In the true marriage relation the independence of the husband and wife is
equal, their dependence mutual and their obligations reciprocal.
-- Lucretia Mott (1793-1880)
Feminists have long been queasy about marriage, but our
queasiness is not about marriage per se; it concerns the way marriage has been
practiced. The religious right paints feminists as opposed to marriage and all
that goes with it: heterosexuality, men, family, love, caring, and children.
Campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly
flatly warned that "feminists hate men, marriage, and children." Twenty years
later, Pat Robertson advised would-be supporters in a fundraising letter: "The
feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist,
anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands,
kill their children ... and become lesbians."
Clearly, the right misrepresents feminists' struggle with marriage, but
many moderates and even some progressives have misunderstood feminist concerns.
What have American feminists really said about marriage? During the first wave of
the American women's movement, which intensified during the 1840s and culminated
with the achievement of suffrage in 1920, feminists battled for egalitarian
marriage as passionately as they fought for voting rights. In 1848 -- in the
Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the First Women's Rights Convention at
Seneca Falls, New York -- Mary Ann McClintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and
usurpations on the part of man toward woman... . He has made her, if married, in
the eye of the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her all right in property,
even to the wages she earns... . In the covenant of marriage, ... the law gives
him power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer chastisement.
For the most part, nineteenth-century feminists did not oppose marriage
itself. Rather, they fought tirelessly for the legal rights of wives, gradually
winning statutory reforms that granted married women property rights.
A second wave of American feminism emerged in the 1960s, catalyzed in part by
Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which sparked a
nationwide soul-search about the emptiness of housewifery. "It was a strange
stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning," Friedan wrote. "As [each
suburban housewife] made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip cover
materials, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub
Scouts and Brownies ... she was afraid to ask of herself the silent question -- 'Is
this all?'" Friedan's book pulled countless wives into the women's movement and
dovetailed with activist efforts aimed at breaking down employment barriers.
While the legal constraints that galvanized their predecessors a century
earlier were mostly gone, the new women's liberationists found that marriage, de
facto, still served many women poorly, especially in conjunction with motherhood.
Sexual divisions of labor, locked in by the social norms of marriage, yielded
gender inequality both in the labor market and the home, saddling women with the
lion's share of housework. Those divisions of labor institutionalized wives'
economic dependence on their husbands; in the worst scenarios, that dependence
placed women in outright danger. Furthermore, feminists argued, the centrality of
marriage in the dreams and expectations of girls and young women crowded out
long-term aspirations for education, employment, and civic and political
Those were the central feminist concerns about marriage nearly four decades
ago, and they are still the central feminist concerns today. Pegging feminists as
coldhearted haters of heterosexuality, love, care, and commitment has always been
a bum rap. Were marriages between women and men to become truly
egalitarian -- especially in economic terms -- most contemporary feminists would
rejoice. Were same-sex couples invited to participate, feminism and marriage
could announce a full truce.
During the 1990s, a new "marriage war" broke out, one that is now
front-page news. This time, conservatives fired the first shot when they inserted
marriage-promotion policies into welfare reform. Feminists tend to resist these
schemes because the assumptions that underlie them are largely nonsense.
Basically, conservatives argue that if low-income women could be persuaded to
marry, they would join the ranks of the economically secure. Indeed, that might
be true if poor women in the South Bronx could marry stockbrokers in Westchester.
But poor women's options are usually much less promising, and ample
social-science research confirms that marriage-promotion policies per se are
unlikely to reduce poverty. I leave the critique of marriage promotion as welfare
policy to others in this issue of the Prospect in order to pursue here the
challenge of egalitarian marriage.
