A month ago, Carissa Mulder posed a challenge to the conservative vision (or lack thereof) of a place in society for the growing ranks of single, religious women. Much of it is quite right. If most of these women will remain permanently single, as Mulder is inclined to think, then they should be more than an uncomfortable afterthought in the conservative mind. Her suggestion of caring for the old and infirm is laudable work for single women to take on, as is service to the Church. And certainly, the single woman should make the best of her situation, find goods to pursue besides husband and children, and recognize that some aspects of life can be easier to pursue on one’s own. At the same time, however, the piece contains some deep flaws that are worth addressing. Surely, if single women are to pursue intellectual fulfillment as one of the perks of singleness, such an endeavor hinges on eschewing many of the myths about singleness, both ancient and contemporary, from which Mulder’s analysis drinks so deeply.
Myth One: We’re Victims
The first set of such myths concerns Mulder’s characterization of modern single women as mere victims of circumstance—women who wanted and expected marriage, but for whom it never really materialized. While I see no value in laying blame on or in triggering associated ruminations and regrets among single women, I do see value in accurately parsing cause and effect so that future generations of women who also seek marriage might meet with greater success than their aunts. Accordingly, because the situation does involve the agency of single women, Mulder’s threefold mischaracterization of the situation as mere circumstance should be addressed.
The first of these mischaracterizations is the issue of whether women intended to end up single. Mulder writes,
In my experience, most conservative and religious women who pursued higher education wanted to marry and have children; they were not deliberately avoiding marriage. Most expected to find a husband in college, and if not there, then at church, or perhaps in graduate school—or, in the worst-case scenario, through online dating. Many did. Many did not. But it is unfair to criticize those who did not, when the two populations where they are most likely to find a spouse are either evenly divided between men and women or, in the case of churches and some colleges, are heavily female.
Whether these women were deliberately avoiding marriage is far less important than whether they were deliberately pursuing marriage. By the author’s own account, they were expecting it to happen naturally in the places they planned to go anyway despite the fact that the demographics in those places are not terribly conducive to finding a spouse. This seems more like a good reason for criticism than an exemption from it.
As I’ve written elsewhere, contemporary American coupling traditions are ill-suited to the task of finding a good spouse. Although a culture should pass on good traditions to its members, our own most certainly has not; this has been clear to anyone who has observed the long-established normalcy of divorce, illegitimacy, and fornication. Surely, conservative religious single women have been among these observers. While we may not choose the details of the culture we receive, neither can we afford to be disengaged about when to follow and when not to. Expecting to find a husband and actively pursuing marriage are not necessarily the same thing. Absentminded avoidance of marriage is no less worthy of criticism than deliberate avoidance.
Myth Two: Biology Changes Women’s Behavior
The second mischaracterization is public awareness of a woman’s relatively narrow fertility window. Based on my own experience, I am far less sanguine that “if you don’t realize that you have a finite amount of time to bear children, you probably live in a cave,” as Mulder asserts. But regardless of how common this knowledge actually is, there remains a significant difference between a piece of trivia and knowledge that actually influences one’s behavior.
For example, when people talk about teenagers who think that they are invincible, they are not talking about teenagers being intellectually unaware of mortality. They are instead speaking of an attitude that, despite knowledge that harmful things happen, foolishly adds, “But I’m special, so these things will never happen to me when I risk them.” Having watched couples who want children intentionally delaying marriage well into the time when a woman’s fertility begins rapidly declining, I cannot help but conclude that similar attitudes are alive and well in adults also. Even if the facts are widespread as trivia, widespread criticisms such as a 21-year-old model supposedly being too young to be a mother, or 23 being too young to even get engaged seem to prevent the facts from reaching behavior where they can actually do some good.
Myth Three: There Are No Good Men
The third and final mischaracterization is the alleged dearth of marriageable men. Of this Mulder writes, “The problem for conservative and religious women is simply that there aren’t enough husbands to be had,” and, “There simply are not enough marriageable men compared to marriageable women at any level of society.” Mulder does not unpack these assertions other than noting a growing disparity in educational credentials, so we are left to guess at the significance behind them. Nevertheless, as an objection to the contemporary state of men, it usually breaks down into two distinct complaints: 1) that men are by-and-large becoming unfit to support a family and 2) that men who trigger the spark of romance that justifies matrimony in the modern mind are uninterested in marriage while the men who are interested in marriage do not trigger any such spark, rendering both groups of men unfit for marriage at the same time.
There is some merit to the first objection, as men who are not willing to devote themselves to a family in this way are indeed not yet fit for marriage. Even so, there are important caveats worth bringing up. The first is that supporting a wife and family is not necessarily the same thing as supporting them in the manner to which they had been accustomed growing up.
Needless to say, parents have a significant head-start on creating a home. I remember being advised to delay my own marriage until my career was in place and a solid middle-class lifestyle was practical—advice that, 12 years later, I am very thankful to have disregarded. Living in a small apartment that we could barely afford surrounded by loud students from a college renowned for its party atmosphere did make the first few years of marriage extremely difficult. However, it was the kind of difficulty that, because we held to our vows, developed character. Although an ability and willingness to support a family is a precondition for marriage, American standards of affluence and college degrees are not.
As for the growing trend of men who are not so willing to develop their ability to sustain a family, there are a number of underlying social causes to which single women, among others, have contributed. I have written on the subject in greater detail elsewhere, but for now, it suffices to point out that the prospect of marriage and family is often what motivates a man toward economic success. Decades of pushing marriage so far into the future that it becomes intangible to young men all while telling them that they are superfluous to the lives of women and children anyway has had natural and unfortunate effects. What’s done is done, but future generations can be spared this reality if we recognize and correct it now rather than chalking it up to mere circumstance.
