Progress for Women? Why Wedlock Still Matters

By William C. Duncan and Bryce Christensen

The Obama administration captured headlines in March with the release of its report Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, the first official federal report on the status of American women since the one Eleanor Roosevelt prepared for John F. Kennedy a half-century ago. This new report stresses the progress women have made in education and employment. “Women age 25–34 are now more likely than men of that age group to have attained a college degree,” 1 trumpets the report, “reversing the norm of 40 years ago.”

The report further highlights women’s even more dramatic gains in graduate study, noting 11 percent of women age 25-34 now complete two or more years of graduate school, compared with just 8 percent of men.

Likewise underscored in the new report is the remarkable upsurge in women’s employment in recent decades. “Women have dramatically reshaped their role in the nation’s labor force,” notes the report, which explains that as women have moved out of the home and into the paid labor market they have found work “in more varied occupations” and have grown “more likely to work year-round” than did their predecessors. Consequently, “women’s earnings as a proportion of men’s earnings have grown over time.”

It is obvious why presidential assistants Valerie Jarrett and Christina Tchen would interpret the report as “women have made enormous progress.” Yet Americans who read the report carefully may suspect that the authors of this new report have downplayed a troubling development threatening the long-term well-being of women. That development is what sociologist Robert Schoen has called “the retreat from marriage.” 2

To be sure, the report does acknowledge that “fewer women are married [now] than in the past.” The numbers included in the report indicate that 72 percent of all adult women were married in 1972, compared with 62 percent now. Women now getting married average about five years older than women getting married in 1950.

Surprisingly, the new report makes very little of this retreat from wedlock. Indeed, by reporting only the marital status for adult women as a whole, the authors of the new study actually hide from view just how dramatically marriage rates have dropped among younger women. Readers willing to consult the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the United States will learn that more than one-fourth (26.3 percent) of American women age 30-34 have never married. 3 In marked contrast, only 9.5 percent of women in this age bracket were unmarried in 1979. 4 This is the stunning reality behind the report’s brief – almost insouciant – mention of the “major changes [that] have occurred in marriage and family formation patterns over the past 50 years” – changes that account for “the increasing numbers of … women [who] cohabit with partners or live without a spouse or partner.”

Eager to emphasize the gains women have made in education and employment, the authors seem reluctant to give more than incidental attention to the social costs of the retreat from wedlock. The report does concede that “married-couple households have higher levels of household income relative to their non-married counterparts.” The report even discloses that “poverty rates for unmarried female householders with children are particularly high, and have consistently been two or three times as high as overall male and female poverty rates since 1966.”

Given the truly difficult challenges unmarried mothers face, readers can only wonder why this new report never confronts the truly astonishing rise in out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. (40 percent of all births in 2007 vs. just 5 percent in 1960). 5 But then it is not just on the question of out-of-wedlock births that Americans will find that the administration’s new report obscures rather than illuminates the real costs to women – economic, medical, psychological and social – of the retreat from wedlock.

The reason that the administration’s report says so very little about the costs of a falling marriage rate is not hard to find. Marriage has never counted for much with radical feminists, a group well represented in this administration. Wedlock simply doesn’t fit very well in an ideology obsessively focused on emancipating individual women from the ties of home, spouse and family. But more and more social-science research is finding that the ties of wedlock are ultimately ties of safety, security and fulfillment.

The Obama administration is correct in noting that women who succeed in education and employment gain important individual advantages. However, the authors of the report seem reluctant to acknowledge that American women will find no satisfactory substitute for marriage and family as safeguards for their overall well-being.

A catalogue of the benefits of wedlock will surely include the economic advantages that married women enjoy over unmarried women, especially if there are children in the home. In explaining why “marriage matters economically,” the authors of a 2003 study point out that “ever-married women are substantially less likely to be poor, regardless of race, family disadvantage, nonmarital birth status, or high school dropout [status].” 6

But economic advantages are only the beginning. Epidemiologists find that married women enjoy significantly better physical and psychological health than unmarried women. 7 Nor does it surprise medical authorities that married women enjoy decided advantages over their unmarried peers. “Marriage,” as a blue-ribbon committee appointed by the American Academy of Pediatrics explained, “is beneficial in many ways,” in large part because “people behave differently when they are married. They have healthier lifestyles, eat better, and mother each other’s health. Being part of a couple and a family also increases the number of people and social institutions with which an individual has contact; this … increases the likelihood that the family will be a successful one.” 8 The health benefits of marriage patterns thus help account for why married women live longer than unmarried peers and why that longevity gap favoring married women has actually been growing in recent decades. 9

And though the administration’s report laments the vulnerability of women to both street crime and domestic violence, somehow the authors never get around to noting that marriage shields women from both of these threats. 10

Actually, the benefits marriage confers upon women show up early in life. That is, if a young woman grows up cared for by married parents rather than by a single mother, she will enjoy numerous health, psychological, behavioral and academic advantages over peers growing up in single-parent homes. 11 Compared with a peer in a single-parent home, the young woman growing up in the care of married parents is much less likely to witness domestic violence12 and much less likely to herself be the object of physical and sexual abuse. 13 And she is far less likely to experience early menarche, a strong statistical predictor of various psychological and behavioral problems. 14

Yet as Americans survey the raft of studies showing that enduring marriage benefits women, they will soon recognize that the advantages of wedlock are ultimately not reducible to so many discrete items. Marriage gives life coherence, wholeness, completeness. That is why psychologists report that married individuals are much more likely than unmarried peers to enjoy that mental state they label “flourishing.” 15 That, too, is why sociologists report that “a traditional, stable marriage is the most satisfying lifestyle, on average.” 16

The benefits persist to the very end. Sociologist Clive Seale reports that adults who are married and have children are much more likely to have “emotional accompaniment” at their deathbed than are the unmarried and childless, who often find themselves exposed to “abandonment and isolation” in their final hours. 17

Though the Obama administration seems intent on concealing this reality, the truth is that nothing – not education, not career success – matters more than marriage to American women intent on living a long and satisfying life, one that unfolds and then finally concludes within a circle of love.

