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.
Would this be the solution to the crisis of the modern woman, as Bolick suggests? In practice, perhaps. But such a social order would be merely the flip side of the patriarchal social structure feminists love to hate. In a caricature patriarchal society, men have all the earning power, determine the structure of both the household and other institutions, and treat women as little more than domestic and sexual servants, often engaging the “services” of more than one (the “temporary marriages” practiced in some Muslim countries come to mind). In a caricature matriarchal society, men are little more than studs. In both cases, one distinctive need of the weaker gender is met effectively — the patriarchs address women’s need for stability and physical protection, while the matriarchs satisfy male desire for commitment-free sex with multiple partners. But this comes at the expense of every other, loftier, need and desire, and distorts the humanity of both the stronger and the weaker sex.
The only alternative to the objectification of one sex is marriage, premised on monogamy and love. When men bind together and hold power, women do not participate in decision-making as equal partners. When women rely on their own support networks instead of men, men are shut out of the family. Only in monogamous marriage, in which the heterosexual couple, rather than either gender, wields power and constitutes the basic unit of society, can equality and true companionship between the sexes be achieved. It is no accident that even the Old Testament, for all its emphasis on growing and multiplying, exalts not mere fertility but marriage. Only the life-long faithful bond between man and woman is worthy of serving as a metaphor for the relationship between God and His people.
Marriage is worth fighting for. And if that is so, Bolick’s fascination with matriarchal arrangements must be resisted, not explored. It contributes to the lowering of women’s expectations of men and men’s expectations of themselves. The sexual availability of unmarried women, which can only be exacerbated by a more matriarchal social structure, plays a key role in promoting male decline. Men who begin having sex in their early teens do not effectively absorb the lesson that they will need a job — or any accomplishment besides physical attractiveness or charisma — in order to have sex. By the time they are old enough to learn otherwise, many of them have fathered several children and failed to make themselves employable. Little wonder that men, particularly in low-income communities, are falling behind.
Women cannot raise expectations for men by retiring into all-female “families.” They can do so only by refusing to provide commitment-free sex — by treating sex not as a perk of dating relationships whose destination vis-à-vis marriage is unknown, but as a shared marital reward.
This cannot be undertaken by any woman as an effort to break the male spirit and force commitment from men desperate for sex. It must be coupled with a genuine attempt to remember and value why it is that men — qua men — are valuable, not dispensable, not “replaceable by another man or their child’s mother” for either the child or the mother. Respect for the bodies of women, and for their desire for family and commitment, must be accompanied by respect for the dignity of men. This would encourage men not only to commit to women, but to raise their standards for themselves, reversing the very problem leading to the supposed need for female support networks.
— Lea Halim lives in Northern Virginia and blogs at The Groom’s Family.