The second objection concerning romantic spark, however, has much less merit when it comes to a lack of marriageable men. It is true enough that people cannot simply flip a switch to make themselves attracted to a prospective spouse who is otherwise marriage-quality. However, this obvious truth has lead too many people to extrapolate that romantic feelings are immutable, undeniable, and therefore the only sound foundation on which to base a marriage. In reality, attraction is much more plastic than most people assume, and is in large part shaped by culture. C. S. Lewis points this out in The Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape writes the following about his demonic superiors:
It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual ‘taste.’ This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely.
As usual, Lewis’ observation hits the mark. A decade or so ago, I read about a young, single, conservative, Christian woman who, after quickly dismissing the young men she actually knew, described the kind of man she wanted to marry: She fantasized about a bad-boy Hollywood actor who was popular at the time suddenly being set on fire for the Lord, picking her up on his motorcycle, and riding off with her into the sunset. The literal deus ex machina necessitated by her fantasy underscores the vast gulf between the kind of man she was attracted to and kind of man who is actually interested in a Christian marriage. If the media that one consumes and the social circles that one participates in create a sexual taste that is detrimental to marriage, then it is time to find new media and social circles before writing off the many marriageable single men who already feel invisible.
Is accurately characterizing the situation too future-oriented to help the current 20-to-40-year-olds that Mulder deems permanently single? It is doubtful for women on the latter edge of the scale, although the closer women are to their twenties, the more time they have to alter course by no longer inadvertently hamstringing their own marital prospects. Regardless of the immediate utility, however, these are very important realizations for the long-term. Many conservative religious women have been complicit in promulgating the myths, whether through treating marriage absentmindedly, ignoring the fertility gap, indulging foolish sexual tastes, or insisting on standards of living that make young marriage impossible. If single women seek to serve the Church and society, then acknowledging and ceasing this kind of participation would be one such service.
Myth Four: Singleness Is Holier
With the myths concerning circumstance out of the way, it is time to address the final myth that “not marrying frees us to pursue… the good of religion.” In support of this, Mulder cites the Apostle Paul’s comments about his own marital state in 1 Corinthians as well as the Church of Rome’s various traditions of consecrated celibacy as ways to honor virginity. This assessment presents numerous problems, the most obvious of which is the naivete of bringing virginity into it.
The majority of women who have been single long enough to consider resigning themselves to it are as far from their virginity as the east is from the west. To be sure, there are and always have been women who, like Paul, are indefinitely gifted with the self-control necessary to resist the pressures of sexual temptation. These virtuous few indeed deserve to be honored. Nevertheless, they are not by any means the majority—even among religious single women. Insofar as we are talking about the contemporary demographic trend of older and more numerous singles Mulder addresses, we are most definitely not talking about consecrated celibacy, but rather a growing population of women becoming fatigued by the serial monogamy in which they have long been engaged.
I do not bring this up to shame, although because such behavior is shameful, it will no doubt trigger corresponding feelings among some. I bring it up because the flip-side of Paul’s affirmation of celibacy in those verses is his prescription of marriage to the sexually incontinent—a category that unfortunately encompasses most single conservative religious women. The two options given to the Christian are celibacy and marriage. In practice, the contemporary state of singleness is seldom either of these things. Leaving a life of fornication for either of these paths is good, but it must be a departure. If a Christian woman seeks to be religious in such a manner, it is for her to conform her life to one of these two paths, not to redefine one of them to match her own circumstances.
Furthermore, the problem with treating singleness as an opportunity to be more religious than wives comes into sharper focus when Mulder tries to bring Protestants into the fold with a few examples of accomplished singles. While I have no wish to diminish any such accomplishments, one of the treasures of the Reformation is the doctrine of vocation—the realization that God has called each of us into certain stations in life and that we are actually being religious by fulfilling them. Paul says that the unmarried are less anxious, and even happier, but he never says they are more religious. Indeed, the Reformers realized that wives and mothers live more religiously than the monastics of the time who were the primary pursuers of consecrated celibacy. After all, mothers, in contrast to the monastics, were actually living in a station ordained and commanded by God.
In exactly the same way, it is unfair to say that singles can more freely pursue religion by focusing on the man-made work of “developing our relationship with God.” Don’t get me wrong: Single women have their own vocations just as married women do. My point is that it is a categorical error to think that not having the vocation of wife and mother makes a woman more free to pursue religion, for the faithful wife and mother is already freely pursuing religion by following God’s instructions to her. On top of that, the contemporary notion of “developing our relationship with God,” though undefined by Mulder herself, is all too often just a grab-bag of techniques for finding God in ambiguous spiritual feelings rather than in His Word where He speaks clearly, or in the Sacraments through which He has promised to come to us. It may very well be that Mulder has something more specific and Biblical in mind, but to hold the vague mysticism popularly associated with her choice of phrase as a state of religious advantage would simply be the vice of spiritual pride.
If Mulder’s goal of recognizing the value of single women in society, conservativism, and the Church is important—and I agree that it is—then it is important enough to walk into with eyes open. Let us dismiss the myths and embrace our single sisters (and brothers) as they are, helping some towards marriage and others towards service and other forms of community. For singles indeed have much that they can offer to their neighbors, and for those within the Church, even their sins, mistakes, and failures are redeemed in Christ.
Matthew’s writing may be found at The 96th Thesis.