It's tempting to think of early marriage as a solution to economic deprivation. But early marriage almost always means less education, limited opportunities and economic insecurity for the married girl.
The clever marketing (hoax) website marryourdaughter.com has already been taken down, but I'm sure many of you saw it: "Like most girls her age, 15-year-old Ashlee R. is into sports, clothes and current pop music. She's a typical Midwestern teen-except she's looking for a husband."
What I loved about this site was how it gave early marriage an "American" face to see if real American adults changed their feelings about the practice. It's one thing to know 12 and 14-year-old girls are married off to significantly older men elsewhere; quite another to think about how it would play out here.
Because early marriage occurs for a host of socio-economic reasons, it may be tempting to think that in very poor societies, early marriage might not be so terrible. If a family can afford to pay or even care for a wife, doesn't that necessarily mean they are better off than the family giving the girl away? But early marriage is often an indication that a society views its girls as commodities. And it's a self-perpetuating cycle. In societies where girls are married off early, the tradition tends to continue unless some dramatic social or economic changes occur.
UNFPA's Executive Director, Thoraya Obaid, a woman for whom I have tremendous respect, once said that there is a perception that, for adolescents in low-income countries, being married ensures them a safe passage to adulthood. She made the point that nothing could be further from the truth.
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Early marriage almost always means less education, limited opportunities and economic insecurity for the married girl. Those things can lead to vulnerability and abuse. Girls who marry early have a disproportionately higher risk of maternal death. Girls aged 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 to 24.
Why should our next President care?
Because it's a matter of equality and justice that affects us all. Today, the world has the largest cohort of young people and adolescents than ever before in human history. Of the more than 6 billion people in the world, over 1 billion are young people. Our common future on this planet will be determined by the actions of this remarkably large group of young people. If we want a better tomorrow, then we must begin by fighting for equal opportunity for girls, particularly those that are the most vulnerable.
According to a 2004 study, within the next decade, more than 100 million girls currently living in low-income countries will be married before the age of 18. That's a lot of girls around the world who will never get the same opportunities as our daughters. It's a lot of girls having children too young, and too often, stuck in a cycle of poverty.
Marryourdaughter.com aside, teenage marriage isn't likely to be on the radar screen of any of the Presidential candidates, while the issue of unmarried teens having sex will surely creep in and plant itself between common sense and moralistic rants.
Early marriage is not about two crazy 15-year-olds in love, but rather, it's both a symptom and a cause of women's lower status and the societal problems that accompany it. And while UNFPA works to prevent early marriage all over the world by encouraging parents to keep their daughters in school and by teaching young women vocational skills so they don't have to rely on husbands, we – the United States – will stay well away from those solutions. Why? Because our President, for the sixth year in a row, withheld the U.S. contribution to UNFPA.
Our next President has to understand the link between health and economics and between women's access to health and their status in society. He or she has to understand the difference between modern arranged marriage and forced early marriage, between wanting more children and being expected to have more children. Our next President must understand how women's health and rights need to be global concerns upon which our united future depends.
For decades, the New York Times wedding section has been offering accounts of so-called good matches: pairings that connect people of similar class backgrounds and educational levels, with compatible values, interests, and tastes. While the narratives have become more diverse over the years—the paper now acknowledges same-sex nuptials, for example—the newspaper’s accounts of how folks met and fell head-over-heels continue to provide an entertaining window into the coupling of America’s lovebirds.
Moira Weigel’s first book, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)enters this territory, delvinginto U.S. social mores about dating and marriage. It explores how capitalism has influenced attitudes about women and family, and addresses how economic shifts affect domestic life and intimate relations. Although much of the historical information has been written about before (notably by writers including Elizabeth Abbott, Stephanie Coontz, Kathy Peiss, and Ruth Rosen), Weigel’s easy-to-read overview ties past to present and brings the material into the 21st century. The end result is a fascinating but limited look at trends among mostly white, middle-to-upper class cisgender heterosexuals.
