Kate Bolick has set the chattering class — not to mention the bar scene — abuzz with her cover story for The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies.” Because she passed up marriage in her late 20s and has now concluded that at 39 the possibility has passed her by completely, she declares the end of marriage as her generation’s contribution to history. Have all single 30-somethings come to a similar conclusion? Not quite, as you might expect. For further insight, National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez discusses the issue with Jennifer A. Marshall, director of domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of the book Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the 21st Century.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is this month’s Atlantic story one woman trying to justify why she broke up with a boyfriend of three years for no good reason (as she tells it)?
JENNIFER A. MARSHALL: Not trying “to justify” but perhaps trying to figure out, in retrospect, why she did it. She confesses to having been bewildered by her decision at the time. There were some pretty strong winds at our backs for those of us growing up in the you-go-girl generation (i.e., those born after 1970), propelling us along a seemingly endless path of opportunity. So if “something was missing,” as she says, why not keep looking for it? As in any generation, cultural dynamics shaped our motivations in ways we couldn’t readily articulate, and this article strikes me as an effort to sort those out.
LOPEZ: At 39, is it “certainly” the case, as Bolick writes, that “falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck”?
MARSHALL: Never-married 30-somethings probably are not in a good position to use the word “certainly” in observations about how marriage will happen.
LOPEZ: “Biological parenthood in a nuclear family need not be the be-all and end-all of womanhood — and in fact it increasingly is not.” Did anyone ever say it was?
MARSHALL: That’s a feminist parody of the traditionalist position that rightly esteems marriage and motherhood. The feminist–traditionalist debate has played out popularly in a way that leaves many women still wondering how to ground their sense of identity and purpose in the midst of all the shifting terrain in the last generation. I think we need to address some questions that are more foundational than those we typically hear.
LOPEZ: “But somewhere along the way, I decided to not let my biology dictate my romantic life. If I find someone I really like being with, and if he and I decide we want a child together, and it’s too late for me to conceive naturally, I’ll consider whatever technological aid is currently available, or adopt (and if he’s not open to adoption, he’s not the kind of man I want to be with).” Is there something selfish about that? There is a reality to biology. You may be able to adopt at a later age, but is that fair to the child, who is not going to have you around as long?
MARSHALL: The problem here is taking a fundamentally relational dimension of life — romance — and approaching it individualistically. The more we focus solely on our own goals, our own timelines, the less likely we are to have the other-focused outlook that makes relationships succeed. And as the Atlantic story points out, it’s that relational piece that is so elusive for women of the you-go-girl generation, the satisfaction we struggle to find. These romantic and relational decisions have consequences beyond ourselves, often particularly for children. Part of empowering women today ought to be instilling a greater sense of stewardship for those consequences beyond ourselves.
LOPEZ: Is Kate Bolick a case for arranged marriage? Of course, her feminist mother wouldn’t have been the best candidate for the arranger.
MARSHALL: There’s a lot of room between the situation today — an almost entirely autonomous search for a marriage partner — and arranged marriage. We live in a highly individualistic culture with confused notions of privacy. Sure, there’s a lot of disclosure on Facebook, Twitter, etc., but when it comes to some of the most intimate issues, where mentoring and wise counsel are most needed, they’re often walled off in a zone of individual privacy. It would do us good to take a few steps away from this atomized scenario and restore more family, congregational, and social support for helping young people discern the path to marriage. That takes a willingness to be in a community where we know others and are willing to be known — really known — by them.
LOPEZ: Kate Bolick writes: “A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again. This wasn’t hubris so much as naïveté; I’d had serious, long-term boyfriends since my freshman year of high school, and simply couldn’t envision my life any differently.” Isn’t this part of the problem? At some point — decades ago — having “serious long-term boyfriends” became her routine. Does this have something to do with some serious cultural courtship problems?
MARSHALL: It’s the “naïveté” verdict that intrigues me. “You go” girls were told that life was a near-endless string of opportunity, so why wouldn’t that apply to relationships as well? It turns out that’s not entirely true, but it has helped shape the choices — relational and otherwise — of a generation of young women.
LOPEZ: In your response to Bolick, you write: “If you take ‘The Girl Project,’ add ‘The War Against Boys,’ and mix in some sexual revolution (‘Dan Quayle Was Right,’ after all, per The Atlantic’s April ’93 cover story), is it any surprise you’re left with ‘All the Single Ladies’?” What does Dan Quayle have to do with it?
