Jill Filipovic has read a report on families put out by the Obama administration and feels
there is reason to celebrate. The traditional family, she believes, is dead.
It's finally time to ring the death knell for traditional marriage. Last week, the Obama administration released a comprehensive report on the status of American women, the first of its kind since 1963...The report sheds light on the status of the American family – a social unit that has been remade by social liberalism.
Conservatives are right: traditional marriage is under attack ... [people are] marrying later, they're marrying less, and for reasons other than having children...
She's a feminist who is not entirely against marriage, just the traditional version of it:
We're still a long way from a gender-egalitarian marital utopia, but traditional marriage is blessedly deceased. With its demise has come a new marriage model that is by nearly every measure better for men, women and children, and is hopefully continuing to improve.
Marriage itself is far from dead. But the traditional conservative vision of it is, and thank goodness for that
Why would she be so vehemently opposed to the traditional family? She thinks that it is not based sufficiently on women's autonomy
Family structures have changed. The definition of marriage has shifted. Gender equality is increasingly embraced. For people who support women's autonomy and believe that progress is valuable, this is a good thing. For those who cling to a separate-but-equal gender ideology... this is very, very ominous.
Let's say you want more autonomy for women. This means that:
a) You'll like the idea of family commitments being deferred. That means that women can continue to live the single girl lifestyle for longer and can focus on careers rather than family for longer.
b) You'll think that careers are more important than family. Therefore, the fact that men focus on breadwinning in the traditional family will seem unequal. So you'll want to see a role reversal in which men do more of the childcare and women more of the breadwinning.
c) You'll want to be self-defined rather than defined by your biological sex. So you won't like the gender roles in the traditional family. You'll see them as fetters. You'll celebrate role reversal for this reason too.
If you're a liberal, therefore, you'll think it progressive if people marry later and if the lines of gender are increasingly blurred within the family. You'll also think it more equal if women focus more on careers than motherhood.
There are numerous ways to criticise this liberal vision of the family:
a) If you were really to take autonomy seriously as the highest good, then why marry at all? Marriage takes sacrifices to work well. It inevitably means restricting your autonomous choice of what to do in favour of other goods (the goods of motherhood, fatherhood etc.)
b) If there is nothing to connect men to a distinctly masculine family role, and if the traditional male role of being a provider and protector is thought harmful to women, then there is less to motivate men to commit to family life.
c) If there are no distinct roles for men and women in the family, so that the roles are interchangeable, then the role of men is unnecessary - it is at best optional. Again, this contributes to unstable family commitments. A man who really believes his role to be optional will more readily walk away from family commitments. A woman who believes the male role to be unnecessary will more readily divorce her husband and/or accept single motherhood.
d) If family formation is deferred until the last moment then more people will find themselves unable to have the children they wish for and more people will find themselves unable to find a spouse. There will also be changes to the culture of relationships between young men and women. If marriage is delayed till our 30s, then women in their 20s will be more likely to select for player/alpha/thug types. Men will either adapt to this or opt out. Either way the family man culture will be weakened, making it more difficult for women to find suitable men to marry in their 30s.
As far as this last point goes, Jill Filipovic doesn't see any such problems. In fact, she paints a very rosy picture of delayed family commitments. She accepts the statistics that twice as many people are now ending up unmarried and childless. But she approves on the following basis:
Those numbers are no indication that marriage and child-rearing are passé or under-valued – quite the opposite. Marriage, more than ever, is something that more people feel the right to opt out of, which means that those of us who do marry are opting in, and doing so increasingly because we want to, not because of social obligations. If you believe that marriage can be a good thing for people who choose it, this should be welcome news. Children, too, should be welcome additions and not obligations. The fact that more women and families are delaying childbirth indicates that there's more planning involved, and that women and men are making commitments to familial stability and personal ability before deciding to have kids.
There's a particular assumption at work here. Jill Filopovic thinks that liberalism gives everyone autonomous choice. Therefore, if the liberal family model leads to people not marrying and not having children it must be, she assumes, because they are choosing these outcomes.
She fails to recognise that there are many people who feel shattered by not being able to marry or have children. Over at The Spearhead
there's a good post
by Carey Roberts which includes the following quote by Anne Taylor Fleming:
I belong to the sisterhood of the infertile. I am a lonesome, babyless baby-boomer now completely consumed by the longing for a baby…I am tempted to roll down the window and shout, ‘Hey, hey, Gloria, Germaine, Kate. Tell us, how does it feel to have ended up without babies, children, flesh of your flesh. Was your ideology worth the empty womb?
Did Anne Taylor Fleming happily choose to end up childless? Obviously not. It was not an act of autonomous self-determination at all.
In the comments to the Carey Roberts piece there is this:
I don’t give a **** about the future of our society. As a 44 year old childless male with no real hope for companionship or children why should I. I’m betting we have enough cultural momentum to see me through to my death (about 30 years) and doing my own thing to make sure I can survive if I’m off on my bet about five years.
It's not an attitude I endorse, but it shows again the falsity of the assumption that people are freely and happily choosing to be unmarried and childless. This particular man feels so alienated by his condition that he has lost all interest in the future of his own society.
Finally, if Jill Filipovic were right, and lower marriage rates in advanced liberal societies meant that only people who really wanted to marry did so, then divorce rates should be lower in such societies. But that doesn't seem to be the case.
In Sweden, for example, the percentage of women marrying is very low (about 60%), but the divorce rate is consistently high (peaking at about 55%). This combination of a low marriage rate and a high divorce rate means that only about 1 in 3 Swedish women will have an enduring marriage. It's not exactly encouraging evidence for liberal marriage being superior to the traditional version.
Nor is it true that the blurring of gender lines strengthens the stability of marriage. Again, there is ample evidence of this in Sweden. Researchers have found that in Sweden the higher the percentage of income earned by the wife the greater the risk of divorce - to the point that the risk more than doubles if the wife earns most of the income (see slide 9
The Swedish model is the liberal model. Only 60% of Swedish women marry; the mean age
of first marriage for women is 31; the divorce rate for those marrying is high; the breakup rate for those cohabiting is even higher; and the effect is worse the more that men lose their provider role.
It's not exactly an inspiring model of family life. In fact, it seems to have a demoralising effect on some people. I can't see it holding for too long; it will either continue to "evolve" away from anything resembling marriage or else the traditional alternative will reassert itself more confidently.