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Learning From The Single Life

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Let’s imagine for a moment that we lived in a world in which women were genuinely happy to be women. Imagine that they worked to build good lives for themselves, and also for people they loved, without constantly fretting about whether they were doing it “right.” Suppose they didn’t roil in personal angst and obsess over “confidence gaps,” but just took pride in their own accomplishments, while gladly admiring those of other women and of men.

Sounds like a pretty nice place, doesn’t it? Is there a reason we can’t live there?

This is what I found myself wondering after reading Carissa Mulder’s recent essay about single womanhood. As an unmarried, well-educated woman, she can speak to a situation that is increasingly common today. Even if they are by inclination oriented towards marriage and family, many women are unable to find husbands.

As Mulder explains, simply and without rancor, “There simply are not enough marriageable men compared to marriageable women at any level of society. Men may make a comeback, and I hope they do. But any such comeback will come too late to help women who are currently aged 20-40.” The statistics support her claim. Women are more likely than men to graduate from college and find steady employment. But the problem goes deeper than educational differentials. Men are more likely than women to be incarcerated or to fall prey to substance abuse. Men are also simply less likely to express an interest in marriage and parenthood.

Many books have been written about the decline of men, ranging in tone from righteous sympathy to taunting. It’s widely agreed, however, that men are struggling. One consequence is a greater number of unmarried women.

Mulder offers suggestions for how we (and especially religious conservatives) might better integrate these women into our communities, enabling them to live more fulfilled lives, while the rest of us also benefit from their presence and their contributions. Single women, as she notes, are often able to develop themselves and to serve others around them in ways that would be difficult for mothers. Everyone loses when our discomfort with the idea of single womanhood causes us to ostracize the unmarried.

Mulder’s essay is an admirable piece of work. Three things in particular impressed me about it. First, her account is completely free of sour-grapes dismissals of those whose lives have developed differently from her own. Second, she is able to seize the opportunities that are available, without bitterness or self-doubt. Finally, she can reflect on her personal situation (and that of other women like herself) without blaming men or indulging in gender-warfare bitterness.

No Sour Grapes

Compared to the great majority of people in the world (historically and today), Americans have access to an incredible range of opportunities. This is mostly a good thing, but there are costs. In a world of opportunity, every door we open seems to close several more, and as we get older, the weight of all those might-have-beens can become oppressive. Dismissing all the paths not taken as obviously wrong or unfulfilling can be one way of managing that haunting regret. By criticizing others, we “double down” on our own personal choices.

Women in particular have a hard time with this. We pick at one another for not having children or for having too many. Those who stay home are reprimanded for “throwing away” their professional potential, while working moms are “paying someone else to raise their kids.” The list of negative characterizations is long. Unless you live in a very homogeneous community, you will some day come to realize that it is absolutely impossible to “do womanhood right”; every single woman on the planet can be held up by somebody as a cautionary tale.

To some extent, perhaps we do boost our own sense of purpose by cataloging the deficiencies of others. But this justification comes at a heavy price. Everyone becomes defensive about their personal choices, and we close down opportunities to form mutually-supportive communities in which we might vicariously enjoy some of the goods that we ourselves have had to forego. Maybe in some sense we really could “have it all” if only we were a little more adept at sharing, and at appreciating one another’s lives?

Mulder could dismiss the value of what she’s missed with a smug remark about her “well-stamped passport” or a contemptuous reference to “white picket fences.” To her credit, she does not. And I immediately find myself thinking how lovely it would be to know her personally.

No Apologies

Some unmarried women go too far. Far from dismissing the good of family, some descend into lengthy soliloquies of bitter regret and self-recrimination. It is much to Mulder’s credit that she also avoids this trap.

To be sure, some women might justifiably reproach themselves for approaching marriage in the wrong way. Some set their expectations unreasonably high (“because I’m worth it!”), while others just wait too long before getting serious about marriage and family. There are also women who blight their own marital prospects through irresponsible living and bad character. In a land of opportunity, there are many ways to fail.

But we should also remember that marriage takes two. People can remain single for reasons that have nothing to do with personal choice or personal failure. As already observed, this is likelier to happen to women than to men.

Religious conservatives, in their eagerness to promote matrimony, can be particularly harsh towards the unmarried, often inadvertently. They would do well to heed Mulder’s reminder that among conservatives especially, single women need no reminders that youth and fertility are fleeting. We should stop taunting them.

Marriage is a wonderful thing, so it’s understandable that conservatives want to sell it. Still, genuinely healthy communities should have places for those who deviate from this mainstream path. Healthy, traditional societies have had room for the established bachelor or spinster; thus Emma Woodhouse is able to remark to her father that “a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.”

Actually it makes sense that single people should be beneficial to their communities. Marriage and maternity are a blessing, but they are also highly burdensome. People who are spared that burden ought to seize the opportunity to develop themselves, and to make such societal contributions as their talents and abilities allow. Other conservative women should be grateful to enjoy the fruits of their acquaintance with educated, capable women who are available to serve in whatever way they are needed.  I know I’d be thrilled to integrate one or two such people into the life of my family, regularly having them for casual dinners and washing up while they played with the children. Are there any harried parents out there who couldn’t use a few friends like this?