Unequal Marriage: The Price Women Pay
Today, a small minority of couples consist of an exclusive male breadwinner
and a full-time female homemaker; in most marriages, husband and wife are both
employed. However, the labor-force attachment of husbands remains considerably
stronger, especially in families with children; very few men are on a
career-sacrificing "daddy track." Married mothers often withdraw from paid work
when their children are young; many more work part-time; and a substantial share
forgo remunerative jobs that require "24-7" commitment, nighttime meetings, or
travel. Few married fathers make such accommodations to family. Not surprisingly,
despite progress in women's employment, men remain the primary breadwinners. As
of 1997, among American married couples with children under age six, fathers took
home three times the earnings of mothers. And studies confirm that wives, even
wives employed full-time, still devote substantially more time than their
husbands do to unpaid work -- both caregiving and housework.
Certainly, children need and deserve their parents' time. It's appropriate
that parents weaken labor-market ties when their children are young. The trouble,
however, is that marital divisions of labor shape up along gender lines, there
are hazards associated with being the non-earner or lower earner, and those
hazards are very unequally distributed.
Non-earners (and lower earners) in intact couples lack bargaining power both
in the economy and in the marriage. And the lower-earning partner is financially
vulnerable in the event of marital dissolution, despite divorce and child-support
laws intended to protect them. In addition, weak labor-market ties often mean
tenuous civic and political ties, which translate into compromised power both
inside and outside the home. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam
contradicts the old picture of housewives as pillars of local civil society and
links women's connections to employment to their participation in public forms of
Another problem: Huge numbers of married women are plain exhausted, battling
worse "time poverty" than their husbands, particularly if they have young
children and are also in paid employment. And where are the fruits of wives'
unpaid work? One place is in their husbands' wages. A recent study reported in
BusinessWeek found that wives' unpaid work raises married men's hourly wages
by about 12 percent -- a "marriage premium" for men that is explained by the
"likelihood that wives shoulder household tasks." Women, meanwhile, suffer
reduced earnings, not because of marriage per se, but owing to the presence of
children. And nearly two-thirds of married women have children. As Ann Crittenden
establishes in The Price of Motherhood, because of their family
responsibilities women in effect pay a hefty "mommy tax" on their earnings -- a tax
not incurred by their children's daddies.
In their much-argued-about book The Case for Marriage: Why
Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, Linda Waite
and Maggie Gallagher dismiss most of these concerns. Wives, they argue, are
simply better off financially because they have access to their husbands'
(increased) income as well as their own (albeit diminished) income; the two
together add up to more than she would have had living alone or cohabiting. As
for wives' economic dependency on their husbands, Waite and Gallagher are
largely unmoved. (I suspected that when, on page 1, they characterized the
women's movement as criticizing "marriage per se, which the more flamboyant
feminists denounced as, ... worst of all, 'tied up with a sense of dependency.'")
For the most part, these writers view the underlying economic inequality as the
result of women's choices -- "married moms earn less because they choose to work
less" -- but they don't seriously consider whether those supposed free choices are
constrained by the absence of good alternatives that is inherent in archaic
notions about gender, inflexible employment practices, and unsupportive public
policies. In the end, they argue that making divorce more difficult and enacting
divorce laws that repay women for the sacrificed labor-market attachment can
indemnify wives against any losses that they incur. Fairer divorce laws are
fine -- but why wait for marriages to end? For all their advocacy of marriage,
Waite and Gallagher leave untouched the underlying inequities that make marriage
costly for so many women.
Toward Egalitarian Marriage
Among feminists, there are two broad views about greater equity within
marriage. "Difference feminists" argue that women's unique characteristics, such
as their stronger ties to children, should be celebrated and rewarded. From this
perspective, gender equity would be achieved by making parenting a less-unequal
sacrifice; essentially, wives would be repaid for the losses that they incur as
individuals. "Sameness feminists," by contrast, look toward a greater convergence
in gender roles -- a rearrangement of marital divisions of labor so that on
average wives and husbands, in Francine Deutsch's phrase, would "halve it all."