“All human societies, and many animal ones, have always had courtship rituals,” Weigel writes in the book’s introduction. “They have not all had dating. The male, blue-footed booby does a mean mating dance, but he does not date. Neither did Americans until around 1900. Since then, experts have constantly declared that dating was dead or dying. The reason is simple. The ways people date change with the economy.”
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To wit: In the 1890s, a serious economic downturn pushed many young, single women off the family farm and into city-based jobs. By 1900, Weigel reports, more than half of all U.S. women were working outside the home—most commonly in laundries, textile plants, and in domestic service. Because they were paid much less than men, they relied on male suitors to take them out, whether to restaurants, saloons, dance halls, amusement parks, or nickelodeons.
This sometimes caught the attention of the police.Weigel notes that “in the eyes of the authorities, women who let men buy them food and drinks or gifts and entrance tickets looked like whores, and making a date seemed the same as turning a trick.”
The class politics of these encounters were particularly glaring since the upper crust was slow to incorporate dating into its social rites. In fact, “calling” remained in vogue for ladies of leisure until World War I. This required a young woman to decide whether to allow male visitors to see her in the family parlor, albeit with an adult chaperone. After the suitor presented his card, the girl decided whether she wanted to fraternize. If she did, he entered. If not, he was sent away; both scenarios reinforced the idea that men were the seekers and women the sought.
Meanwhile, “charity girls”made it clear that if they accepted a date, the man was responsible for buying them whatever they wanted, from a pack of cigarettes to a meal. By the second decade of the 20th century, however, this practice had not only lost the taint of disapproval, but was consistently described as romantic in novels, short stories, and popular magazines. After all, “nice girls” had shrugged off concerns about the practice and were openly appreciative of the perks that came their way.
By the “Roaring Twenties,” Weigel writes,many working-class women felt free to express an overt interest in dating or marrying “up.” As opportunities to work in department stores, restaurants, and offices expanded, clerks, secretaries, and waitresses could potentially marry the boss or catch a wealthy patron’s eye.
The growing cosmetics industry took advantage of this ideological shift, giving women a way to telegraph “that she valued her femininity and was willing to spend time and money on her appearance.” Alongside frequent magazine articles that described the feminine “beauty duty,” women were told how to market themselves, as if they were products to be consumed by male shoppers.
Any other alternative to heterosexual romance seemed near-impossible, even scorn-worthy, and while a small LGBTQ community was coming into its own in several big cities, homophobia kept the vast majority of individuals from publicly coming out.
Weigel’s nod to queer culture—including bars and clubs catering to gay men, lesbians, and “drag” performances—is brief; nonetheless, the book includes several vivid descriptions of “the secret theater” that allowed LGBTQ folks to be themselves in a few urban settings.
Still, it was World War II that allowed a crack in the closet door. As Weigel writes: “During the war, the armed forces had been eager to enlist recruits, and many young gays and lesbians who felt isolated in their hometowns saw military service as a chance to escape.”
The book says nothing, however, about the many “Rosies” who took to riveting and left me wondering how—or if—their employment affected dating and sexual behavior. Despite this gap, Weigel writes that by the end of the war, straight shop girls, secretaries, and waitresses were sharpening their flirtation skills in order to find a man, leave the workforce, and pursue domesticity.
In addition, college girls followed an equally well-honed script to earn an “M.R.S.” degree. College, as Weigel explains it, gave those with the resources for postsecondary schooling a chance to mingle freely, date openly, and “pet” before marriage. Going “all the way,” however, was explicitly verboten. As popular culture presented it in the early 20th century, female virginity was a woman’s most cherished asset. According to Weigel, “as soon as she married, America about-faced. Not only should a young wife have sex, she should have lots of sex, and she should like it. If you do not like sex as much as your husband, your marriage will not be well-adjusted,” the media warned.
