Wealthy Women Can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can't

Higher-income "single ladies" often push back against "patriarchy." But the statistics don't lie: Low-income, unmarried women face significant economic challenges when they stay single. 
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In a Wall Street Journal editorial this week, Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer wrote that "'marriage inequality' should be at the center of any discussion of why some Americans prosper and others don't." He cited statistics about the vast income disparities between single women and married women, regardless of race, and argued that these gaps would shrink if women stayed in school and waited until marriage to have kids. 

At an Atlantic summit on female poverty on Wednesday, the women in the room would have none of that.

"When you say to women, to get out of poverty you should get married, my question to them is how many men you have to marry," said Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of well-known book on low-wage workers, Nickel and Dimed. "Marrying a 10-dollar-an-hour man gets you nowhere, so you'd really have to marry three or four."

There was laughter and applause. Clearly, the mostly female audience approved of her sharp-tongued dismissal of the "just get married" approach to solving income inequality.

But income actually has a significant effect on how women can afford to think about marriage. Often, self-described feminists question the merits of marriage and urge their fellow women to remain independent if they choose. As Carol Gilligan, a New York University professor who sat on a panel with Ehrenreich, put it, "Does anybody know the word patriarchy?"

Taking a stand against patriarchy is much easier if you're well-educated, have a stable income, and live in a community where you could theoretically find an educated, employed man to marry. For poor, uneducated women, especially those who have kids, the question of whether to get married looks a lot different: It's the choice between raising children on one or two incomes, between having someone to help with household chores and child-rearing alone while working multiple jobs. 

And that's the big difference: For a poor woman, deciding whether to get married or not will be a big part of shaping her economic future. For a wealthier woman, deciding whether to get married is a choice about independence, lifestyle, and, at times, "fighting the patriarchy." There's a cognitive dissonance in Ehrenreich's straight-up dismissal of the economic benefits of marriage, because the statistics tell an awkward truth: Financially, married women tend to fare much better than unmarried women.

This topic has been covered extensively in The Atlantic and other publications. But the way this question is covered in the media tells a similar story of the fundamental divide in who can afford to stand against marriage on principle. Take, for example, two articles on marriage in the New York Times: One is about a 35-year-old Argentinian woman who fears that marriage will erode her independence, while the other is about the vast economic disadvantages that poor, single mothers face. The women profiled in the second story aren't worried about being controlled by men or losing their carefree lifestyle; they're worried about how one income can feed, house, and clothe two (or more) people. Wanting a certain lifestyle, or even wanting to fight against societal pressures to marry, are both questions of privilege.

This is not to say that all low-income women should marry, that it's their fault if they're not married, or that marriage is the silver-bullet solution to solving income inequality, as Fleischer and his supporters might argue. But it is important for the resistance against "patriarchy" to be mixed with a recognition of statistical reality: Marriage is good for women economically.

As chanteuse of the single lady, Beyonce is an interesting litmus test for this. She recently wrote an essay about gender inequality in the Shriver Report on women and poverty, and a song on her most recent album contains this sample from a TED talk given by artist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, 'You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.' Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?

This is an important question, especially because it frames the cultural pressures surrounding marriage in the right way: Why don't we teach boys that they need to get married, the way we teach this to girls? For the single, poor women (and single, poor men) of the world, this question needs to be accompanied by another: If I choose not to marry, what will be the economic consequences? 

"Single ladies" who decide not to get married should be empowered to make that choice and share their perspectives with the world. But women who can comfortably support themselves (and possibly their children) on one income should not assume that low-income women are facing an identical choice. 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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