The latter approach seems more promising. Reliably indemnifying women against
losses caused by their greater role in family caregiving is improbable because it
is so easy for husbands, employers, and even governments to free-ride on women's
unpaid work. And any solution that continues gendered divisions of labor leaves
in place problematic power imbalances, both public and private.
Across Europe, feminists have taken seriously this idea of greater convergence
of roles in the workplace and the home. In her recent book Restructuring
Gender Relations and Employment: The Decline of the Male Breadwinner, British
sociologist Rosemary Crompton lays out the contours of what she calls a
"dual-earner/dual-carer" society. This is a society in which women and men engage
symmetrically in market work and in caregiving work -- a society that incorporates
time to care for family members. Wives would not simply become "like husbands are
now"; both wives and husbands would end up with substantial time for caregiving
On the whole, what would a shift to gender-egalitarian time allocations entail
in the United States? Imagine that mothers and fathers, on average, spend equal
time in paid work. The accompanying table summarizes how much time married
mothers and fathers in the United States spend working for pay each week (parents
who are not employed -- mostly women -- are included in these averages). The
far-right column lists the number of hours that each parent would work weekly if
the couple's combined hours on the job were shared equally.
This table tells us three noteworthy things about marital arrangements in this
country. First, married mothers' time in paid work is sensitive to the ages of
their children; their hours on the job rise as their children spend more hours
outside the home and need less parental time. Second, married fathers' time at
work, in contrast, is absolutely constant -- perhaps not surprisingly, given that
few are primary caregivers. Third, the average time that married mothers spend in
employment lags behind that of their husbands, and by a considerable margin.
An egalitarian solution would entail both parents working a
slightly-shorter-than-standard workweek and sharing caregiving in the home. In
principle this might seem appealing to men, who often say they are sick of
employment pressures, want more balance in their lives, and hope to be better
fathers than their own fathers were. But for this solution to be attractive to
both sexes, workplace practices have to change so that neither spouse suffers a
setback as the result of caring for children. And social policy also has to
change -- starting with, for example, the enactment of generous paid family leave
for both fathers and mothers.
At present, the idea that men as a group might shift substantial time from
paid work to caregiving is remarkably controversial in the United States. But
unless we settle for a society in which families "outsource" unacceptably high
levels of family caregiving, a reduction in men's working time is a prerequisite
for a shift toward an egalitarian division of labor both at home and at work.
Mainstream advocates of "work/family balance" and "family-friendly programs"
rarely suggest that men lessen their working time. But truly egalitarian marriage
rests on such a shift.
This scenario of change raises at least two fundamental issues. Do women and
men want to share earning and caring in a more egalitarian way? And would couples
that share and share alike incur joint costs?
Conservatives -- and even many progressives -- often argue that wives
simply want to be at home more than their husbands do; some claim intrinsic
differences, while others cite the effect of social norms. There is no question
that current work-and-family arrangements reflect the individual and joint
decisions of women and men. But those decisions are made in a world with
gender-specific constraints and opportunities. Given today's economic and social
realities, it's impossible to know whether women's and men's current choices
reflect enduring preferences or are, instead, accommodations influenced by
inflexible working arrangements, limited options for nonparental child care, and
career penalties for allocating time to parenting. The meaningful question is
not "What do women and men want now?" but, rather, "What would they prefer in a
much changed world -- one with expectations not based on gender, with flexible
employers, and with supportive policies in place?" The answer to that question is
classically counterfactual; in today's socially constructed and highly
constrained world, it can't be answered.
An often-raised concern is that there are gains to specialization, so that
equal sharing might lower families' total earnings. If both spouses, for example,
rejected 50-plus-hour-a-week employment, the couple might be forced to rule out
certain highly remunerative occupations altogether. But this too remains an open
question; there is remarkably little empirical research on the economic impact of
divisions of labor shaped by gender. It's possible, for instance, that having to
fit into gender-role expectations reduces parents' productivity, and perhaps that
of their children when they reach adulthood. Conversely, some degree of economic
loss might be more than offset by non-monetary benefits -- such as distributional
justice, for starters. And benefits from equal sharing might accrue to society
more broadly. The rise of egalitarian marriage and the strengthening of
fatherhood could produce healthier children who are enriched by the balance in
their parents' lives and by more contact with their fathers. It could also help
stem ongoing declines in marriage and childbearing rates and produce more
reliable parenting of children generally. Scholars of the family understand that
many women, in particular, forgo family after assessing the dismal prospects for
combining work and family in a satisfying way.
