Does Feminism Promote Stable Family Life?

Two cheers for Melissa Kearney’s Two-Parent Privilege.

Melissa Kearney’s Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind shows that America’s affluent, college-educated class still has a reasonably strong family culture. Yet the college-educated “neo-traditional” vision of coupling embodies an ever-thinning vision of marriage as a kind of “capstone” for successful, middle-aged professionals which has deleterious downstream effects for America’s middle and working classes. 

As Charles Murray showed in Coming Apart (2013), family life in Belmont, his heuristic for a white-collar, college-educated America, is markedly better than life in Fishtown, the downscale, working-class, non-college-educated neighborhood. In 1960, 95% of American children lived with their biological parents. Forty years later, yawning gaps opened between the affluent and lower classes. By 2005, 85% of children in the top quintile of earnings lived with intact families, while only 30% among the lowest quintile did. Likewise, with marriage. In 1970, 87% of men and 83% of women aged 30 to 50 were married. Today, those numbers are 60% and 63% respectively, but percentages for the college-educated exceed 70%, while those without a college degree are around 55%. Nearly 80% of marriages between men and women among the college-educated will last until death, while only 40% of married couples without college degrees will avoid divorce. 

These gaps have consequences. Children in Fishtown are less likely to graduate from high school or college and more likely to be poor than children who grow up with intact two-parent homes. Children from broken homes are also more likely to commit crimes, more likely to require government income assistance, and more likely to perpetuate the cycle of family dissolution. Why is this? Single mothers have less time, money, and emotional energy to devote to child-raising, after all (“2 >1” is the title of Kearney’s Chapter 3). With less to invest, returns are worse, especially for boys. One cheer for noticing.

Most conventional pro-family advocates emphasize economic incentives as a solution to the decline in family formation. Many on the Left (insofar as they care) recommend expanding college access or improving schools or expanding Head Start. Conservatives favor Hungary-style family tax credits. To her credit, Kearney recognizes that economic support has not been particularly robust. Even as incentives for having children have increased, total fertility rates have fallen, and as marriage penalties have been lowered, marriage rates have continued to fall. 

In contrast, Kearney would like to “work to restore and foster the norm of two-parent homes for children.” Pre-1960s America had a sexual constitution that favored the formation of two-parent, enduring marriages for the good of children, for the good of the public, and for the good of men and women. As Kearney writes, “over the past 40-plus years, American society has engaged in a vast experiment of reshaping the most fundamental of social institutions—the family—and the resulting generations of data tell us in no uncertain terms how that has played out for children.” The results have been bad, especially children downstream from society’s elite. Cheer two for tracing family decline to culture or “social messaging.”

The striking class divide, according to Kearney, undermines the socially conservative belief that feminism causes family decline and universities promote anti-civilizational ideologies. Her reasoning? The college-educated are more likely to be feminists; the college-educated are more likely to have stable marriages (as study after study after study shows); therefore, feminism fosters stable marriages. College-educated women manage time and emotions well, making family life stronger and more fulfilling because it is a genuine choice amidst all of life’s endless possibilities. College-educated men are real partners in raising children, celebrating equal rights for women and gays, and investing in sensitive child-rearing. As a result, pro-family advocates should encourage more youngsters to attend college and, perhaps, become part of the army of pro-family feminists renewing the family! 

There is a certain logic to Kearney’s argument—and also significant problems. Fishtown is no model for solid family life, just as its residents are not models of godliness and industriousness. Yet Kearney fails to see a slow-rolling corruption infesting Belmont and its weak social messaging.

The Problem of Capstone Marriage

Belmont is hardly a marriage or fertility cult. Marriage rates have declined in Belmont since 1960 or 1980, as have birth rates, out-of-wedlock births, divorce rates, and the rates of college-educated people who have had a baby in the last year. Belmont is just getting worse more slowly than Fishtown. 

The median age for a first marriage in the United States in 2021 was over 30 years old for men and about 28.5 for women, up from 27 and 25 respectively in 1990, and 23 and 20 in 1960. Yet the age of first marriage in Belmont is at least two years higher than in Fishtown. Women with master’s degrees or higher are around 31 years old when they marry, while women who have some college or less have a median age of first marriage under 27. 

