All the Single Ladies

I was flipping through the channels today and I happened upon a segment on MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornacki. The discussion this morning was about the gender gap in Republican and Democratic voting. There has been a lot of commentary about the advantage Democratic candidates have had among female voters, but the voting differences emerge, Kornacki said, when you compare the voting habits of single women to married women.  Single women are more likely to vote for democrats, while married women are more likely to vote republican. Kornacki asked his panel why this should be. I have a theory on this, and it has to do with how we define “family values,” an idea more associated with the Republican than the Democratic party.

I was reluctant to use this as the topic of a blog post, because I am much more interested in talking about cultural assumptions than politics. In this case, however, the political question points to a deeper cultural one.

People talk a lot about conservative stances on same sex marriage– which are rapidly changing– but what gets much less discussion is the notion, inherent to almost all “family values” discussion that singleness should be discouraged and that only married life with children is a legitimate (and moral) living arrangement.

Robert A. Moffitt, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently released the results of a study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty. What he found was that although the United States is spending more on welfare than ever before, most of that money is going to better-off families rather than the very poorest.  There was the marked shift away from those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

“Overall, Moffitt discovered a distinct trend of welfare benefits going to those who are regarded as ‘deserving’ of support.  More directly put, the government and voters prefer that aid go to those who work, who are married and who have kids.”

Being single means you are less deserving.

And let’s be clear: this is a greater problem for women than men. When a marriage fails, the woman is more likely to be plunged into the ranks of the “undeserving” because the overall economic quality of a man’s life, based on earnings and amount spent on living expenses, increases after his divorce. He continues to earn more but bears fewer family expenses. The overall economic quality of a woman’s life, post-divorce, decreases. So the stigma and consequences of a marital failure are inevitably felt more by the ex-wife. Even though the man benefits financially from non-marriage and the woman is harmed financially by non-marriage it is the woman who has to deal with most of the stigma.

A couple of years ago, I recall seeing this video by an evangelical professor Matt Jensen called “Reflections for Singles and Those Struggling with Homosexuality.”

The novel Angel had recently come out, and I was reading and watching a lot of material on how Christians were responding to social change around homosexuality. While I would not, myself, use language like “struggling with” to describe same sex attraction, the video has a positive message about the church welcoming homosexuals as part of the Christian family.

But that was not why this video made an impression on me. What really struck me was what Jenson had to say about the first part of that title. “Reflections for Singles.” Jenson, in this presentation, speaks as a single man about how he was often made to feel like an outsider in his own religion, which places such a high value on married life to the point that the image of a certain form of family has become almost a form of idolatry. This image, is, incidentally non-biblical. (Which does not make it a bad model.) Jesus says to leave your family and follow him, an instruction that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Jenson spent some time in contemplation, trying to come to a positive understanding of what Jesus was trying to say with that command. His conclusion:

“The church is right to tell me the Good News and call me to a life of discipleship as a single man if and only if it is willing to live as my family. Conversely, if the church is not willing to be a family to me as a single man it has no business telling me the Gospel.”

It’s easy to see why the focus on the family would become so central to Christianity. It is based on a positive value that is entirely uncontroversial, unlike so much of what Jesus had to say. No one can be against the notion of providing a secure home for your children, making them your priority, and trying to raise them to be good people.

Our notion of “family” in America is based on a pair of spouses and their children.  We’ve rightly focused a lot of attention in the past few years to the way LGBT people were left out of this vision of acceptable households, and our society is changing in that regard. Yet the notion of singleness as a problem remains.

Our national discourse sets up a false choice for divorced women. Marriage or welfare.  We talk about  the tragedy of the high rate of divorce rather than thinking about whether we need to create different social support structures for people who have different family configurations. The only alternative to marriage is usually imagined as promiscuity. Yet there are any manner of constructive ways people could live in supportive environments besides marriage.

We do not, for example, promote living in an  extended family of cousins and aunts and grandparents, where all share in the responsibility of family well-being. Nor do we prefer a model where members of a village or tribe are expected to take part in raising all of the children. We don’t encourage inter-generational homes– either the older or younger generation in such an arrangement is thought to be dependent on the other in a way that is a bit unfair and not as healthy as the way spouses lean on each other. In most of our discourse, if you are mutually reliant on anyone besides a spouse you are immature, dependent, selfish.

Shouldn’t we at least have the discussion?  Should your security in society–especially as a woman–be based on your success at romance? Is that really the ideal model?

If you ever have the idea that women are frivolous when they read advice columns in Cosmo and compare fashion and cosmetics, go back to the previous question.

The notion that some people will not marry and have children, or will not be successful in marriage, is often described as “the breakdown of the family.” It is assumed to be something new, a response to modern life. Yet the ways we have lived together have shifted and changed constantly throughout history. I recently read a fact in a book on Shakespeare that surprised me. In Elizabethan times, it said, a surprising one in five people  did not have children at all. (Humankind survived.)

There is no one who is against “family.” There is no one who is against people living in supportive environments. There is no one who is against prioritizing the well-being of children.

When we talk about “family values,” we should be sure that we are not excluding entire segments of society and labeling them as a problem.






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