US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Marriage, women, and the church

Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Mmm... caaake...

Last month’s Atlantic featured a cover story somewhat similar to one they’d run just a little more than a year ago. Citing the rise in success of women in the past few decades and the “explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life,” the author writes from her own experience of singlehood at 39 (though not thanks to a lack of success at meaningful relationships) and wonders if “it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of ‘traditional’ marriage as society’s highest ideal.”

It’s an interesting conclusion, especially when you consider the energy that the church is putting into attempting to make sure the state upholds the “traditional” institution of marriage, an effort that no other church concern (such as preferential option for the poor) is getting, evidence that “traditional” marriage seems to be at least church’s highest ideal for society. I think that even if we put aside the issue of same sex marriage, the anxiety over the state of marriage would be just as strong. With a 50 percent divorce rate looming over head, the steadily increasing average age people get married, and the overall decline in the number of married couples, it’s understandable that we might get nostalgic for the model our grandparents and maybe parents showed us. We blame women in the work place, the sexual revolution, individualism, “the culture of death,” and anything else that we think could have had a hand in the dissolution of the ideal a dad with a good day job and a mom who cooked and cleaned and raised the children.

But before we get all hand wringy, we should pause to reflect on whether the very notion of a “traditional” marriage stands the test of time. Social historian Stephanie Coontz, while researching the history of coupling, found it to be more of a modern luxury:

Not until the 18th century did labor begin to be divided along a sharp line: wage-earning for the men and unpaid maintenance of household and children for the women. [Stephanie] Coontz notes that as recently as the late 17th century, women’s contributions to the family economy were openly recognized, and advice books urged husbands and wives to share domestic tasks. But as labor became separated, so did our spheres of experience—the marketplace versus the home—one founded on reason and action, the other on compassion and comfort. Not until the post-war gains of the 1950s, however, were a majority of American families able to actually afford living off a single breadwinner.

It turns out, though, that we can probably blame women’s lib for the dismantling of the 1950s “ideal" (But really, whose ideal was it?):

“Foremost among the reasons for all these changes in family structure are the gains of the women’s movement. Over the past half century, women have steadily gained on—and are in some ways surpassing—men in education and employment. From 1970 (seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed) to 2007, women’s earnings grew by 44 percent, compared with 6 percent for men. 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. A 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30 found that the women actually earned 8 percent more than the men. Women are also more likely than men to go to college: in 2010, 55 percent of all college graduates ages 25 to 29 were female...

“As of last year, women held 51.4 percent of all managerial and professional positions, up from 26 percent in 1980. Today women outnumber men not only in college but in graduate school; they earned 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees awarded in 2010, and men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma...

“...after accounting for inflation, male median wages have fallen by 32 percent since their peak in 1973, once you account for the men who have stopped working altogether. The Great Recession accelerated this imbalance. Nearly three-quarters of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the depths of the recession were lost by men, making 2010 the first time in American history that women made up the majority of the workforce. Men have since then regained a small portion of the positions they’d lost—but they remain in a deep hole, and most of the jobs that are least likely ever to come back are in traditionally male-dominated sectors, like manufacturing and construction.”

In other words, there is a historic disparity in gender right now. The article then cites multiple studies in which changing gender relations in different societies over history have had a major effect on marriage. “Our own ‘crisis in gender’ isn’t a literal imbalance...But our shrinking pool of traditionally ‘marriageable’ men is dramatically changing our social landscape, and producing startling dynamics in the marriage market, in ways that aren’t immediately apparent...”

What’s curious to me is how this “crisis in gender” will play out not only in how the church responds to that new social landscape, but how that will affect the social make-up of the church in terms of families. Already, we know that the church is not made up of Leave it to Beaver-style families. And with the increasing number of Hispanics changing the face of the U.S. Catholic Church, we'll see that "traditional" model of marriage and family fall further and further from the reality on the ground as these families find themselves in variable situations thanks to culture, immigration policies, and economics.

As an aside, it’s so surprising to me that in the very society that has produced such dramatic advances for women based on the idea that men and women are inherent equals that we also have arguments over whether not an 8-year-old girl can be an altar server or a grown woman whose served her church and her community her entire life can be a deacon.

Flickr photo cc by jimthompson