Supportive Public Policy
How might we get from here to there? As European feminists painted portraits
of the dual-earner/dual-carer society, they also envisioned a change process.
Clearly, private changes in gender relations and shifts in employment practices
are part of the story; but the state also plays a crucial role, both in shaping
social policy and regulating labor markets.
Couples' capacity to choose egalitarian arrangements would be facilitated by a
package of government policies, many of which are in place across the European
welfare states [see "Family-Friendly Europe," by Karen Christopher, on page 59].
A supportive policy package would have at least four aims: to enable and support
the employment of mothers with young children; to provide incentives for men to
engage in caregiving at home; to support the development of high-quality
reduced-hour work for both mothers and fathers; and to provide income and tax
supports for families that would ease the need to maximize market hours while
providing incentives for more-equal divisions of labor.
First, paid maternity leave and decent child care would go a long way toward
supporting the employment of mothers with young children. Women begin to incur
the mommy tax shortly after they have their first child, especially if they're
not entitled to paid maternity leave -- and most American women are not. All of the
Western European nations and many developing countries grant mothers paid
maternity leave financed by social insurance funds. Public-maternity-leave
schemes have been found to increase mothers' postnatal employment rates, increase
the probability that mothers return to the same employer, and lessen the wage
penalty associated with time away.
In addition, high-quality, affordable child care enables mothers to work for
pay. As with leave, Americans get incredibly little child-care support from
government. In the United States, about 5 percent of children under age three are
in publicly provided or financed child care, compared with one-quarter in France,
one-third in Belgium and Sweden, and fully half in Denmark. Not surprisingly, in
all of those countries, married mothers with young children take home larger
shares of parental earnings than do American mothers.
Second, paid family leave for fathers, especially if designed with incentives
so that fathers actually use the leave, creates a way for men to take off time
from employment, temporarily, to provide care at home. Fathers in several
European countries are entitled to paternity leave immediately following a birth
or adoption and, more consequentially, to paid-parental-leave benefits that can
be used throughout the early years of their children's lives. Furthermore, policy
makers in Europe have learned that parental-leave benefits that can't be
transferred to female partners and that include high wage-replacement rates
encourage fathers to take the leave to which they're entitled.
In addition, several European governments are running public-education
campaigns that urge men to do more at home, either via family leave or more
broadly. While the jury is still out on their effectiveness, even the Swiss
government is going this route; an ongoing campaign in Switzerland -- "Fair Play at
Home" -- is aimed at "nudging married men" to share the work at home. Despite all
the lip service conservatives pay to the value of marriage, American social
policy does almost nothing to encourage fathers in intact families to contribute
more at home.
Third, Americans log the longest employment hours in the world. As University
of Pennsylvania sociologist Jerry Jacobs observes, long hours on the job and
gender equality work at cross-purposes; that is especially true in labor markets
that lack options for high-quality, reduced-hour employment. Government policies
aimed at shortening standard working time -- either directly or via incentives
placed on employers -- could go a long way toward enabling men to spend more time
at home. Several of the European welfare states provide models for working-time
regulations designed explicitly to support gender-egalitarian families.
Working-time policies (such as maximum hours) can shorten overall hours -- a number
of countries are aiming to set a new standard of 37.5 hours per week -- and "right
to time off" policies guarantee parents the right to work part-time while their
children are young. (The United States neither limits total hours nor provides
rights to time off.)
