Back in the year 2000, in the old new marriage conversation, we said in The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles (a statement I helped to draft):
“Marriage is a universal human institution, the way in which every known society conspires to obtain for each child the love, attention and resources of a mother and father.”
This year, the Institute for American Values released a call for a new marriage conversation, which says instead: “because marriage is the main institution governing the link between the spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society’s most pro-child institution.”
That is the difference gay marriage makes in how we converse about marriage.
Back in the year 2000, we who signed The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principlesunderstood that we were arguing with people who said that family structure doesn’t matter, that the only thing that counts is family process.
For those who embrace gay marriage, that rift is healed. Because with gay marriage, the old debate between family structure and family process conceptually collapses, either partially or wholly.
In whatever ways we believe marriage matters, in this new conversation, it is explicitly not because there is one kind of “natural” family structure that is best for children.
Two parents may be better than one, but the meaning of parent now is, “anyone who lives in a commitment with a biological parent and wants to be the parent.”
With gay marriage, marriage is no longer a vehicle for stabilizing a certain kind of family structure, rooted in deep and enduring human realities. Marriage becomes a kind of instrumental vehicle for expressing adults’ and society’s longing for important goods like commitment, stability and love–things that may be achieved elsewhere, but are undoubtedly more likely to be achieved in marriage, statistically speaking.
Well, love, stability, and commitment are all good things, including for children.
David Blankenhorn set out 25 years ago to rescue marriage from the sterile and angry culture wars, to create a new consensus that commitment to children and marriage were social goods. With A Call to A New Conversation on Marriage, he and the Institute for American Values now seek to do so once again adapting, as the Marines say, to realities they did not create but embrace as the conditions of the current fight.
It’s always possible to do things a little better or a little worse. So on Valentine’s Day, I participated in a symposium on the new marriage conversation. I posted on Family Scholarsblog an essay pointing to the three great questions I believe Americans in the post-gay marriage world would need to answer in order to rebuild marriage as the normal, usual, and generally reliable way to raise children across the class divide:
First, how do we bridge the gender divide? In particular, how do we create young men who women want to marry and who want to marry women?
Second, will the creative class make room for the procreative class? The norms and institutions that undergird family life are distinct from the norms and institutions that govern the market or government–the two dominant institutions in our society. How well will we, as a society, understand the differences between the norms and institutions which spur and encourage creativity generally, and those which are necessary to support and sustain procreativity? Will the post-familist model of social life dominate?
Thirdly, how much are we willing to tolerate religion? Of all the institutions that support and reinforce familism, religion is the largest and most visible candidate for supporting a renewal of marriage and family. And of all the things that are becoming clearer, it is that acceptance of gay marriage is creating substantial new pressures to exclude and marginalize traditional religious beliefs, believers, and our institutions.
In 800 words over at Family Scholars, I was only able to touch briefly on each of these great questions. That’s one reason I treasure this chance to spend time with you, where you and I can work through at greater depth how to think about and respond to the rapidly unfolding cultural and intellectual developments.
Today, I want to focus on the first question: how do we bridge the gender divide? (You will hear more from me on the other two questions down the road.) Of course, the first question is really: do we care to?
Will We Bridge the Gender Divide?
Not long ago I stood on stage with Andrew Sullivan while he said, “The gay and lesbian communities are like oil and water, it takes a great deal of energy to keep them together.”
Men and women are quite different and tend to drift apart unless pulled together by sexual desire. The desire that pulls them together is not enough on its own to keep them together over the lifetime necessary to build an enduring family for children. The collapse of marriage in the great middle class, as David Lapp’s work on young parents in Ohio shows, is the collapse of the social effort to bridge the gender divide—particularly to find a way to create young men whom women want to marry (and who want to marry the mothers of their children).
Our current project (to sustain a reasonable family life in the midst of genderless sex and family norms) has failed in the crucial task of creating marriageable men–men that women want to marry and who are good for the women they marry.
There are many statistics I could offer in proof of this proposition but let me start by highlighting this one: Nearly one out of four white high school senior boys with college-educated parents is illiterate, more than 3 times the rate of girls, according to Prof. Judith Kleinfeld.
Hat tip to Christina Hoff Sommers for putting me in touch with Kleinfeld’s work: “at the end of high school, 23 percent of these boys scored ‘below basic,’ compared with 7 percent of their female counterparts. ’This means that almost one in four boys who have college-educated parents cannot read a newspaper with understanding,’ Kleinfeld writes.”