Belmont and Fishtown denizens also give birth at different times. The more education, the later the first birth. On average, college-educated women have their first child after age 30, while those without degrees start around 24, according to a 2016 New York Times article. More than half of women with master’s degrees or more wait until after the age of thirty to have their first children (and more than a quarter of them never have children), while women with only a high school degree, on average, have their first child before they are 25. The gaps are growing, as more college-educated women do not have children than in the past and as they wait ever later to have children.

These elements represent the capstone marriage that is typical of Belmont. Capstone marriage—getting married after achieving professional stability—drives norms and common thoughts about money and marriage. “We will marry once we can afford a house,” or, “once we both have achieved sufficiently in our professions.” For those in Belmont, this time comes late and nature waits until she gets another credential or he gets a promotion. Each enjoys a period of self-fulfillment, career-oriented striving, individual success, sexual experimentation, and affirmation of talent before entering marriage. 

The phenomenon of marriage as a capstone represents society’s ambivalent attitude toward marriage generally. Capstone marriage looks like a halfway house on the way toward a post-marriage future. In Spain, for instance, the average age for first marriages is 36 for men and 34 for women, nearly 80% of young adults prioritize leisure and a professional career over marriage, and more see money and finances as barriers to marriage. Those numbers are inching up annually. Birth rates are pretty low. Marriage in Belmont is about ten years behind Spain. 

Contrast capstone marriage with old-time foundational marriage. My wife and I married at twenty-two, right out of college. We were “livin’ on love,” as we used to say. We had our first child at twenty-four—and then four more. Our kids never went to daycare. We rented an apartment in Chicago for seven years, but we husbanded our resources and moved into a house at thirty. We were always either broke or almost broke. There has been sickness (a kid with cancer, a wife with cancer) and health. I think of the money I have earned as the family’s money. Ours is a foundational marriage—where marriage is the basis for a communal life of mutual dependence. 

The capstone-foundational divide comes up in Kearney’s illuminating podcast with Matt Yglesias, another liberal who worries about family decline. Yglesias describes the “college grad norm” as “we need to achieve economic stability so that we can get married and so that we can have a kid. The idea that you need economic stability in order to have a kid, I completely understand the logic of it. The child is expensive.” The capstone norm governs downscale relations too, but the working class future couple may never have sufficient status to marry. “The working class norm seems to be more: ‘We can have kids whenever I’m psychologically prepared, but to be married, we need to have more money.’” Yglesias understands that applying the capstone vision of marriage to Fishtown is counterproductive. He continues: “While a child is expensive, being married is not: Ask any married couple.” Working class people are more marriageable than they think they are, if they would adopt a foundational vision of marriage.

But the capstone vision of marriage dominates American culture. For many in Fishtown, the day where they are individually fulfilled and steadily employed never arrives. The man often lacks status and stability. A woman cannot take such an unmarriageable man seriously, since he still lives in his parents’ basement. 

Christians prop up the college-educated numbers. While relatively few Belmonteers are now in the girlboss-to-wine aunt pipeline, an increasing number—probably about 10% to 17% of female college graduates—are. Republican voting college graduates are much more likely to be married and to have children than similarly-situated Democrat voters. Democrat-voting women are much more likely to think marriage is obsolete, to think that having children out of wedlock is not a big deal, and to embrace every other de-institutionalizing trend in family life. Fertility is also dipping deeply among those who never darken the doors of a church, something that disproportionately affects left-leaning college graduates.

The larger question is how to conceive of marriage for the whole country. Marriage as a foundation for a life together—where the interests of men and women can meld—is quite better as a social idea to the capstone vision. Unwinding the capstone vision of marriage, however, requires a fundamental change in social messaging away from the principles of the sexual revolution and toward an uncompromising embrace of the Christian vision, supported in law.

So two cheers for Melissa Kearney, for seeing the growing gulf between Belmont and Fishtown and for being willing to trace it to the changing “social messaging” about marriage. A more complete analysis would trace our change in social messaging to the unstable capstone vision of marriage and recognize how the laws undergirding the sexual revolution have inclined Americans to precisely this impoverished, excessively individualistic vision. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is Director of State Coalition at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. His Recovery of Family Life (Baylor, 2020) is now out in paperback.

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