In the cover story of the November Atlantic magazine, Kate Bolick declares her liberation from marriage: “It’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of ‘traditional’ marriage as society’s highest ideal.”
The odd thing about “progressive” tropes is their peculiar, static, timeless quality.
For progressives, time stands still. Each new generation is posed as poised to break through taboos that, in truth, vanished long ago.
The modern youngish woman like Kate (mateless and childless at 39 years of age) must find a way to view her sexual predicament as a social breakthrough, a revolutionary act, an act of liberation from her mother’s restricted and restrictive norms.
“In 1969, when my 25-year-old mother, a college-educated high school teacher, married a handsome lawyer-to-be, most women her age were doing more or less the same thing. . . . She’d never had sex with anyone but my father. Could she have even envisioned herself on a shopping excursion with an ex-lover, never mind one who was getting married while she remained alone?" Kate wonders.
Kate is probably the very last generation of (not very) young women who can even imagine themselves re-enacting this fantasy of sex as liberation. She is the very last generation of women whose mothers married young in a world that frowned on premarital sex, had children with husbands and—because any actual marriage is finite and human longing is infinite—fantasized a better, bigger life and marriage for their daughters than the humdrum reality of married love.
I know. At 51, I’m about a decade older than Kate. My son is just a decade younger.
The next generation of Atlantic cover girls on marriage will have mothers who had too much sex before marriage, and perhaps even afterward, who came of age in a society that celebrated casual sex, divorce, unwed-motherhood, abortion.
Your mother’s been there, done that.
Of course, that will not stop the “progressive” young women from trying to find some way their ongoing sexual perplexities represent a revolutionary advance for women.
But because Kate is an honest woman, her essay reads like a dreary slog through the gap between myth and reality of the sexual revolution.
Kate goes back to speak to younger women today, and is appalled by what she finds among 20-somethings:
Most of them said that though they’d had a lot of sex, none of it was particularly sensual or exciting. It appears the erotic promises of the 1960s sexual revolution have run aground on the shoals of changing sex ratios, where young women and men come together in fumbling, drunken couplings fueled less by lust than by a vague sense of social conformity.
What caused the “de-eroticization of sex,” she wonders.
Who exactly are the new enemies of Eros?
Sex has been divorced from meaning. Men are not being raised to be good family men, and women are not being raised to appreciate good family men. And men are failing to become the kind of men women want. Porn is available for all as a substitute for life.
So Kate, facing a future without children or marriage, wants to celebrate singleness and to kill her youthful idealization.
“Everywhere I turn, I see couples upending existing norms and power structures,” she says, citing a friend who fell in love with her dog walker, a man 12 years younger, with whom she stayed for three years “and are best friends today.”
Well, everywhere I turn in Kate’s essay I see women doing the best they can to celebrate the best they feel they can get, and it's unbearably sad.
The truth is celebrating singleness—i.e., celebrating “not doing something”—makes no sense. Loving is better than not loving. Choosing to love and commit to a husband or a child is a much higher ideal than choosing not to; that’s why it needs to be celebrated and idealized.
Of course, not everyone marries or becomes a mother, and of course every human life has other possibilities for meaning, and other forms of love to give.
But all of these other loves—the aunt, the grandparent, the best friend—came into being because somewhere some woman gave herself to the independence-shattering act of making a family.
The decline of manhood and norms around sex, marriage, and family produces for young women what may in fact have to be endured—but celebrated? Not after reading Kate’s essay.
Maggie Gallagher is a co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage and host of The Maggie Report (www.maggiereport.com).