Marriage is good for men, women, children--and society. Because of this simple fact, President George W. Bush has proposed a new pilot program to promote healthy marriage. Yet the President's initiative is opposed by radical feminists who seek to undermine what they call the "patriarchal family." As feminist leader Betty Friedan has warned, this anti-marriage agenda places radical feminists profoundly at odds with the family aspirations of mainstream feminists and most other American women.
In its initial stages, modern American feminism was not hostile to marriage; but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a wave of radical feminism emerged that was overtly hostile to the institution of marriage itself. In their influential 1968 pamphlet "Toward a Female Liberation Movement," for example, Beverly Jones and Judith Brown proclaimed: "The married woman knows that love is, at its best, an inadequate reward for her unnecessary and bizarre heritage of oppression." In 1969, University of Chicago sociology professor Marlene Dixon declared: "The institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women; it is through the role of wife that the subjugation of women is maintained."
In 1970, author Robin Morgan referred to marriage as "a slavery-like practice. We can't destroy the inequities between men and women until we destroy marriage." In 1971, Minnesota radical feminists Helen Sullinger and Nancy Lehmann released a manifesto that declared: "Male society has sold us the idea of marriage.... Now we know it is the institution that has failed us and we must work to destroy it...." In 1981, author Vivian Gornick, a tenured professor at the University of Arizona, proclaimed that "The choice to serve and be protected and plan towards being a family-maker is a choice that shouldn't be. The heart of radical feminism is to change that."
As their influence grew, such sentiments increasingly found their way into college textbooks and courses, exercising a detrimental influence on the intellectual formation of millions of students. In addition, radical feminist novelists have carried the same message into popular literature. Marilyn French, for example, in her 1992 book The War Against Women, wrote: "In personal and public life, in kitchen, bedroom and halls of parliament, men wage unremitting war against women."
Such views help explain the shrillness of the opposition to President Bush's policy to promote healthy marriage. Anyone who believes that marriage harms the emotional health of women, that men and women are locked in a predator-prey relationship, or that marriage exploits women will disdain any policy to promote healthy marriage. And while these views are not widely shared within our society, they do influence feminist interest groups, which in turn influence Congress.
Radical feminists view marriage as an oppressive institution that harms women and children. The facts, however, belie this view. On average, a mother who gives birth and raises a child outside of marriage is seven times more likely to live in poverty than is a mother who raises her children within a stable married family. Over 80 percent of long-term child poverty in the United States occurs in never-married or broken households.
Radical feminists claim that marriage foments domestic violence against women. Yet domestic violence is most common in the transitory, cohabitational relationships that feminists have long celebrated as replacements for traditional marriage. Never-married mothers are more than twice as likely to suffer from domestic violence than mothers who are or have been married.
The multiple fields of research that have investigated the effects of marriage show that for men, women, children, and communities at large, marriage leads to greater health and longevity; more education; higher income; less abuse of women, boys, and girls; less poverty; less crime; less addiction; and less depression.
The federal welfare reform of 1996 set clear goals to increase the number of two-parent families and reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing. Regrettably, however, most states have done little to advance these objectives directly. President Bush has therefore sought to meet the original goals of welfare reform by proposing, as part of welfare reauthorization, a new model program to promote healthy marriage. He proposes spending $300 million per year on his model program--or only one cent to promote healthy marriage for every five dollars the government now spends to subsidize single-parent families.
Radical feminists view the President's proposal with alarm. NOW President Kim Gandy, for example, has declared: "Finding a man--the [Bush] administration's approved ticket out of poverty--is terrible public policy. Marrying women off to get them out of poverty is not only backward, it is insulting to women." But the radical feminists' animosity toward marriage is not widely shared by any other group within American society. It would be a tragedy for America's children and families if groups motivated by radical feminist thought were to succeed in their efforts to block or cripple the President's healthy marriage proposal.
For decades, radical feminists have attacked marriage as an institution that economically oppresses women and as a prison that generates despair and mental illness for women trapped within it. The facts, however, show that marriage has enormous economic benefits for mothers and children. Stable marriage has substantial, positive, emotional and psychological benefits for women, and it dramatically improves the well-being of children.
American children, in particular, need a culture of stable, healthy marriage. Poor children need it most; they have consistently suffered the greatest damage from the erosion of marriage over the past 30 years. For the sake of all children, but most especially for the children of the poor, Congress should join the President in rebuilding a culture of stable, healthy marriages.
--Patrick F. Fagan is William H. G. FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues, Robert E. Rector is Senior Research Fellow, and Lauren R. Noyes is Director of Research Projects in Domestic Policy at The Heritage Foundation.