Betty Freidan pinpointed the contradictory messages about sex, marriage, monogamy, work, and love that bombarded middle class stay-at-home wives and mothers decades later when she published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The critique resonated. But Friedan also had critics. “Because African American women had always worked outside their homes,” Weigel points out, “ever since their ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, they did not mistake the ‘opportunity’ to work as an adequate solution to all the problems that women had to deal with. … [Black and working-class women] knew that earning a wage was not a fix-all. In fact, many black feminists attested that in their homes was the only place that they felt respite from a racist world.”
A few years later, when the Free Love movement elbowed its way into popular consciousness, many male adherents seemed to forget that women could not legally abort unwanted pregnancies. Needless to say, Free Love did little to change gender roles or equalize gender dynamics. By the end of the 1960s, Weigel notes that hippies began to realize that creating a new world was going to be a lot harder than they had initially anticipated. “They had not clearly established who would do the things that still needed to be done,” she writes. “In the absence of a plan, they often fell back into highly stereotyped gender roles.”
Yuppies eventually replaced hippies and rejected the indiscriminate coupling of the previous generation. What’s more, the advent of AIDS in the 1980s coincided with workforce changes that encouraged telecommuting and longer hours on site. Taken together, these changes have had a marked impact on how we date, whether we date, and how we partner.
In fact, by the 1980s, Weigel reports that many highly educated heterosexual women were pushing to marry their intellectual and social equals. Perhaps more startling, not only did yuppies want to marry other yuppies, they began to see dating as similar to other work. New businesses popped up to accommodate them: speed dating, virtual dating assistants to “manage” their social engagements, and a wide array of dating apps and online services to connect them with a potential Mr. or Ms. Right.
But despite the assistance, all was still not well in Dating Land. Many considered going out with a stranger to be a chore, “less like a pleasurable diversion and more like one more thing to fit in.” Then, as messages about one’s biological clock start to tick, the market in assisted reproductive technologies increased the disquiet. Add in bestselling books like The Rules, Ignore the Guy, Get the Guy, and It’s Not Him, It’s You, and the retro message that every 30-something needs to settle down started to blare. If one listens closely enough, the declaration is unmistakable: No heartbreak can compare to turning 40 and being unmarried and childless.
To her credit, Weigel challenges this absurdity, but Labor of Love never deconstructs the equally damaging idea that every person has a soulmate and needs to find this person in order to be complete. Where this notion comes from remains a mystery. Nonetheless, as the linchpin for most romantic mythology, it deserves an attentive and complete undressing. Likewise, the dating games of nonwhite, working-class and low-income individuals, and religious immigrants need the same attention and scrutiny that Weigel gives to rich professionals.
Furthermore, anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that finding a potential mate is merely the starting point. The real labor of love comes long after the initial attraction and centers on the daily work of keeping the relationship going. At the end of the day, dating may have been an invented form of social engagement, but the chase is meaningless if the parties never hunker down in the muck of everyday life.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court called an attempt to discriminate based on a religious belief “patently frivolous” in one 1968 case, the proliferation of such laws today jeopardizes anti-discrimination efforts on multiple fronts nationwide.
“Oh, it’s a big problem with the members of my church, my community, and my mother-in-law .… They don’t allow that black and white shacking.”
That was the explanation Mississippi landlord Gene Baker gave for evicting Erica Flores Dunahoo and her husband, National Guard Sgt. Stanley Hoskins, from his RV park in February, Dunahoo told the Clarion-Ledger newspaper. Dunahoo, who is Latina and Native American, and Hoskins, who is Black, moved to another RV park with higher rent.
What’s even more troubling, however, is that some state laws recently introduced across the country would actually sanction this type of discrimination. While the couple’s eviction would likely violate the federal Fair Housing Act, which applies to most housing providers nationwide, some recently proposed state bills would create religious exemptions to state and local anti-discrimination laws—many of which provide important protections to people who may not be sufficiently covered by federal law. (As a side note, Mississippi is actually one of few states that has no state Fair Housing Act).
Just as the Civil Right Act of 1964 prompted segregationists to demand religious exemptions from the law, the gains of the LGBTQ rights movement has led to the introduction of dozens of state bills designed to provide individuals and companies with a license to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. While these new bills may be motivated by opposition to LGBTQ rights, it’s important to note that many of these vague, broad, and poorly worded bills would not just affect the LGBTQ community—they could also renew demands for a religious right to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or other factors.
