Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More meh marriage journalism: On "All the Single Ladies" by Kate Bolick

Following up on marriage, or lack thereof, I just saw this article in The Atlantic by Kate Bolick, "All the Single Ladies," covering the same topic, i.e., why she and many of her friends haven't gotten married (yet?). Although Bolick makes some of the same points I do (for example: "For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people, negotiated and policed by their families, church, and community" and "when I asked if they wanted to get married when they grew up, and if so, at what age, to a one they answered 'yes' and '27 or 28.'"), I was disappointed by the subtly anti-feminist and conservative rhetoric throughout the piece, including a generalized assumption that the women's movement is over, having achieved all it was meant to achieve. Here are some excerpts to illustrate my point:

"In 2008, women still earned just 77 cents to the male dollar—but that figure doesn’t account for the difference in hours worked, or the fact that women tend to choose lower-paying fields like nursing or education."

This is the standard conservative response to the assertion that women still don't receive equal pay for equal work. It's a bullshit response. Fields that women "tend" to choose are lower-paying because they are dominated by women; women are also encouraged if not forced to go into these fields, being told repeatedly that they're not suited to more demanding, higher-paying work. (I just heard that when young children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, an equal number of boys and girls say they want to be president; asked again as teens, only boys give this answer. Girls have had the chance to notice that few women occupy positions of true power.)

"But while the rise of women has been good for everyone, the decline of males has obviously been bad news for men—and bad news for marriage. For all the changes the institution has undergone, American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be 'marriageable' men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity."

I'm sorry, but why do women have to marry men who are better educated and earn more than they do? Wasn't the point of feminism for us to have equal rights and opportunities? Not just better than in the past while still inferior to men? I expected Bolick to go on to contradict this assumption about what makes men "marriageable," but instead she reinforces it: "the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the 'marriage market' in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever." Really? A "good man" is one that makes more money than us? (By the way, that's still most men!)

"In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a 'high-sex-ratio society'—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families. Rates of illegitimacy and divorce are low. Women’s traditional roles as mothers and homemakers are held in high esteem. In such situations, however, men also use the power of their greater numbers to limit women’s economic and political strength, and female literacy and labor-force participation drop. One might hope that in low-sex-ratio societies—where women outnumber men—women would have the social and sexual advantage. (After all, didn’t the mythical all-female nation of Amazons capture men and keep them as their sex slaves?) But that’s not what happens: instead, when confronted with a surplus of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. (Which, I suppose, might explain the Amazons’ need to keep men in slave quarters.) In societies with too many women, the theory holds, fewer people marry, and those who do marry do so later in life."

Emphases mine. This is subtle, but given the context I couldn't help but noticing Bolick's non-neutral language. A high male-to-female ratio is empowering to men; the reverse ratio is "too many women." Notice how in both situations, men are the ones with agency. We're talking about a ratio of "50.8 percent females and 49.2 percent males," not an enormous surplus. The only ways I know of to achieve a more "ideal" ratio with less of a surplus of women is to kill a bunch of men off in a war or drown first children if they happen to be girls.

Here's a part I agree with, but she's quoting another author:

"This marriage myth—'matrimania,' [Bella] DePaulo calls it—proclaims that the only route to happiness is finding and keeping one all-purpose, all-important partner who can meet our every emotional and social need. Those who don’t have this are pitied. Those who don’t want it are seen as threatening."

Bolick's article seems to be about the cultural assumption that everyone wants to get married. But Bolick never really questions this assumption. When she talks about single women, she doesn't just mean unmarried, she means unattached. She hasn't discovered that she doesn't want to get married; she just "hasn't found the right person yet."

P.S. I blogged about marriage journalism in The Atlantic and Time back in 2009 in "Did you ask for the happy ending?"


  1. The Atlantic's obsession with publishing anti-feminist pieces (often by Caitlin Flanagan, but there are others like Sandra Tsing Loh) is sociologically interesting but also means that I basically filter out everything they have to say on the topic.

  2. That's who wrote the piece in Time! In which she makes the astounding claim "There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage"

  3. Thank you thank you thank you for this Miss Representation trailer. I'm going to show it in my Literature and Identity class on Thursday.

  4. You're welcome! It's got some really interesting data in it.

  5. It really does. Also, I like your point about the "conservative response" above. Sort of related is a thing that's been depressing me lately, which is how even in allegedly "progressive" environments like the Obama administration, women are consistently reminded implicitly and explicitly that they are not allowed to really be powerful or equal. Gross: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2011/09/does_the_obama_administration.html

  6. Chief causes of measurable hardship &c.:

    1. Reading Caitlin Flanagan
    2. Talking to impressionable people who have read Caitlin Flanagan and agree with her
    3. The decline of absolute monarchy
    4. The botched succession of Marcus Aurelius ca. 180 CE
    5. Butterflies

  7. I'm at work, so I haven't had a chance to consider this carefully, but I can say that I find the use of words like "scarcity" and "surplus" in this context completing nauseating (and really...these words are so frequently used to invent and/or dissemble...they're sort of red flags anyway). The thing is -- and maybe this is stupid optimism -- I do believe things are changing for the better. It sounds like this article contains the sort of hand-wringing rhetoric that frequently surrounds progressive cultural shifts.

