The XX Factor

WSJ Writer Blames the Rise of “Fatherless” Children on Women

Women’s lib

Photo by Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal is angry with fellow conservative writer Kay Hymowitz. Not because he disagrees with her on the subject of marriage and how important it is to squeeze as many people into the institution as possible. On that front, they are in complete agreement. No, Taranto is displeased with Hymowitz because he believes that she unfairly blames men for not sticking around to take care of their children, when, as is so often the case with Taranto, he believes it’s women and their gross demands for freedom and equality that are to blame for the supposed problem of “fatherless” children. “A cycle of fatherlessness operating over two to three generations cannot be sufficient to explain such an enormous rise” in “illegitimacy rates,” Taranto writes. So what explains it? Just two things:

The first is the rise of female careerism—the expectation that most women will spend most of their adult lives (rather than just the period when they are single) in the workforce. Women have less incentive to wed, since marriage no longer means trading in a job for a provider husband. Female careerism got a big boost with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.

Incidentally, if you Google “female careerism,” you get a bunch of links, but if you Google “male careerism”, Google asks if you really meant “male careers” or even “mahle careers.” “Careerism”—the pathological need to have paid employment—is an affliction that only affects women, apparently. Anyway, moving on:

The second is the introduction of the pill, which the Food and Drug Administration approved for contraceptive use in 1960. It made nonmarital sex far more easily available, reducing the incentive for men to marry. As George Akerlof and Janet Yellen argued in a 1996 paper (yes, that Janet Yellen, and Akerlof is her husband), the pill very quickly broke down the old institution of the shotgun wedding. With reproduction under female control, it became a female responsibility. Men no longer felt obligated to marry women by whom they fathered children. The paradoxical-seeming result is that a technology to reduce “unwanted pregnancy” massively increased out-of-wedlock births.

Taranto doesn’t link to the paper by Akerlof and Yellen, which is not nearly as down on contraception as he suggests, as it states that depriving women of birth control and abortion rights would reduce “the well-being of women” and “lead to greater poverty.” Still, he gets the general gist of their argument right: That, prior to reliable contraception, women were able to extract promises of marriage from unwilling men in exchange for sex, a system that has broken down in recent decades. (I do not agree with this argument, FYI.) Taranto then builds on their assumption that men are marriage-reluctant by arguing that women are also marriage-reluctant. Indeed, he paints a picture of men and women as natural enemies who can only be brought together under duress, specifically women’s duress, which makes women desperate enough to manipulate men into unhappy marriages through sex and guilt trips. “If young women are less apt to marry because they are focused on education and career, and more willing to engage in sexual relationships unaccompanied by marriage or the expectation thereof, the incentives for young men are dramatically different,” he writes.

Of course, the reality is that neither men nor women need “incentives” to marry. On the contrary, Americans still have a big-time love affair with marriage, as anyone who has been touched by the wedding-industrial complex can tell you. A Gallup poll in August showed that the vast majority of Americans are pro-marriage, with only 9 percent of Americans 18-34 saying they don’t want to be married. Most of the rest are either currently married or want to be married. There’s no reason to believe that men and women only grudgingly tie the knot if he is desperate for sex or she is desperate for financial stability. So really, when we’re talking about creating “incentives” to marry by stripping women of reproductive and employment rights, we’re talking about creating incentives for unhappy marriages. (Indeed, polling data shows that marriages in the 1950s were much more likely to be unhappy than marriages nowadays are.)

Taranto writes that “the vast majority of children who are growing up without fathers are doing so in large part because of their mothers’ choices.” If only women didn’t have choices at all, we could all get back to the important business of getting married for the wrong reasons and raising boys, so that one day one of them might write this sentence: “Completely absent from [Hymowitz’s] analysis of why boys fail to grow up into ‘reliable husbands and fathers’ is the crucial factor of female choice.”