American women face an increasingly tough marriage market, Kate Bolick writes in her recent article in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies.” Women continue to outpace men in educational attainment, employment rates, and earnings, with the result that many men are seen as unmarriageable, while the shrinking population of desirable men is increasingly promiscuous. Bolick wants to know what a single lady is to do about it, and her answer is female companionship.
It is indeed an excellent answer for the unencumbered single woman who’d rather not be alone and rather not put up with the choice between “deadbeats and players,” as Bolick puts it. But her inspiration for this solution comes only partly from medieval single-sex hotels and other arrangements for single, childless women. To a significant extent, it comes from matriarchal communities in which women not only live but raise children together, without the involvement of men.
Bolick is inspired by the women she meets in a poor African-American community, who bind together across generations to raise children. Men in such communities, which Bolick points out have experienced the most dramatic decline in marriage rates due to male shortage and promiscuity, are seen as increasingly dispensable. A recent Fox News article cited a survey of poor urban fathers in which more than half of respondents said that “they were replaceable by another man or their child’s mother.”
In Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, a detailed study of low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas describe how poor, unmarried mothers choose their child’s last name. If the mother’s romantic relationship is intact and satisfying, the child may be given the father’s name; otherwise it will be the mother’s. Thus in a limited but important sense, this segment of society is not only matriarchal, but increasingly matrilineal.
The full implementation of this pattern, so to speak, is seen in the Mosuo community in China, which Bolick also briefly discusses. The Mosuo have a matrilineal and matriarchal social structure and do not practice marriage (though many are monogamous). Women head households, while men lead an apparently carefree and subordinate existence in homes ruled by their mothers or sisters. Sexual contacts between men and women are initiated and terminated at the will of either party, and do not affect family and residential arrangements; the children resulting from these contacts belong to the mother’s household.
Matriarchy and promiscuity sustain one another. For as long as women expect support from the fathers of their children, male promiscuity will lead to distress and declining fertility as women fail to find committed partners. This is the world Bolick inhabits along with other New York singles. But when women give up on men’s playing an important role in the household and turn to one another instead, accepting the financial and emotional costs of raising one another’s children, promiscuity becomes, in a sense, safe. It also becomes inevitable, as men, who become increasingly less likely to meet the standards set by female heads of household, are no longer willing or able to sustain long-term commitment.
It is foreseeable that the growing promiscuity of college campuses and the young-adult scene will push more middle-class, educated women like Bolick into female-led households, raising children fathered by absent partners, adopted, or artificially conceived. Traditionally in the West, women did not think they could survive without a male partner. If this is not true for the Mosuo in China or for poor single mothers in urban ghettos, certainly it need not be true for modern middle-class educated women, who experience far fewer unexpected challenges to physical safety or occasions requiring the exercise of brute physical strength. We could, at least in principle, become a largely matriarchal society, or at least one with a dominant matriarchal subculture.