Commentary Family

Divorce Rates Keep Declining. Thanks, Birth Control!

Amanda Marcotte

Feminism has led to lower divorce rates over the decades, because independent women have better marriages. Yet conservatives keep insisting that the struggle for equality is driving families apart.

Divorce rates are down, and we have feminism to thank for it. Social scientists have known for a long time that half of all marriages are not actually destined to end in divorce. Even so, the myth that matrimony is in peril persists—and that falsehood is unlikely to die anytime soon.

At the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller has gallantly tried yet again to get it through people’s thick skulls that feminism has not, as conservatives claim, uprooted family life by creating a bunch of marriage-allergic women who seek a divorce the minute their husband farts in front of them the first time. Her piece is incredibly thorough and should be bookmarked to be sent to anyone and everyone who laments how modern marriage is supposedly falling apart.

That said, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for those people to wise up to the facts. The myth that divorce is on the rise has been repeatedly debunked, but people, particularly conservatives, cling to it anyway. And usually, in their version of events, feminism is to blame for this imaginary state of affairs. Miller offers one reason why this may be so: It’s true that the initial surge of divorces in the ’70s were partially the result of feminism, both because feminists pushed for no-fault divorce laws and because women who had been stuck in unhappy marriages for a long time felt empowered by feminism to leave them. Thus, the fable took root that feminism, by raising women’s expectations, generally leads to more divorces.

In retrospect, however, that divorce rate surge was probably more of a great correction that wiped the slate clean so we, as a country, could start over and try to do better next time. Many of the very same forces that led to the rise in divorce numbers in the ’70s, Miller reports, are the very same ones lowering it now. (Ain’t life a complex beast?) Because women are growing up with feminism in their lives, they’re able to reject bad marriage decisions before they make them. In turn, divorce rates have fallen, though with the unpleasant side effect of embittered misogynists creating online communities to gripe about how they lost out because women started wanting equal treatment.

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Miller only briefly mentions it, but reproductive rights also played a huge role in all of this. This chart from the hyper-conservative “Knot Yet” project is trying to raise the alarm about “out-of-wedlock” births—which is kind of silly, especially since many of the mothers live with their child’s fathers or marry them shortly after the birth—but it does demonstrate the remarkable increase in the age of first birth and first marriage:

Based on this data, it’s apparent that people are waiting longer to have kids. The teen pregnancy rate is at its lowest in decades too. While half of pregnancies remain unplanned, women are clearly using their access to contraception and abortion to be more confident that they want to have children with the men of their choosing. That’s a good thing, even if the exact moment in time the wedding ring gets slipped on doesn’t meet the preferences of the priggish “Knot Yet” folks. Without reliable, legal birth control—and abortion—many women would end up tied to men through their shared offspring, and even marrying them, even if they aren’t really sure this is the guy for them. And thus, more divorce. In short, feminism has done way more than just shift women’s expectations about relationships. It’s also given them the tools to set those expectations for themselves.

So why, exactly, is all this common sense failing to sink in with so many people? Jesse Singal at New York writes, “There’s a weird appeal to the idea that society is falling apart, especially among people who are convinced that things were better back in the old days, and/or that some sort of cultural rot has taken hold.” He cites the belief that crime is on the rise, when it’s actually on the decline, as an example.

I agree with Singal, but would add that it’s more than just a fist-shaking, back-in-my-day kind of mentality. Sadly, I think that a lot of this ignorance of reality is purposeful and ideological in nature. To use Singal’s example, choosing to believe, against all evidence, that crime is up supports a racist, anti-urban ideology—it allows people who want to flee racially diverse cities to justify their choices by saying that they’re avoiding “crime,” when that is not what they’re doing at all. Similarly, believing the divorce rate is going up allows people who want to hate feminism to feel vindicated in doing so: They can declare that they’re against feminism because it is ruining families.

What the actual evidence suggests, however, is that feminists are only ruining “the family” if you view women as little more than a support system put there to serve the interests of men. If you define marriage as an institution in which men put out a minor outlay of cash in exchange for having a live-in servant who does all the housework and most of the heavy lifting of childcare, so that a man can pursue his career and hobbies unimpeded, then absolutely, feminism has done some real damage there.

Of course, you’re not going to get many people these days to admit that their affection for an era when marriage was more compulsory is rooted in an unwillingness to see women as full human beings who deserve a chance to achieve their own dreams. Instead, you get all this feigned “concern” for single women and pressure to commit to an unhappy marriage rather than stay single. Take W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson, in the Washington Post, unsubtly warning/threatening women that they will suffer horrible violence if they don’t get married as quickly as possible. Or Mark Regnerus, in the same publication, trying to paint young marriage as romantic, in a desperate bid to trick women. Or the baffling media popularity of “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton, just because she was willing, without a shred of evidence, to suggest that you’re a washed-up and unwanted hag if you’re not married by college graduation.

No one should be fooled by any of this faux worry. The overwhelming evidence shows that using birth control, dating around, and waiting until you’re older and know what you want before you marry makes for happier marriages. Yes, men have to take the garbage out and do the dishes more, which is a massive tragedy in some eyes. But if the real goal is “happy marriages” instead of “subservient women,” then feminism is the clear winner.

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