Among the landmarks in the 2013 Women’s History Month is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—a work that was once hailed as the “the spark that ignited second-wave feminism.” Yet Friedan’s dictum that women be “liberated” actually had limiting consequences.
A perspective with 50-year hindsight reveals that, as the foundations of the family began to deteriorate, a rise in single-mother households had repercussions for the health, happiness, and financial well-being of women and children.
Today, a steady decline in the rate of marriage and sharp decrease in the proportion of adults who have married is coupled with two striking societal trends: skyrocketing rates of cohabitation and births to unwed mothers.
Cohabitation has increased by 14-fold since 1970, with more than 7.5 million unmarried couples living together. More than half of young adults who are in their 20s will enter into at least one cohabiting relationship. More than 40 percent of children in the United States spend some portion of their lives in a household with a cohabiting parent before age 12, and 20 percent are born into such households. Studies documenting the well-being of children in cohabiting households and the stability of cohabiting relationships pose reasons for concern.
Compared with peers in intact families, children in cohabiting households are less likely to thrive; more likely to suffer from a range of emotional, social, and behavioral problems; and less likely to succeed academically. According to government data, they are also at least three times more likely to be abused physically, sexually, or emotionally.
For adults, in contrast with marriages, cohabiting relationships lack a lifelong commitment, are more prone to infidelity and more likely to dissolve, with negative consequences for both the partners and their children.
In contrast, youths growing up with married biological parents are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as becoming sexually active or engaging in substance abuse and are less likely to exhibit anti-social behavior. In addition, teens in intact families tend to fare better on a range of emotional and psychological outcomes and have higher levels of academic achievement and educational attainment. They are also 82 percent less likely to live in poverty, and their families tend to fare better on a wide range of economic measures.
Additionally, the bond of marriage brings numerous benefits for women, including greater financial well-being, better physical and emotional health, and lower mortality risk.
In contrast with Friedan’s portrayal of marriage as limiting and confining, the nourishing and supportive environment of a stable marriage and two-parent family not only provides a foundation from which women, men, and their children can flourish. It also provides the foundation for a thriving society. Policies that support and strengthen marriage promote civic well-being and help all to fulfill their potential as members of a healthy community.