This shocking statistic, which really tells us all we need to know about how we are failing boys (given that in one fell swoop it controls for both race and class), is really just the tip of a very large iceberg. As Prof. Kleinfeld summarizes:
“American boys are suffering serious problems. In education, these center in the areas of far lower literacy, lower school grades, lower engagement in school, higher dropout from school, higher rates of repeating a grade, higher placement in special education, higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, and lower rates of postsecondary enrollment and graduation. In each of these domains, Black boys and young men are doing far worse than Black girls and young women.
Young men are far less prepared than young women to succeed in the current knowledge-based economy, are more likely to suffer from substantial declines in real income, and are far more vulnerable to unemployment in times of economic recession. Less-educated young men participate less in civic and political activities, are less likely to marry, and are less attractive mates to increasingly high-achieving, well-educated young women.”
Yes, in math and the sciences, at the very top, more men than women excel. But outside of the rarified air of MIT and Cal Tech, the gender gap has grown into a chasm created by a society that does not succeed in motivating young men to succeed–in family life, at school, or on the job.
And the worst part is that we don’t really appear to care. As Prof. Kleinfeld points out, “While the educational problems of girls have led to numerous policy efforts . . . the problems of boys have been largely ignored by federal agencies, foundations, and school districts.”
Hanna Rosin’s new book The End of Men is largely a journalistic exploration of the same phenomena Prof. Kleinfeld noticed: America’s more gender-neutral, egalitarian culture is producing some very gendered results. Men and women are responding very differently to the unfolding gender-neutral economic, educational, and status signals–a key hint that motivating men and women is not a genderless activity.
“Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.”
Young women are hustling to educate and improve themselves to provide for their children. Young men are increasingly tuning out in school, in the job market, and in the home.
And yet, even at community colleges, young men appear hesitant to enter the brave new economy.
“I recall one guy who was really smart,” a counselor at a Kansas City community college told Rosin. “But he was reading at a sixth-grade level and felt embarrassed in front of the women. He had to hide his books from his friends, who would tease him when he studied. Then came the excuses. ‘It’s spring, gotta play ball.’ ‘It’s winter, too cold.’ He didn’t make it.”
In 2005 Jacqueline King, of the American Council on Education, conducted a survey of lower-income adults in college.
“Men, it turned out, had a harder time committing to school, even when they desperately needed to retool. They tended to start out behind academically, and many felt intimidated by the schoolwork. They reported feeling isolated and were much worse at seeking out fellow students, study groups, or counselors to help them,” writes Rosin.
Kleinfeld found much the same thing in her provocative study “No Map to Manhood,” based on interviews with 99 high school seniors preparing to go to college.
Both high school girls and boys perceive boys and girls to be profoundly different: girls are organized and committed. Boys are “lazy” and easily distracted.
Only 29% of males from working class families saw college as a vital educational investment, compared to 70% of their female counterparts, says Kleinfeld.
This is not because the boys saw solid, blue-collar jobs available to them. Just 13% of the young men had plans to pursue technical training after graduation.
“High school counselors said that many high school boys were not interested in the skilled trades and would not fill out applications even if the counselors encouraged them and handed them the application forms.”
On the other hand, “Virtually every working class young man could name a person who had made big bucks without a college degree.”
“Many of the young men expressed interest in implausible ‘dream jobs,’ such as designing videogames, owning a recording studio, directing movies, or becoming music stars,” reports Kleinfeld.
How badly are schools failing in creating a learning environment suited to young males?
“When asked if they liked going to school, 54% of the young women expressed strong enjoyment compared to just 21% of the young men, while 26% of the young men expressed strong dislike of school compared to only 8% of the young women.”
Our civilization is failing boys massively to the detriment of both sexes, and yet we cannot (because we are committed to genderless norms) even name the problem, much less begin to brainstorm on how to address it.
Step back for a minute and recognize how shockingly unusual our modern project on sex is.
Most human societies for most of human history have devoted enormous energy to giving social meanings to gender–nurturing in each sex a profound need for the other. And creating a culture of marriage which attempts at least to bridge the gender divide in the interests of creating a next generation of children that has the love and care of their mother and father.
We are engaged in the reverse process of attempting to raise men and women who do not need one another, and I fear we are succeeding.
Let me leave you with one last request, because it makes the reality of these abstract gendered needs so vivid: Go and watch this video in which Prof. Robert Oscar Lopez explains what it was like to grow up without a father and with two mothers.