William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.

Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues in Society, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals. 


1. Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration; Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget; and White House Council on Women and Girls, March 2011. Web. http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/Women_in_America.pdf
2. Robert Schoen, “The Continuing Retreat from Marriage,” Sociology and Social Research 71 (1987): 108-109.
3. 2011 Statistical Abstract of the United States: The National Data Book, U.S. Census Bureau, 2011, Table 57. Web. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/
4. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 101st ed., U.S. Census Bureau, 1980, Table 86. Web. http://www2.census.gov/prod2/statcomp/documents/1980-01.pdf
5. 2011 Statistical Abstract of the United States: The National Data Book, U.S. Census Bureau, 2011, Table 57. Web. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/ ; Statistical Abstract of the United States, 101st ed., U.S. Census Bureau, 1980, Table 86. Web. http://www2.census.gov/prod2/statcomp/documents/1980-01.pdf
6. Daniel T. Lichter, Deborah Roempke Graefe, and J. Brian Brown, “Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers,” Social Problems50(2003): 60-86
7. Peggy McDonough, Vivienne Walters, and Lisa Strohschein, “Chronic stress and the social patterning of women’s health in Canada,” Social Science & Medicine 54[2002]: 767-782; Peggy A. Thoits, “Gender and Marital Status Differences in Control and Distress: Common Stress versus Unique Stress Explanations,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 28 (1987): 7-22; Myriam Khlat, Catherine Sermet, and Annick Le Pape, “Women’s health in relation with their family and work roles: France in the early 1990s,” Social Science & Medicine 50 (2000): 1807-1825.
8. American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on the Family, “Family Pediatrics,” Pediatrics 111 Supplement (2003): 1541-1553.
9. H. Yu and N. Goldman, “Mortality Differen¬tials by Marital Status: An International Compari¬son,” Demography 27 (1990): 233-250; E.S. Kisker and N. Goldman, “Perils of Single Life and Benefits of Marriage,” Social Biology 34 (1990): 135-152.
10. Pamela Wilcox Rountree and Barbara D. Warner, “Social Ties and Crime: Is the Relationship Gendered?” Criminology 37 (1999): 789-810; Ronald S. Immerman and Wade C. Mackey, “The Societal Dilemma of Multiple Sexual Partners: The Costs of the Loss of Pair-Bonding,” Marriage and Family Review 29.1 (1999): 3-14; Alfred DeMaris and Catherine Kaukinen, “Violent Victimization and Women’s Mental and Physical Health: Evidence from a National Sample,”Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 42 (2005): 384-411; Charity G. Moore et al., “The Prevalence of Violent Disagreements in US Families: Effects of Residence, Race/Ethnicity, and Parental Stress,” Pediatrics 119 Supplement (2007): S68-S76.
11. Don Kerr, “Family Transformations and the Well-Being of Children: Recent Evidence from Canadian Longitudinal Data,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 35 [2004]: 73-90; K.A.S. Wickrama et al., “Linking Early Social Risks to Impaired Physical Health during the Transition to Adulthood,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 44 (2003): 61-74; Lisa Laumann- Billings and Robert E. Emery, “Distress Among Young Adults From Divorced Families,” Journal of Family Psychology, 14 (2000): 671-687; Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure Transitions and Adolescent Well-Being,” Demography 43 (2006): 447-461; Jeffrey T. Cookston, “Parental Supervision and Family Structure: Effects on Adolescent Problem Behaviors,” Journal of Divorce & Remarriage31.1/2 (1999): 107-127; Wendy Sigle-Rushton, John Hobcraft, and Kathleen Kiernan, “Parental Divorce and Subsequent Disadvantage: A Cross-Cohort Comparison,” Demography 42 (2005): 427-446.
12. Charity G. Moore et al., “The Prevalence of Violent Disagreements in US Families: Effects of Residence, Race/Ethnicity, and Parental Stress,” Pediatrics 119 Supplement (2007): S68-S76.
13. Jocelyn Brown et al., “A Longitudinal Analysis of Risk Factors for Child Maltreatment: Findings of a 17-Year Prospective Study of Officially Recorded and Self-Reported Child Abuse and Neglect,” Child Abuse & Neglect 22(1998): 1065-1078; Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, “Child Abuse and Other Risks of Not Living with Both Parents,” Ethology and Sociobiology 3(1982): 197-209; David Finkelhor et al., “Sexually Abused Children in a National Survey of Parents: Methodological Issues,” Child Abuse & Neglect 21(1997): 1-9.
14. Dana L. Hayne and Alex R. Piquero, “Pubertal Development and Physical Victimization in Adolescence,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 43 (2006): 3-35; Adrien Gaudineau et al., “Factors Associated with Early Menarche: Results from the French Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) Study,” BMC Public Health 10[2010]: 175. Web. Ban Al-Sahab et al., “Age at Menarche in Canada: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children & Youth,”BMC Public Health 10[2010]: 736. Web.
15. Corey L.M. Keyes, “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life,”Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43(2002): 207-222.
16. M. D. R. Evans and Jonathan Kelley, “Effect of Family Structure on Life Satisfaction: Australian Evidence,” Social Indicators Research 69 (2004): 303-349.
17. Clive Seale, “Dying Alone,” Sociology of Health and Illness 17(1995): 376-392.