In his new book, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened
Families, James Q. Wilson argues that "in much of the Western and
Caribbean worlds, marriage is in trouble." Wilson reports that the results have
been devastating, especially for children. He calls for cultural and
institutional changes that would strengthen marriage.
Meanwhile, in a recent edition of The American Prospect, Janet C.
Gornick target="outlink">argued that feminists are not opposed to marriage, and that
feminists and conservatives should be able to find some common ground. For
example, both would like to strengthen fathers' ties to their children.
Does this mean that the marriage debate is over? Or is there still substantial
difference between liberal and conservative analyses of marriage? TAP
asked Wilson and Gornick to discuss the matter in a series of exchanges:
I was optimistic when I opened The Marriage Problem. The prior evening,
target="outlink">James Q. Wilson had said on National Public Radio: "I think
the emancipation of women is one of the great accomplishments of the last
century .An enormous amount has been achieved and I wouldn't turn back any of
those gains .The solution is not to oppress women." I inferred that my former
professor had made his pro-marriage case in the context of envisioning husbands
and wives sitting equally at the marital table.
And why not? As I recently
target="outlink">argued, marriage and gender equality are reconcilable, but
profoundly gendered divisions of labor within contemporary marriages stand in the
way. Many feminists hope for a world in which wives and husbands fully share both
breadwinning and caregiving. That does not mean that every couple splits every
task every day; that is the caricatured version. But it does mean that -- on
average, across families -- core responsibilities are divided without reference
to gender. The gains would be far-reaching: The benefits and costs of marriage
and parenting would be more justly shared, women's ties to the public spheres of
commerce and politics would be strengthened, and most children would get more
time with their fathers. Long-lasting, loving marriages could be achieved
alongside economic, social, and political equality for women. And, in the long
run, a world with more fluid gender roles would pull more men into the lives of
children in all types of families, including poor single-parent families.
But an endorsement from Wilson of gender egalitarian marriage was not to be.
The emancipation that he extolled referred to achieving legal rights, apparently
suffrage and pay-equity legislation. And the idea that women's emancipation
extends to easing our share of domestic work? That, he rejects. "I doubt that we
shall see [men] giving the same attention to children as do their wives. Speaking
of 'equality' in this sphere is speaking nonsense. Ordinary men and women do not
think that way. They recognize and, in general, are satisfied with significant
differences in male and female roles." Ultimately, "gender equality is a fancy
of the upper middle class, one that has ... little effect on how most people
behave, or would like to behave."
Wilson argues against gender equality in divisions of labor on the grounds
that wives' and husbands' roles are largely hard-wired -- the product of
evolution. The pull of biology is powerful, so powerful that, in the end, it is
not to be resisted. Many of us do not accept that conclusion, including Melvin
Konner, who argued eloquently in TAP (" href="http://www.prospect.org/print/V10/45/konner-m.html"
target="outlink">Darwin's Truth, Jefferson's Vision: Sociobiology and the
Politics of Human Nature," July-August 1999) that the purpose of most social
arrangements is to tame what nature has imposed. We create social norms and
invent institutions to counterbalance our selfish, inegalitarian impulses.
Indeed, "if men were angels, no government would be needed."
And it seems that if Wilson valued egalitarian marriage, he would agree that
new social norms, aided by public policy, could reshape marital arrangements
along those lines. After all, the central argument of this book is that "marriage
is designed to guarantee what biological drives cannot." As legal scholar Amy Wax
has posed it: "If conventional monogamy can be enforced 'against nature', why not
the feminist ideal? If civilization exists to frustrate natural preferences, it
could as well be feminist civilization as any other." Couples could decide to
"halve it all" -- many do -- and public institutions could support them. If it is
true that women react more quickly when a child cries out, all the more reason
that men should learn to get up first.
Wilson acknowledges the link between gender equality and justice, but
ultimately he values differentiated roles. Of modern feminists' conviction that
"the sexual division of labor itself must be abolished," he observes: "One can
think of other things we may value as much as justice in a family -- love,
companionship, manliness, and femininity, to mention but four." Here we may
have an irreconcilable difference. Feminists value love and companionship as much
as Wilson does, but we will readily give up manliness and femininity --
especially if manliness means paying less "attention" to one's children. And we
will give them up without question, if their price is justice in the family.