No Gender Warfare

In matters of the heart, Americans have a lot of hard truths to face. Most of us don’t like to do this, so we often take refuge in a time-honored avoidance strategy: blaming the other team.

Perhaps you didn’t know that men and women compete for opposite teams, which are locked in perpetual competition? OK, so they actually don’t, and it’s kind of silly to see things that way. Although one sex may sometimes have certain advantages over the other (perhaps owing to prejudicial laws or widespread social assumptions), our interests are usually more aligned than they are opposed. As a rule, men and women are better off together than they are apart.

So why do we engage in obsessive bean-counting to decide who’s got it better? Why do we fight endlessly about which sex to blame for our social problems? Mainly, I think we do it because externalization is such a gosh-darn attractive coping strategy. Instead of blaming our personal problems on ourselves, our poor relationship-building skills, our poor judgment or what have you, we can turn to sweeping gender-warfare theories to explain whatever painful realities we don’t want to acknowledge.

This isn’t to say that sweeping social criticisms are always misguided. Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said about the widespread failings of both sexes. What I don’t like is the tendency to turn discussions of marriage and parenting (or the workforce, or education) into a gender war. As a society, we are much, much too quick to assume that our interests are opposed.

We all know that liberals have this problem in a serious way. Examples of feminist hypersensitivity are legion, and not all come back to the (discouraging but understandable) realities of electoral politics. I myself was particularly appalled to see that even Barack Obama was excoriated when he recently tried to extend a hand to struggling men through his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. In a New York Times panel discussing the measure, one commentator sniffed that the president’s sexist “pro-father rhetoric” was in danger of promoting “traditional masculinity” (oh, the horror!), while others complained that the president was ignoring women and that our real outreach should be to them. Because Democrats never worry about women, right? And after all, it isn’t as though struggling single mothers would stand to benefit in any way if there were a greater number of responsible, capable men in their communities.

Unfortunately, conservatives can fall into a similar trap. Feminism is a favorite conservative bogeygirl, regularly blamed for male unemployment, declining fertility, the collapse of marriage, the rise of the liberal welfare state and the polar vortex. (Okay, I’ve yet to hear anyone blame feminism for the polar vortex.) There are some ugly and deep-seated feelings that underlie these sentiments. Writing publicly about topics related to women (or even writing as a woman on male-friendly topics like sports), one quickly discovers a torrent of male bitterness throbbing through the heart of America, directed in a general way towards perceived feminine overreach. Women have stolen all the good jobs. Women think they deserve everything. Women only marry so they can take a man for everything he’s worth. Fight the matriarchy!

Conservatives tend to shy away from this topic because they are rightly anxious to bolster societal respect for masculinity. Our political opponents are perpetually eager to dismiss men as losers, so we feel compelled to stick up for them. Thus, here on The Federalist, Melissa Langsam Braunstein has reminded us that working class men can be wonderful fathers, while Joy Pullmann points out that “we’re all fixer-uppers” to some degree and that it’s often up to women to help civilize men by marrying them.

I wholeheartedly endorse both of these sentiments, and I agree that our mainstream culture often just needs to give men a chance. But we should also acknowledge that this isn’t the whole story. Everyone has a few vices to curb when they marry, but for some the problems run deeper. A single man who never makes his bed and lets the dishes pile up can be marriageable. If a man can’t seem to hold a job for more than a few months running, or if he sees monogamy as an exotic experiment, or if he has serious struggles with gambling, drugs or pornography, he’s not promising husband material. Past a certain level of maturity, committed love is good for us. Unfortunately, sociology strongly suggests that it doesn’t conquer all.

It’s painful to think about the substantial number of men in America today who are basically unmarriageable. This is obviously indicative of larger social problems that we should all find troubling. But it isn’t fair to lay these problems at the door of women like Carissa Mulder, as though the problem primarily comes back to educated women’s empty-credential fixation. It doesn’t. Men like these have problems that go well beyond a lack of letters behind their names.

My anecdotal experience would suggest that many educated women are willing to consider less-credentialed men as marital prospects, so long as they seem serious-minded and caring. But women very reasonably don’t want to marry men who may turn out to be more trouble than help. It’s also worth noting that too often, bitterness and resentment blight the perspective of working class men, which tends to be focused fairly heavily on accomplished women. That’s not a promising foundation for a successful marriage. Women shouldn’t have to apologize for their accomplishments.

Society should by all means focus its attention on the struggles of working class men. They deserve some help, and it’s in everyone’s interests to see that they get it. But it’s something of a shame to turn Mulder’s thoughtful essay into a lesson on the defective attitudes of women, because this obscures its most magnificent feature: the total lack of defensiveness and gender resentment. Mulder doesn’t scold men for failing to appreciate her charms, or mock them for being intimidated by her education. She doesn’t lose herself in soliloquies about “the end of men” and how women can do without them. She wants men to thrive and be happy. But in the meantime, all she asks for herself is the respect of her fellow conservatives while she lives a dignified life.

What if all conservative women, regardless of our circumstances or life state, could have so much generosity and confidence? It seems to me like a truly bewitching combination. Maybe seeing that would help more women to overcome their defensive instincts, and to be less vulnerable to Democratic pandering. Maybe it would help embittered men to appreciate that talented, educated women are not what’s wrong with America today. Maybe we could all find ways to live more harmoniously together. I think it’s worth a try.

Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter.