A New Normal and the Right to Reproduce
“It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal.” So begins a recent article in the New York Times. According to a new report, more than half of births to women under the age of 30 now occur outside of marriage. Of course, the story is more complicated with birth rates ranging widely by both race and education. Even so, the aggregate marks a significant change in family structures of which feminist studies in religion should take notice.
Not everyone agrees this change is good. The rise of non-traditional families has again been denounced as a signifier of declining social structures–for example, the recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2010” by Charles Murray. In the online discussion of the book, much emphasis has been placed on the divide Murray draws between the struggling working class and the “bubble” of the white elite. Besides differences in income and education, these two groups widely differ on rates of marriage and of childbirth within marriage. Will “fixing” the decling marriage rate “fix” other issues such as poverty?
Marriage is highly valued in many religious traditions for a range of reasons. Clearly, the U.S. has a long, deep history with heterosexual Christian marriage that still shapes contemporary politics. As gay marriage activists have made evident, marital status is tied to a number of legal and financial privileges as well as social recognition. As long as marriage continues to be a point of access to critical socio-economic benefits, I heartily support the right to marry irregardless of gender and sexuality. However, I am also committed to asking how to construct a socio-economic system that supports not marriage per se, but the lives of families, children, and individuals that live together or alone in a plurality of ways.
Instead of “coming apart”, in what ways are we also moving forward? I am the granddaughter of a young woman who was sent away in the late 1940’s to give birth, relinquish her child, and never speak of it again. Of course access to birth control for unmarried women or legal abortion may have led her to make a different choice. However, the ability to economically support her child on her own without fear of stigma may also have led to a different choice.
The freedom to NOT marry, remarry, or stay married is also a critically important right for feminists to uphold. Women need not remain in an abusive relationship. Women need not be shamed for loving and caring for their children. Indeed, as black authors from Dorothy Roberts to Patricia Hill Collins have reminded us, some women have had to fight for the right TO reproduce.
In an online article, “No, Women Did Not Destroy America”, Linda Carbonell writes:
What we did, in taking control of our reproduction, in saying we had a right to keep and raise our children, was an affirmation of parenting, not a rejection of it. And while we were at it, we asserted that men did not have a right to brutalize their wives and children. They did not have the right to cheat on their wives without repercussions.
Carbonell draws a picture that counters the “coming apart” narrative. She rightly celebrates the courage of the women who have insisted on their dignity and capacity to raise their children. The changing demographics of unmarried births or female-headed households need not portend gloom and dissolution of the social fabric. Nonetheless, the statistics of poverty and inequalities linked to marital status challenge us to examine how to de-link social support from marriage in ways that justly supports all families and household configurations.
Significantly, Carbonell’s article is accompanied by the image of Adam and Eve by Titian. Having begun her article denouncing the rhetoric of Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh, she concludes the article: “Most women really are fed up with being punished for the actions of a spare rib and a snake.”
Is this the only message Christianity has to offer to the U.S. politics of family? For me, I find in Christianity a very real (not phony) theological commitment to human dignity and justice. I ask how can feminist studies in religion support marriage equality, the rights of women to birth control, AND the rights of women to bear and raise children irrespective of marital status?