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Many academics, advocates, journalists, and politicians have already noted that today’s religious objections mirror those made by opponents of desegregation in the past. Religious exemptions from the Civil Rights Act were considered both by the legislature and by federal courts. But while there is a long history of religious resistance to desegregation, both Congress and the Supreme Court flatly rejected religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law in the 1960s.
An early version of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 excused religiously affiliated employers from compliance with the entire act. This was discarded, however, and Congress’ final draft of the Civil Rights Act only exempted religious organizations from religious discrimination provisions, so that they could give special preference to people who shared the organization’s religious faith.
Once the Civil Rights Act was passed, some business owners, like Maurice Bessinger of the South Carolina-based barbecue chain Piggie Park, argued in court that even without an exemption, under the First Amendment their religious beliefs should protect them from being forced to desegregate. In the 1968 case Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., the Supreme Court called the restaurant’s religious liberty claims “patently frivolous.”
Despite the fact that a religious right to segregation was prohibited decades ago, Dunahoo and Hoskins’ experience shows that religiously motivated racial discrimination is still alive and well today.
While some bills—like Missouri’s SJR 39, which died in committee in late April—focus more narrowly on religious objections to marriage between persons of the same sex, other bills would protect those who oppose interfaith or interracial marriage or even desegregation. Georgia’s HB 757, which was vetoed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal in early April, could have allowed government clerks to refuse to provide marriage licenses to interracial couples or religious organizations to refuse to provide any “social, educational, or charitable services that violate such faith based organization’s sincerely held religious belief.” Kentucky’s SB 180, which passed the state senate in March and is now awaiting a vote in the house, contains similar provisions.
And while federal laws including the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act contain strong protections against racial discrimination, accommodations that close off discrimination claims based on state or local law are nevertheless significant.
Nearly every U.S. state and many municipalities have adopted at least some anti-discrimination protections in employment, housing, or public accommodations. These state- or local-level discrimination claims may be easier to litigate than federal anti-discrimination laws. For example, they may require a lower standard of proof to show that discrimination occurred. Additionally, state and local discrimination laws often cover smaller landlords or businesses than federal law. Finally, state and local claims may provide additional monetary damages or other forms of relief to those who face discrimination. By carving out religious exemptions from state and local anti-discrimination law, accommodation bills would force people of color and other marginalized populations to once again bear the burden of others’ discriminatory religious beliefs.
State laws that allow for religiously motivated discrimination would also close off other legal claims, such as those based on contract violations. For example, if a religiously affiliated company fired an employee for marrying someone of a different race, she may lose the right to sue based on breach of an employment contract if the employer is covered by a broad accommodation law.
Furthermore, it’s possible that those who wish to discriminate could also demand an exemption from federal anti-discrimination law under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This is the same law the craft store giant Hobby Lobby used to avoid providing its employees with contraception, as required by the Affordable Care Act.
In order to succeed with such an argument, a religious objector would have to show that hiring, housing, or serving a particular group of people (like interracial couples) would burden his exercise of religion. If this is the case, then he would win his claim unless the government could show that federal anti-discrimination law serves a “compelling government interest,” and there is no way of furthering that interest that is less burdensome to the objector’s religious exercise.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the majority opinion indicated that it believed the government does have “a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the workforce without regard to race, and prohibitions on racial discrimination are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal.” But the Court has not actually ruled on this issue, and its failure to find an overriding government interest in women’s health, dignity, and equality in Hobby Lobby does not bode well for future cases.
By allowing religion to be used as a veil for discrimination, state legislators are ignoring the lessons of history. In Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., the Supreme Court dismissed a broad religious liberty claim. The argument that personal religious beliefs may trump the most basic liberty and equality rights of others should be rejected with equal force today by state governments considering religious exemption bills, and by judges being asked to find a religious right to discriminate.