Further, labor-market regulations throughout the European Union protect
workers who work less than full-time by requiring employers to provide equal pay
and prorated benefits. So in a more egalitarian world, each spouse might log
hours in paid work that fall into a new range -- more than standard part-time hours
but fewer than standard full-time hours. Public policies can encourage the growth
of reduced-hour employment and shore up its rewards.
Finally, income supports and tax reforms would help. Some form of universal
child benefit, via transfers or refundable tax credits, could replace some or all
of the earnings that couples might sacrifice if husbands lessen their time in
employment and wives' increases don't make up the difference. For low-income
couples, in particular, cash benefits could relax the necessity to maximize (his)
hours in the labor market, no matter how high the personal cost. (Among married
couples, average gender differences in employment hours are approximately the
same at every point on the income spectrum.) Compared with nearly every country
in Europe, the United States spends very little on public income supports for
couples with children, even including the Earned Income Tax Credit. And a shift
to purely individual-income taxation would encourage a more equal sharing of
employment by couples. Joint taxation increases the de facto marginal tax rate on
the first dollar earned by the "secondary earner" and that sets up a disincentive
for wives' labor-force participation. Individual-income taxation has been
implemented in several countries in Europe; it is a major factor underlying
Sweden's high female-employment rate. In contrast, the U.S. tax code imposes the
same income-tax burden on one- and two-earner couples. Given that employment has
fixed costs, this formula disadvantages two-earner couples.
From a policy perspective, it would be hard for the United States to do
less to encourage and enable economic gender equality in marriage. Across
Europe, extensive public provisions support gender equality within couples, and
many of these policies were implemented exactly for that reason. These policies
are influential; they are part of the reason that wives and husbands in several
European welfare states share employment time and earnings more equally than we
do in the United States.
Feminist Marriage: Political Prospects
These are conservative times in the United States, especially at the federal
level. It is unlikely that new social-policy offerings along these lines will be
enacted any time soon. Yet the current battle over marriage and Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families, silly as it is, could provide feminists and
progressives a window of opportunity if it forces us to clarify our position on
marriage and to organize our interests vis-à-vis the family, the
workplace, and the state. Feminists should staunchly resist getting cornered into
opposing marriage wholesale and, instead, focus on articulating and challenging
the ways in which marriage has institutionalized inequality.
And what of the possibility for common ground between feminists and the
conservatives who now hold the upper hand on the policy front? It seems that
there is one serious stumbling block, but also considerable good news. In
addition to pressing marriage on low-income women, conservatives have devoted
much energy in recent years to homophobic legislation aimed at preempting gay and
lesbian marriage. Conservatives argue that allowing same-sex marriage would
devalue marriage among straights. That logic escapes many feminists. The National
Organization for Women, the leading U.S. women's organization, has endorsed
same-sex marriage and resolved to fight all legislation prohibiting it, on the
grounds that such laws are discriminatory. For many feminists, an enthusiastic
endorsement of marriage hinges on the support of same-sex marriage -- in my view,
rightly so. The truth is that feminists and conservatives surely will not agree
on this any time soon.
The good news is that a policy package that would support gender equality in
marriage -- expanded child care, paid family leave (especially for fathers), and a
shift to individual-income taxation -- actually has a lot in it for conservatives.
These policies support the employment of women (including low-income women),
strengthen fathers' ties to their children, and could raise marriage rates -- all
elements of the current conservative agenda. The problem is that most
conservatives will resist expanding social-policy outlays and granting women the
freedom to choose nontraditional roles.
Feminists could hasten public support for gender-egalitarian marriage by
clarifying, for conservatives and progressives alike, that feminists do not hate
marriage per se and never have. In 1871, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote:
"Conservatism cries out we are going to destroy the family. Timid reformers
answer, the ... equality of woman will not change it. They are both wrong. It
will entirely revolutionize it." Stanton was right. Truly egalitarian marriage
will be revolutionary -- and when it's achieved, feminists will celebrate.
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