that Johnson has no filters between his brain and his mouth. He tells jokes. He is funny. In this case, he was inappropriate—but he was (kind of) right.