The deep intake of breath you hear across America is the sound of millions of professional and amateur "family values" crusaders preparing to bellow about the doom of the American family and therefore of America.
That breathing in and bellowing forth is, of course, incessant in this country, but it's likely to get a little louder in the next few days because the US Census Bureau has just announced that for the first time in history, more American women are living without spouses than with them. In the 1950s, about 35% of American women were unmarried; today, it's 51%. Presumed causes for the shift include getting married later, living together without marriage, getting and remaining divorced, and living longer after being widowed.
Two deeply related points occur to me. One: why is the news story that more American women are living unmarried than married? Sure, if living after the death of one's spouse is one of the primary causes, then the fact that women live a few years longer than men might add a percentage point or two, but the fact that about half of American women are unmarried must also mean that about half of American men are unmarried, no? I mean, unless it turns out that only 35% of American men are unmarried because another 15% are marrying mail-order brides. Or other men. And surely either of those would be a bigger story. Seems to me that going with "more than half of American women are unmarried" as your story buys into and reinforces the assumption that women are supposed to be married (and popping out children sanctified by wedlock) and that it's problematic if they aren't. Whereas men, you know, they're just savanna-roaming hunters who were never meant to be tied down to just one dame.
Point number two: With the decrease in percentage of married couples (damn those cigarette-smoking, hair-bobbing, good-timing hussies and their jazzified music!), we're going to hear a lot about the "decline of an American institution" and the "decay of American culture," but I want to point out that the decline of an American institution often is part of an advance in American culture. Marriage in America and pretty much the entire world has been a fundamental and powerful mechanism of social order. But so were slavery, segregation, and male-only suffrage. The power of those institutions to order life in this country now seem remote (to many), but those institutions were once as crucial and "natural" to Americans as hetero marriage was fifty years ago and still is for many today.
Am I saying that marriage is as bad as slavery, segregation, or male supremacist voting policies? Depends what we mean by marriage. If we mean by marriage a holy sacrament in which people pledge their binding commitment to one another as part of their ongoing pledge of commitment to a god or gods, then it depends on what god or gods we're talking about. Some gods are assholes; some aren't. Marriage in the eyes of an asshole god probably is just as bad for the people involved as segregation. If, on the other hand, we mean by marriage a pledge of fidelity and mutual support based on love and a sense of one another as equals, then no, that's not a problem.
And if we mean marriage as an institution in which the man as head of the family is ultimately (supposed to be) in control of all important decisions and the woman is (supposed to be) lovely ivy clinging to his sturdy oak, then, yes, that's a friggin' nightmare as bad as slavery or segregation and--obviously--part and parcel of male supremacism. Like institutionalized racism in its various forms, male supremacist marriage (still the covert or overt model of so many family-valuing bellowers) sets a big chunk of the population up for a lifelong screwing because it will never permit those people full equality, respect, and autonomy. The ivy-oak marriage model also sets up men for a more subtle form of screwing--they have to spend a lifetime pretending to know more than they do, never being able to express doubt, and always having to be the one to support the family even if they hate their miserable, miserable jobs and would love nothing more than a month away from them to look for something less soul-crushing.
And marriage today has more ivy-oak built into it than we perhaps want to admit. Western religious models (the pre-governmental source of marriage) almost universally presume women's inferiority. And state-sanctioned marriage only makes sense if the whole point of marriage is to ensure that most women ultimately spend most of their life "cared for" rather than working outside the home. But if women can work paid jobs while married, they don't need the dubious protection of state-sanctioned marriage because the aren't dependent on their husbands for their economic survival. And as women begin to make a dollar for every dollar their equally qualified male counterparts do (they're up to seventy-five cents on the dollar), they'll be less and less incentive for them to marry for any reason but love and compatibility. That sounds good to me--especially because it means that hetero married men will be freer to choose careers that they value rather than those that pay well.
But marriage isn't for the married! (says the bellowing). It's for the children, who need food, shelter, and attention. Ah, the children. Yes, they do need all those things. But, as I've argued at length on this blog ("Polly Wants a Parent"), mommy and daddy don't have to be married for a kid to thrive. They don't even have to be mommy and daddy. As long as mommy and daddy or mommy and mommy or daddy, daddy, and mommy are involved and responsible, the children will turn out just fine. And soon enough those children will be grown-ups--for far longer than they were children--and they'll live in a world more likely to allow them equality and the pursuit of happiness.