Janet Gornick believes that marriage and gender
equality are reconcilable, and I agree -- depending on what you mean by "gender
equality." To me, sexual equality means the moral and legal equality of men and
women. The Western world has achieved great gains in this over the last century
and I believe that more such gains will come.
But the relationship between men and women who are married is in large measure
a private matter, subject, of course, to the necessary legal requirements that
the marriage be voluntary, that it be free of abuse and neglect, and that either
member be free to leave it by means of a divorce granted on reasonable grounds.
Ms. Gornick does not say how she would change the private sphere of marriage
except to argue that "profoundly gendered divisions of labor within contemporary
marriages stand in the way" of reconciling equality and marriage. By this she
means that the "core responsibilities"; should be "divided without reference to
gender" because, if that happens, children would be better off, women would have
stronger ties to commerce and politics, and the marriage would be more just.
I have two comments. First, she does not indicate why we think children and
women would be better off when "core responsibilities" are equally shared.
Perhaps there is evidence that "just" marriages are better ones, but I have not
seen it. Second, she does not explain whether she wishes to achieve her goal by
either trusting men and women to work these things out for themselves or by
legally compelling them to do so.
I have no problem with men and women designing their own familial
relationships. My daughter taught until she had children, then became a full-time
mom. Her husband helps out around the house, but she does most of the work. My
daughter-in-law took time off to have children, then went back to her job at a
major company. Her husband helps around the house also, but neither spends much
time worrying about whether the marriage is "just" or whether the core
responsibilities are equally shared. Both families are very happy. Does Ms.
Gornick think they should change? How, and by what process?
Understandably, she may have no advice for two families she does not know. But
surely she has advice for families in general, yet she does not explain what it
is. Would she tell women like my daughter to get jobs or enter politics, when
they don't want to? Would she tell men like my son to work harder around the
house when they and their wives like their present arrangements?
I do argue, as Ms. Gornick says, that men and women differ and that these
differences appear in marital roles. If she disagrees, I wish she would point to
some evidence that men and women can be made to serve what she calls "the
feminist ideal." No doubt some couples do serve it and no doubt some couples do
not; we live in a wonderfully diverse society. Why does she wish to reduce that
diversity by persuading/inducing/compelling people to live as she wishes them to
From what she has written, I think Ms. Gornick is so devoted to the idea of
the "just" marriage that to her justice may be more important than happiness.
Justice is surely important, but as I wrote in The Marriage Problem, the
evidence we have does not suggest that men and women are unhappy with their
marriages. Now, perhaps they suffer from false consciousness and would be happier
if they were part of a more just marriage, but I am inclined to trust human
instincts more than expert opinion. [posted
Wilson's reply suggests that -- for whatever reason -- he did not read my
recent article, the one referenced in the debate question. The questions that he
posed were the subject of that article, i.e., what are the advantages of gender
egalitarian divisions of labor for wives and children, and how might we get there from
here? Reading it would have alleviated his fear that I would legally
compel his daughter -- or any other woman -- into employment.
First, I argued that gender equality in marriage has numerous advantages for
married women, especially mothers. More equal engagement in paid and unpaid work
would increase wives' bargaining power in the marriage and in the labor market;
shore up their capacity to exit if the marriage turns dangerous; protect them
from economic insecurity should the marriage dissolve; alleviate their
exhaustion; reduce their incidence of depression; and raise the likelihood that
women will be proportionately represented in our political institutions. The
primary advantage for the average child seems self-evident: more time with his or
her father. And growing up with parents who share breadwinning and caregiving
teaches children that both are utterly important.
My work aside, I don't understand why Wilson cannot imagine how women and
children could gain from gender equality, as the literature that supports that
conclusion is voluminous. I suggest that he begin with Rosalind Barnett and
Caryl Rivers' She Works / He Works: How Two-Income Families are Happier,
Healthier and Better Off; Francine Deutsch's Halving It All: How Equally
Shared Parenting Works; Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood: Why the
Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued; Scott Coltrane's
Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equity; and Ruth Lister's
Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives.
