To Marry Or Not To Marry — A Matter Of Privilege?

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Women are more in control of their bodies, minds, and lifestyle choices than ever before — but public discussions surrounding these decisions are seldom unheated. While many women are choosing to delay marriage and raising children until their 30s or later — or opting out altogether — as a culture, we don't seem to be 100% comfortable with this reality. The opposite situation — young, single women having kids out of wedlock — also attracts its own umbrage. And, the two scenarios became the subject of a massive debate at an Atlantic summit this past Wednesday. When a recent WSJ editorial suggesting lower-income women should finish school and wait to get married before having children became the topic of discussion, the audience bristled.

The word patriarchy was thrown around, as were wisecracks about how many husbands a woman should marry to make ends meet. "Marrying a 10-dollar-an-hour man gets you nowhere, so you'd really have to marry three or four," joked Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote the book on working-class America, Nickel and Dimed. But, as writer Emma Green points out in a resulting Atlantic essay: "Taking a stand against patriarchy is much easier if you're well-educated, have a stable income, and live in a community where you could theoretically find an educated, employed man to marry." In other words: Sometimes marriage is less about liberated decision-making and more about keeping a roof over your head. It can be easy to lose sight of this when wrapped up in passionate debate among (let's face it) well-educated peers who probably won't have to go to sleep wondering how they will make next month's rent.

This is a tough one. After all, American class conflict might be even more of a hot-button issue than contemporary gender roles. The reality is that people of privilege have more choices than those without. This doesn't mean that women (or men) of a lower-income background can't work toward upward mobility (and the widened spectrum of possibilities that creates) — after all, nothing is absolute. It just means that being born a "have-not" typically forces individuals up against the wall in a way that those from a comfortable economic background may not understand. A well-educated woman making six figures a year likely doesn't need to worry about splitting her bills with someone to keep her head above water; for her, marriage may be an attractive, but totally optional, proposition. (On a semi-related note, she may have better sex than a lower-earning female, too, due partially to better reproductive health and birth control access.) For a less educated, low-earning female, Green says, marriage may be one of the only ways to make rent: "Financially, married women tend to fare much better than unmarried women."

When you're wealthy, it seems children become more optional, too — even though this demographic has resources that make it easier to raise kids with better health, education, and opportunity. It's no secret that more affluent countries typically have lower birth rates and that high-earning women overall are less likely to have children (and when they do, it's one or two). Conversely, poor women, on average, have kids earlier and more often. (And, almost a third regret this, according to Maria Shriver's report on female poverty in America.) They are also less likely to be married, leaving them in the difficult position of working multiple low-paying jobs to try to raise their children alone. Looked at this way, it's hard to deny that (sustainable) marriage, love aside, could seem like a valid way to improve quality of life for you and your family.

Green's essay has sparked an interesting array of responses. Some readers call her argument "obvious," others "offensive." Still, others can see the practical validity of her point but wonder why marriage isn't emphasized as a possible financial solution for lower-income men as well. In a way, Beyoncé — who recently wrote her own blurb about gender inequality for Shriver — hit upon an inconvenient truth on her new record, sampling TED speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: "I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now, marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But, why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, and we don’t teach boys the same?" (The Atlantic)