We pay outsized attention to women at the top, about whether they lean in or lean back, act like men or even like women. After decades of feminism telling women they can control their own destiny, scoring a seat on the fast-moving monorail to success is finally possible. But the seats are restricted. That’s why so many women are so angry at Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo.com, who built a nursery next to her office for her baby, but insists that her staff, mothers included, leave their children behind and work at the office.
Like it or not (and some apparently don’t), women are still women, which means they continue to wear a different biological makeup than men. When they become mothers, it shows, and in a lot of ways. As far as I know, no male CEO would build a nursery next to his office. (Maybe a putting green, but nursery, no.)
No matter how firmly we tell women to be more like men — to shape, stretch, discipline and work to overcome biological determinants — biology keeps emerging as a crucial factor. Like everything else in life, it affects the less-privileged women in a different, downsized way.
This becomes abundantly clear when we look at women having babies. The good news is, we’ve lowered the rates of teenage pregnancies. For two decades, those numbers have been going down. But the bad news is, women in their 20s, who have entered the age of adult consent and are responsible for their own behavior, are not showing the good sense of their younger sisters.
If “30’s the new 20” (as rapper Jay-Z puts it), unmarried 20-somethings are the new teen moms, write the authors of a new report cleverly titled, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” a book encouraged by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Women in their 20s are driving America’s all-time-high level of childbearing outside of marriage, which stands now at 41 percent of all births.
This statistic is partly a consequence of both men and women delaying marriage, which occurs later now than ever before: 27 for women; 29 for men. That’s up from 23 for women and 26 for men in 1990, and 20 and 22, respectively, in 1960. Delaying marriage, if it doesn’t cause a woman to bump into a biological clock, has usually been thought beneficial to women, but contingent on education and economic class.
Marrying later has special economic benefits for college-educated women in their 30s, who describe their marriage as a “capstone” rather than a “cornerstone” in their lives. It’s something they do after “they get all their other ducks in a row.” They’ll typically earn more annually than their college-educated sisters who marry earlier. No such benign interpretations can be found for the poorest among us.
Long gone is Jane Austen’s world, where the gentry was obsessed with young marriages based largely on the economic considerations of the man. What has also changed is the social pressure applied to a man to marry the woman he gets pregnant.
For high-school dropouts, who make up our poorest families, 83 percent of the women give birth without being married to the father. The knowledge economy makes it difficult for these women, as well as most of the men they meet, to get good jobs. Such women usually agree it’s better, psychologically and economically, not to get pregnant, but the lack of a positive work identity makes it easier to slip “unintentionally” into motherhood without marriage. They don’t have other ducks to get in a row.
The sexual revolution offered equal sexual opportunities to both sexes as it erased the harsh stigma attached to pregnancy without husbands, but not equal economic results for the man and the woman who create a baby. Among college graduates, only 12 percent of women give birth without what our grandmothers called “benefit of clergy.”
Many unmarried, lower-income women in their 20s cohabit with the father of the child, but if they do, the likelihood that he will be around in five years is not high. He is three times more likely to be gone by their child’s fifth birthday, compared with married couples their age. Other children follow, with another “partner” or “partners,” and the statistics that accompany such insecure beginnings with low earnings range from grim to very grim. Climbing into the middle class may be deferred, and is often a dream destroyed.
The social experts are asking teachers, policymakers and even show-business celebrities to join a national conversation about the damaging illegitimacy rates among young adults, to emphasize the importance of marriage for having children.
While homosexuals fight in the courts to tie a knot as the way to establish security and stability in their relationships, even for raising children, it’s a sad irony that so many less-educated heterosexual couples with children choose not to marry nonetheless.
Strange fruit of our time.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.