Second, I argued that a shift toward egalitarian marriage rests on three
interdependent elements of social change: the continued transformation of gender
relations; the growth of supportive employment options; and the development of
enabling social policies. In the private realm, feminists are working toward a
world where women and men are freed of expectations that tie women to domesticity
and men to paid work; where women have real access to the opportunities that men
have; and where men acknowledge the extent to which they've gained at the expense
of their wives and children -- and choose to change. Much social change is
powered by transformed beliefs and values; feminist social change is no
To make a full range of private choices possible, institutional changes are
fundamental. Much research establishes that substantial numbers of women and men
would prefer more equal divisions of labor but are deterred by concrete
constraints. Most consequential are the lack of affordable child care, the
limited availability of high-quality reduced-hour work, and the gender wage gap.
As a result, many couples specialize, although they would prefer otherwise.
Indeed, most feminists hope for a world where core responsibilities are
divided without reference to gender. While some researchers conclude that it is
advantageous for all couples to share employment and caring, feminists'
fundamental hope is that women and men -- on average, across families -- share
these responsibilities. For each home with a homemaker or part-time employed
mother, we envision a home with a homemaker or part-time employed father.
Contrary to Wilson's assertion, this would make our world more diverse, not less
I leave James Q. Wilson with three questions.
First, why is my plea for changing social norms so bewildering when the core
of your book is a plea for changing social norms -- albeit different norms, i.e.
fewer divorces and less out-of-wedlock childbearing? (It seems that our projects are
remarkably parallel, except that most feminists prefer moral suasion and policy
reform, rather than shame, to promote social change.)
Second, why invoke individuals' happiness as the primary criterion for a
successful social arrangement -- in our case but not in your own? (Clearly, many
divorced and unmarried parents are quite happy. My friend's father reports that
he's happy, as is his fifth wife.)
Third, why not give gender-egalitarian marriage a chance? I'll make a deal.
You give me a world with fluid sex-role expectations, flexible employment,
supportive public policies... and 100 years. If married couples' divisions of
labor resemble those in place today, then I'll take back everything I've ever
argued about constrained choices. [posted
Janet Gornick is right: I did not read her original essay in The American Prospect. I have now gone back and done my homework, and I remain puzzled by her argument.
She states the problem for me quite neatly toward the end of her last essay: "Why invoke individuals' happiness as the primary criterion for a successful social arrangement -- in our case but not in your own?" I am astonished. What criterion other than true happiness ought to govern any private arrangement?
As I look out at my friends and the children of my friends, I am struck by the fact that the great majority are happy even though husbands and wives spend very different amounts of time on housework or child care. Ms. Gornick responds by saying that this difference reflects "gender-specific constraints" that are the result of American laws and culture, constraints that are absent in many enlightened European nations.
But the data we have on European nations shows that men and women there also spend very different amounts of time on housework and child care. Consider Sweden, a nation that surely has radically egalitarian laws and one in which marriage -- by law, as well as by custom -- enjoys no privileged status. In Sweden there is affordable child care, ample opportunities for female employment, and no gender-wage gap. But despite all of this, the overwhelming majority of Swedish single-parent families are headed by women. Is this an accident? Or merely a reflection of the fact that Sweden has not gone far enough in eliminating "gender-specific constraints"? I think not.
I think it reflects differences between men and women that no society can eliminate. Societies can, of course, dramatically reduce legal and customary barriers to female advancement, as many nations, including our own, have done. But to suppose that doing this full bore will make men and women have the same level of work, the same level of income, and devote the same amount of time to housework is so implausible a guess that, in my opinion, it arises from ideology rather than from science.
Ms. Gornick asks me to make a deal: Provide "fluid sex-role expectations, flexible employment, supportive public policies" and within 100 years the division of labor among married couples will not resemble those in place today.
Well, at my age I can't make that deal (I have stopped buying green bananas), but I will make a deal that is much easier to settle. Find me a country that today has produced equal sex roles and I will tender my apologies to Ms. Gornick.
I am not in favor of men having it all, and in my book I point out that most evidence shows that working women inflict no harm on children. But I am also struck by the large number of recent female graduates of Harvard University who abandoned employment as teachers, investment bankers, stockbrokers, and advertising executives and became full-time moms. (My daughter is one of them and knows many just like her.) These women did not do this because inadequate public policies or retrograde cultural norms required it; they did it because they wanted to. At the same time, there are a large number of recent female Harvard graduates who stayed with their careers even when they had families (My daughter-in-law is one of them and she knows many more just like her.)
I wish Ms. Gornick would let these people be and stop lecturing to the pro-mom group that it is culturally deficient or the result of social or legal oppression. I have never lectured the pro-career women that they ought to change. Could we end this debate on that note? [posted