    Anyway, thanks for your post, Elisa.

    more later (I hope)

  8. Hi Michelle! I think things are getting better too -- and I wish this article reflected it to more of a degree, for example showcasing women who are in stable, long-term relationships but still choose not to get married. She seems to honor a kind of old-fashioned dichotomy in which you're either married or a spinster. She gives us permission to get married later, but she never explicitly says it's OK not to get married at all.

  9. Yeah, that dichotomy is stupid. It's also offensively hetero-normative. I just have a hard time understanding why anyone would care about whether or not other people get married. I mean, I know this can be an issue between parents and children (and there are other, complicated reasons there...). But caring in general? about rates of marriage? It seems so silly.

    in solidarity, M

  10. "the difference in hours worked" argument is bogus. women make less PER DOLLAR than a man because they work less hours? so if the dude makes $20/hr, 40 hours a week, and the woman makes $16/hr, 20 hours a week, it's her fault for working less hours?

    i like michelle's signature.

    in solidarity,


  11. Yeah, and world over, women work more hours than men anyway, especially if you count unpaid work like child care and cleaning.


  12. I never ever wanted to marry. Not as a child and not now, in middle-agehood. As a little girl I did want to be a princess, and wear gowns like Madame de Pompadour and Catherine the Great did. But bridesgowns gave and give me the creeps. It is part and parcel of the whole make-women-bland-and-nonthreatening mold: no humor, lots of sentimentality, no guts, lots of attention for meaningless details, and all the while dreaming of weddingdresses and outshining all the other brides (because then you won't outshine men). It scares me, it really does.

  13. I hear that. I also feel like, even if women don't want this, it's hard to make your wedding feel substantially different from everybody else's, because aside from the "tradition" aspect, it's a huge industry. I mean, obviously your own wedding feels different to you, because it's your wedding. But if it's not you or your daughter the details blend together in a kind of Hollywood movie way.

    I've always felt like I can imagine a beautiful wedding that would feel special -- but it's not worth the cost of a house to me.

  14. Logically, it is not possible for women to achieve equality and for most of them still to "marry up."

  15. Yes, this author seems to want it both ways -- to gain power/independence and yet keep the traditional family structure intact.

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  17. this is an impressive display of solidarity. anyway aren't y'all already winning what with the death of the american male and more college gragitation and all that?

  18. Reports of the death of the American male have been greatly exaggerated. What does that mean, anyway?

  19. i dunno, that article was prob in the atlantic too. btdubbs, jessica grose @ slate was hating on this article too, and she was like, every atlantic cover with a female author is about marriage or kids or somethin. maybe this is the atlantic's schtick, i seem to recall a lot of controversial gender-warfare sorts of articles coming out of there. probably moves a lot of magazines!

  20. I hhhhhhhhhhhhhate the single ladies beyonce song: "if you like it then u shoulda put ring on it"--pathetic; the imperative structure may sound almost feminist but, no, yah-right.

    Boy-Girl pre or post thumpthump/sexual relationship--when is this gonna stop being the bread and butter of pop songs?! I think even if I were hetero I'd be bored! (btw I totally love the radio!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Now this is not to say Salt n Peppa's Push It isn't totally delicious.

    Pop-star chicks (flippant word choice on purpose) shld start fucking up male bodies big-time: carve 'em, stomp'em, stick shit in their orifices. Is the "oh ma/ma, oh ma/ma
    I just shot a man down" song Rianah?
    Regardless, I applaud; it seems like a rad-ass signifying on No Woman No Cry.

  21. I actually don't even think that Beyonce song is that catchy. The chorus succeeds a little too well at sounding like a naggy bitch.

  22. "unpaid work like child care and cleaning"? Doing something yourself to avoid paying someone else to do it is not the same as "unpaid" work. If a woman were to be employed outside of the home such that she would have to hire someone to clean and watch her children, she would just be paying someone else and not herself.

    "Unpaid work" is charity or slavery.

  23. You define "unpaid work" however you want, but it takes time, it sucks, and women have to do 90% of it.

  24. THANK YOU for taking on this article. While I appreciate how it brought the issue of satisfied singles into the spotlight, I had a lot of the same concerns about it.

    No, she never questions a lot of the underlying cultural assumptions behind the marriage myth or the social problems associated with those assumptions, such as the fact that singles are discriminated against in many laws and by many corporations.

    And I completely agree with your take on THIS part:
    "I'm sorry, but why do women have to marry men who are better educated and earn more than they do?" That recurring theme/assumption has long bothered me about the declining-marriage discussion.

    Christina at Onely