MARSHALL: Dan Quayle was right — as scholar Barbara Dafoe Whitehead boldly proclaimed in that Atlantic cover story — to say it’s not good for society when sex and childbearing are separated from marriage. That’s especially true for children. But it’s true for single women as well. The availability of sex outside marriage takes away a major incentive for men to commit. The sexual revolution and the feminist movement are the big cultural shifts that have changed the romantic landscape considerably. (Incidentally, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead was well ahead of the curve, as usual, on the implications for single women. In 2003, she wrote the book Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman.)
LOPEZ: This “War Against Boys“ point is an important one, isn’t it? What might a response to Bolick from a 39- or even a 29-year-old man say?
MARSHALL: The most recent single-male response I’ve received (after an op-ed I wrote in response to Bolick’s piece) said it seems that women are just trying to be men. This man sees women pursuing degrees and careers and says that while he doesn’t begrudge them those opportunities, “to hear them lament about there not being any ‘marriageable’ men makes me think ‘you got what you deserved.’”
That comes off a little harshly, but it’s an important indicator of how we can fall into seeing the opposite sex through a sort of fog of cultural stereotypes. We need to cut through that fog and see one another for the unique individuals we’re created to be. With all the changes of the last generation, there is some serious cultural recalibration that needs to take place. We should have grace for one another in the midst of that.
One more comment on the male side of this issue: I’m delighted to see my former boss Bill Bennett speaking to men about this issue since the publication of his new book, The Book of Man. The Rev. Kevin DeYoung also addressed men in a blog last week on the Gospel Coalition website. It’s critically important that male leaders like these engage men on this topic.
LOPEZ: “We need to restore cultural respect for the marriage ideal,” you write. “In the meantime, the marriage aspiration is alive and well.” So what can a single 39-year-old do about it?
MARSHALL: Don’t toss out the marriage ideal just because it’s not working out personally at the moment. Don’t let the fog of cultural stereotypes cloud perceptions of men; see them individually for who they are, just as each of us women wants to be seen as a unique person. Keep articulating the challenges on the path to marriage in the wake of the feminist movement and sexual revolution; pastors, leaders, mentors, and parents have wisdom to share but need openness on our part so they can better understand today’s circumstances.
And all of us, no matter what our marital status, should seek solid ground for a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends all life’s seasons.
LOPEZ: Does Bolick recognize in herself something culturally important — having bought into “a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else”? Is there something different about this piece? She does seem to see there are flaws in feminist ideology. But she seems to accept that they have remade reality. But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it?
MARSHALL: Yes, Bolick makes the occasional important observation questioning conventional feminist wisdom. (Here’s another: “the common misperception that biology is ours to control.”) But those moments of refreshing critique make the conclusion — which preemptively surrenders the marriage ideal and dreams associated with it to a sort of social evolution — all the more disappointing and depressing. It lacks the confidence that women today could actually help provoke change for the future. It lacks a restorative vision.
LOPEZ: You, of course, wrote the book on this, which is why we’re chatting here. Is there a single life of peace and fulfillment without declaring independence from the institution of marriage? Can one desire it, be open to it, but be peaceful if it doesn’t happen? That’s tough, and it’s something we don’t talk a lot about. How do we handle this?
MARSHALL: Bolick writes — and I admire her candor — “If I stopped seeing my present life as provisional, perhaps I’d be a little . . . happier.”
When I read this line, for a split second I thought she might have hit on the thesis of my book Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the 21st Century. Reading on, I realized quite the opposite: This is actually the saddest line of the piece.
The way she gets over seeing this unexpected in-between of prolonged singleness as “provisional” is by abandoning the marriage ideal, i.e., elevating current circumstances by demoting marriage.
But her hunch, of course, is right. Marriage-minded single women should not downplay, dismiss, or despise this time. If we want to find joy and satisfaction now even as we long for something more in the future, we need the confidence that there is a grand design to our lives, and that there is a purpose that transcends any particular circumstances.
LOPEZ: Is your book a counterpoint to Bolick’s piece?
MARSHALL: I think Bolick’s piece will leave marriage-minded single women all the more confused and frustrated. She captures the anxiety of single women well, but she doesn’t have satisfying answers. We shouldn’t leave this conversation on such a depressing note. My book is about clarity and purpose now, with hopefulness for the future.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.