Prof. Lopez notices in his own life two powerful themes already familiar to those of us who have followed the challenges divorce and other forms of family fragmentation pose for children:
The first is the child’s longing for a father, to know what male love feels like.
The second is the loyalty conflicts created for the child when his mother and father do not share one home and one family.
Children love their mothers, including their divorced, unmarried, or lesbian mothers.
One of the emerging challenges for at least some of these children with two mothers, Prof. Lopez points out, is the way in which within same-sex families, the child’s longing for an opposite-sex parent is treated as disloyalty to the family of choice created for him.
The tension between the biological parent and the social or legal parent (something common in stepfamilies) is another theme he pulls out from his own experience.
Some children and some parents rise above these loyalty conflicts and longings better than others–it’s important to recognize that.
But when adults or civilizations do not attach meaning to gender, the longing for maleness or femaleness does not go away; the burden is left to young adults to work out on their own–what being a man means . . . or being a woman.
We face a crisis in masculinity that stems from our stubborn unwillingness to recognize that gender matters to more than gay people. Young males need a civilized vision of masculinity if they are to shape their sexuality in ways that turn them into husband material–men who are good for women, and whom women want to marry.
A society that fails to even attempt to make boys into men–good family men–hurts both men and women–and children. The gender roles of the 1950s were clearly in need of reform, but genderlessness as a social and legal ideal is a blindfold keeping us from seeking out new paths to serve an ancient and enduring need.
Re-reading The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles in preparation for writing on the new marriage conversation was, for me, heartbreaking in a way: Oh, to be back in the year 2000, the moment when we had won the debate about whether marriage mattered, whether children suffered when men and women did not make their marriages succeed. Oh, to be back in the year when the divorce rate was declining. When the out-of-wedlock childbearing rate’s relentless climb appeared to level off, or at least to pause.
The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles was filled with real and grounded optimism that we could make a difference: “the decline of marriage is not inevitable. Social recovery is possible, as the recent encouraging turnaround in the divorce rate affirms. The goal of our movement is not perfection, but progress; not to eliminate divorce or unwed childbearing, but to reduce it further; not to make every marriage last, but to help more marriages succeed.”
Gay marriage advocates contested that consensus—children need a mother and father–on behalf of their vision of equality. They have succeeded in disrupting that fragile and emerging consensus, putting the shared vision of marriage we had in 2000 back deep into the culture wars.
Some people will respond to this powerful new cultural movement by giving up on marriage, but I cannot: it is too important to children, and to men and women, for us to do that.
The task before us is going to be increasingly focused on this question: How do we build a culture–or subculture–that sustains civilized masculinity and marriage in the face of the ongoing hostility of the mass of credentialed culture-creators to the very idea of this project?
These are urgent times, but as John Paul the Great used to tell us, “Be not afraid!” “Urgent” is nothing new. The collapse of civilized norms is not a new thing in human history–it offers a challenge and an opportunity as well as a crisis. To re-think and re-create what is necessary to sustain the true, the good, and the beautiful is a privilege as well as a cause for a certain understandable anxiety.
Thank you again for spending this time with me–I treasure the chance to think things through with you and for you. And I welcome your comments at MaggieGallagher.com.
Call For A New Marriage Conversation: An Appeal from Seventy-Four American Leaders, 2013. Institute for American Values. http://www.
D’Vera Cohn, 2013, “Love and Marriage” Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends, Feb. 13, 2013. http://www.
Maggie Gallagher, 2013. “Three Questions for the New Marriage Movement,” Family Scholars, Feb 14, 2013. http://familyscholars.
Judith Kleinfeld, 2009, “The State of American Boyhood,” Gender Issues 26(2): 113-129. http://www.
Judith Kleinfeld, 2009. “No Map to Manhood: Male and Female Mindsets Behind the College Gender Gap,” Gender Issues, 26, (3-4) 171-182. http://www.
David and Amber Lapp, 2012. “A New Normal for the American Family: Having Children Outside of Marriage,” The Atlantic, March 16 2012. http://www.theatlantic.
The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles, 2000. Institute for American Values: http://www.
Hanna Rosin, 2010. “The End of Men,” The Atlantic, July/August 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/
Anne-Marie Slaughter, 2013. “Don’t Rule Out Having Children Because You Want to Have a Career.”
The Atlantic, Feb 14, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.
Christina Hoff Sommers, 2013. “The Boys at the Back,” The New York Times, Feb. 2 2013. http://www.uts.edu/read-