The Magazine

The Nuclear Wars

Men, women, marriage, children-and America's future.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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Marriage and Caste in America

Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age

by Kay S. Hymowitz

Ivan R. Dee, 192 pp., $22.50

Kay Hymowitz has brought good news and bad news back from her investigations into the state of matrimony in America. The good news--that most of the country has started to pull away from the un-marriage abyss--cannot take the sting out of the bad--that the near disappearance of marriage among the poorest Americans is producing a self-perpetuating proletariat lacking the culture of self-control, work, and committed relationships that is the lifeline out of poverty. The underclass is hardening into a hereditary caste.

It is the last two of the eight essays collected in this short and readable volume that announce the hopeful developments. "The End of Herstory" offers a refreshingly obvious explanation for the reluctance of most women to identify themselves as feminists: "Most women want husbands and children as much as they want anything in life." This truth is offensive to feminism, a grievance-based outlook "rooted in a utopian politics that longs to transcend both biology and ordinary bourgeois longings," Hymowitz writes. Feminism therefore "cannot address the reality of the lives that it has helped to change." In particular, its tedious dogma of 50-50 parity between men and women in all aspects of child rearing and home chores is simply irrelevant to the experience of normal families juggling their multiple tasks. What's more, today's young women, Hymowitz finds from her extensive interviews, are perfectly comfortable with the observation--anathema to feminists--that men and women are complementary and their differences are rooted in biology. Lawrence Summers's Harvard notwithstanding, apparently our long feminist nightmare is over.

Hymowitz clusters that happy turn of events with an array of positive trends under the heading "It's Morning After in America." The improvements over the last 10-15 years in the incidence of crime, divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, alcohol abuse, early sexual activity, and more are already familiar. Behind them all, Hymowitz sees a "change in cultural beliefs" that is producing "a vital, optimistic, family-centered, entrepreneurial, and, yes, morally thoughtful citizenry."

This cultural shift she traces to four causes: generational backlash, as Gen-Xers and Millennials resolve not to reproduce the divorced, blended, and single-parent families the Baby Boomers made; a resurgence of patriotism and seriousness among the young triggered by 9/11; the example of immigrants, with their strong work ethic and, in the case especially of Asians, high grades and stable families; and the opportunities extended by the information economy to "the hardworking, forward-looking, and pragmatic."

These mutually reinforcing influences have helped Americans recognize the damage done by "their decades-long fling with the sexual revolution and the transvaluation of traditional values." Now, says Hymowitz, "they are earnestly knitting up their unraveled culture." While we are unlikely to return to the status quo ante, this is, she concludes, "a moment of tremendous promise"--for some Americans.

But not for all. Most of the book is devoted to that portion of our cultural fabric that has slipped beyond the reach of self-repair. The saddest news she brings is the near disappearance among poor urban African Americans of the simple "life script" that leads out of poverty, the inherited "how-to" of successful adulthood, namely: Finish school, get a job and stay employed, get married--and then, and only then, have children.

And it's worse than that. Instead of positive guidance and examples leading them in a sound direction, young people in the 'hood are subjected to deeply disturbing influences. Hymo witz describes a "relationship dystopia." Growing up without fathers--sometimes without ever encountering a lifelong married couple--poor urban kids are surrounded instead by de facto polygamy: single or temporarily attached men with children by multiple women, and single or temporarily attached women with children by multiple men. The young are formed in the midst of the resulting "maelstrom of confusion, jealousy, rage, abandonment, and violence."