She begins by noting that she had a terrific chance to marry in her late 20s, which she turned down:
In 2001, when I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered.
Why would she do that? Her answer is twofold: the autonomy theory she was brought up on led her to prioritise independence over relationships, and she assumed that there would always be men for her to partner with.
Let's begin with the assumption that there would always be eligible men seeking her out. Kate Bolick is a very physically attractive woman. She describes how in her 20s she managed easily to pursue serial long-term relationships with men:
Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck. A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again. This wasn’t hubris so much as naïveté; I’d had serious, long-term boyfriends since my freshman year of high school, and simply couldn’t envision my life any differently.
...That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith.
Despite the advantage of her good looks, she now doesn't have the pick of men but feels she must settle. Where have all the "good men" gone? She observes:
...as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind. We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.
Most of the men have already married, others have dropped out. And fewer suitable man are available anyway as women have pushed up the career ladder, with many of their male peers losing the motivation to do likewise. (Note the language Kate Bolick uses: "finally ready to start our lives". In her mind her 20s were just a kind of play life - a wait until her real life could finally begin in her 30s. But why delay your real life for so long?)
Bolick does recognise here the major issue that as women do increasingly better in education and careers than men that it becomes more difficult for women to marry up:
the decline of males has obviously been ... bad news for marriage. For all the changes the institution has undergone, American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be “marriageable” men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity ... the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the “marriage market” in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever. At the rate things are going, the next generation’s pool of good men will be significantly smaller. What does this portend for the future of the American family?
Bolick is aware, too, that as her youth and fertility decline that she is losing ground in the dating market to younger women:
I am fully aware that with each passing year, I become less attractive to the men in my peer group, who have plenty of younger, more fertile women to pick from.
All of these are important and meaty issues which are covered very well at various sites on the net. But the other part of Kate Bolick's explanation is rarely dealt with, perhaps because it requires a more fundamental rethink of modern values.
Kate Bolick tells us very clearly that she was raised to prioritise individual autonomy. And the logic of autonomy was that she should remain independent for as long as possible.
...the elevation of independence over coupling (“I wasn’t ready to settle down”) is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother...
I was her first and only recruit, marching off to third grade in tiny green or blue T-shirts declaring: A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle, or: A Woman’s Place Is in the House—and the Senate, and bellowing along to Gloria Steinem & Co.’s feminist-minded children’s album, Free to Be...You and Me...
...my future was to be one of limitless possibilities...This unfettered future was the promise of my time and place...We took for granted that we’d spend our 20s finding ourselves, whatever that meant, and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which of course would happen at the magical age of 30.
Limitless possibilities. An unfettered future. No restrictions on what can be autonomously chosen. Someone brought up to believe in this isn't going to think seriously about how our choices need to be ordered and about how a workable framework to society needs to be organised and maintained.
Here again Kate Bolick writes about her prioritising of independence over love:
When I embarked on my own sojourn as a single woman in New York City...it wasn’t dating I was after. I was seeking something more vague and, in my mind, more noble, having to do with finding my own way, and independence.
She continues later by praising the Mosuo in China for their matrilineal culture in which there is no stable marriage commitment:
The matrilineal Mosuo are worth pausing on, as a reminder of how complex family systems can be, and how rigid ours are...For centuries, the Mosuo have lived in households that revolve around the women...
Sexual relations are kept separate from family. At night, a Mosuo woman invites her lover to visit her babahuago (flower room)...there are no expectations or rules. As Cai Hua, a Chinese anthropologist, explains, these relationships, which are known as açia, are founded on each individual’s autonomy, and last only as long as each person is in the other’s company. Every goodbye is taken to be the end of the açia relationship, even if it resumes the following night. “There is no concept of açia that applies to the future,” Hua says.
But the really important quote is this one:
In the months leading to my breakup with Allan, my problem, as I saw it, lay in wanting two incompatible states of being—autonomy and intimacy...This is what she sees as her problem. This is why she dropped the man she might have married and had children with. And she is right - autonomy and intimacy (i.e. autonomy and committed love) are incompatible. You have to decide on how to order them: do you sacrifice a measure of your autonomy to enjoy the good of marital love? Or do you reject a stable relationship to maintain autonomy?
Most of us decide that the fulfilment of a good marriage and having children is the higher good. But Kate Bolick, having been raised from girlhood to value autonomy above all else, has never been able to come to this decision decisively.
She is still caught in a kind of limbo in wanting both things. This is clear in her writing in which she jumps from regrets about not having married and her missed opportunities to ideas about marriage being a false historical construct to be replaced by more flexible living arrangements.
Her current compromise appears to be a desire to find a community of women to find companionship with. That is probably one of the worst options she could take.
Anyway, the larger lesson is that there are losses in making autonomy the overriding good in society. We can certainly value autonomy, but it's wrong to think of it as the highest, ordering principle of society.