The New York Times hit the click-bait jackpot this past weekend with Wednesday Martin’s “Poor Little Rich Women,” a piece that detailed the gilded yet impotent lives of expensively educated wives who abandon careers to devote themselves to domesticity on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The story was an excerpt of a forthcoming book, Primates of Park Avenue, by Martin, a self-described “social researcher” with an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Its central revelation—that some spouses draw a yearly “wife bonus,” awarded for, among other things, successfully ensuring their kids' berths at the city’s best schools—had the ring of only marginal plausibility. But Martin’s larger depiction of the practices of ultra-elite marrieds landed with a satisfyingly retro thump.
Here was a look at the conjugal dynamics of the “opt-out revolution”—which has been documented and decried by Lisa Belkin, Linda Hirshman, and others—this time set in the most privileged of spheres. In the world Martin describes, marriage is the tool that protects and reproduces power and resources at the same time that it keeps them in male hands. Women who might otherwise compete with Masters of the Universe are taken out of the public sphere by marriage, and then are put to work ensuring the continued transmission of wealth and status to offspring, who, having seen the male-breadwinner, female-domestic pattern modeled for them, become more likely to repeat it themselves as adults. Yuck!
But the shocking frisson of the story was evidence of how ultimately anachronistic and remote this version of marriage has become. Horrifying (and diverting), it was a story about a tiny group of people: While a few of them surely exist all over our economically stratified country, this was a tale of one sliver of one neighborhood in one borough of one single city.
A far more resonant and familiar picture of contemporary marital and familial practice—also in the Times—looked at a new report on 50,000 adults in 25 countries. Researchers found that the daughters of working mothers are more likely to get advanced educations, earn better salaries, and climb higher professionally than daughters of stay-at-home mothers, while sons of those working mothers become more likely to participate in their own families’ lives as fathers and domestic partners. These findings should apply pretty broadly, since more than 70 percent of mothers with children at home now work outside that home; about half of all families with children are headed by dual-earning partners, and around a quarter are run by a single parent.
It was heartening that the Times cast this research as unequivocal progress, since, as the study itself acknowledges, opinions about whether or not mothers should work outside the home, earn money, and aim for professional success remain sharply divided here in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. According to 2014 Pew research, only 16 percent of Americans think that a mother who works full time is a good thing, and one-third believe that mothers who stay at home are best for families. But as Harvard Business School professor and one of the study’s co-authors, Kathleen McGinn noted, the impact of mothers working outside the home “is as close to a silver bullet as you can find in terms of helping reduce gender inequalities, both in the workplace and at home.”
This new study isn’t the first on working mothers to turn up gender-equitable upsides. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in 2013, research has shown that working mothers report lower incidences of sadness, anger, and depression than their stay-at-home counterparts, while sociologists have found that dual-earning hetero couples have a lower risk for divorce and report higher levels of marital satisfaction. And of course, there’s the fact that working mothers today log more hours with their children than stay-at-home-mothers did the year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, while fathers—though still lagging on the domestic and paternal participation fronts—have tripled the time they spend with their children since the mid-twentieth century.
The dual-earning, jointly participatory iteration of hetero unions—and the apparent likelihood that those models may be replicated in greater numbers by the next generation—presents a rosier and more modern picture of contemporary matrimony than the Park Avenue primates do, which is a good thing, since it’s far more prevalent than the “Glam-SAHMs” (stay at home moms) of Martin’s Upper East Side world.
But what both of these portraits of marriage miss is the fact that marriage is becoming less and less central to more and more Americans—and this is probably a good thing, as well. As Brigid Schulte reports in The Washington Post this week, next year, when the population of millennials who fall into prime marrying age will be larger than any previous generation, the marriage rate in the United States is predicted to be lower than it has ever been before. Between 2000 and 2009, the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who were married plunged from 55 to 45 percent. A 2011 Pew study showed that only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are now married at all, down from 59 percent in 1960.
Many mourn the decline of marriage. As the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox tells Schulte, marriage “is, in some ways, in the worst place it’s ever been.” And there are legions of politicians eager to blame changed marriage patterns for the debilitating poverty that is, indeed, a risk and a reality for millions of single mothers without college degrees. Just listen to how the current crop of Republican presidential candidates believe we should address that poverty: “The greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty,” Marco Rubio has said, “isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.” Running for governor in 1994, Jeb Bush suggested that women on welfare “should be able to get their life together and find a husband.”
But others of us believe that systemic inequality and a broken social safety net are to blame for poverty, and that protean marriage patterns—changing swiftly to accommodate the ravages of economic inequality—are in fact a sign that the institution is in as good a place as it has ever been.
No longer the ratifying (and for women, subsuming) institution of adult life, marriage in recent decades has shown an unexpectedly progressive pliancy: It has expanded to make room for new (non-hetero) participants; it now frequently includes two economically, socially, and professionally independent adults who may pass on (slightly!) more equitable attitudes and practices with regard to gender to their offspring. And yes, it frequently starts later and has become far more optional. But those revisions have also helped to improve the institution: Years spent single allow women and men better chances of finding a mate who suits them; women are now more likely to put down economic and professional roots in early adulthood, giving them more leverage within future partnerships; divorce rates have fallen as Americans have married later. Meanwhile, the ability to live and to have children outside of marriage has helped to destigmatize non-married life and single parenthood, creating a far more diverse set of paths for a nation full of adults with diverse needs, desires, and circumstances.
For those Americans living in or near poverty, those unmarried paths are indeed economically perilous. But crucially, they are not more perilous than being pushed to marry for marriage’s sake, especially when the choice of mates is severely curtailed by sky-high incarceration rates and unemployment, and when poverty itself makes it harder for marriages to last, leading to potentially economically devastating divorces, especially for women. What’s most negative about marriage’s current state is that it has by some measures improved so much that it has become the provenance of the privileged, its advantages accruing to those who require them least.
But again: That’s not marriage’s fault; it is the fault of an economy and a criminal justice system that together have drained dating pools of stable mates and left millions of Americans of every marital status struggling to get by. Poverty is bad and we must address it through policy revision. The fact that people are less frequently compelled to make marital alliances that make their lives harder instead of better is good.
The ability for women to live independently outside of and in advance of marriage—and with it their ability to maintain independence within the institution, should they marry—increases as marriage ages rise and rates fall. Marriage is evolving to suit our broken economy and growing interest in gender equity far more rapidly than those Park Avenue primates ever will.