Women’s Employment and the Decline in Marriage Are No Longer Related

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

For a few decades, women’s rising share of the workforce probably led to fewer women getting married. But that’s not the case anymore.


It is common knowledge—and true—that marriage rates are falling and unmarried parenting is becoming more common (nicely illustrated here). On the other hand, it is also common knowledge—but not true—that women’s employment rates have continued to rise in the last two decades (as illustrated here.)

In the long run of history, there is little doubt these trends are related: As women’s economic independence increased with better job opportunities, marriage became more optional and fewer women got (or stayed) married. But in the medium run, on the scale of a few decades rather than long eras, it’s not that simple.

Here are the trends in marriage and labor force participation for women using U.S. Census data going back to 1900.


Source: My analysis of Census data from IPUMS.

In the long run of the past 111 years, there certainly are more employed women and more single women. But the trends only moved strongly in the same direction for the three decades from 1960 to 1990, when the percent of women not married more than doubled from 18 percent to 43 percent and the percent in the labor force almost doubled from 41 percent to 76 percent. In the last two decades labor force participation has frozen while the percent not married has jumped another 7 points.

Here is the trick: Despite the real connection between non-marriage and employment—in which women don’t feel as strong a need to be married if they are employed—the lion’s share of rising employment has been among married women. Women’s employment opportunities made non-marriage more viable but also changed marriage. As the employment rates of married and non-married women grew more similar, the decline of marriage has made less of a difference to the total employment rate. Moving women from married to single doesn’t do much anymore. Here are the employment trends:


The American Stall
So we need to understand the stalled rise in employment because it may be the key to understanding progress toward gender equality generally.

In a previous post I suggested that stalled progress resulted from feeble work-family policy, anti-feminist backlash, and weak anti-discrimination enforcement. A recent analysis by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn lends support to the first: work-family policy. Economix writer Catherine Rampbell highlighted the paper, which tracked employment rates over 22 wealthy countries for two decades. During that time, U.S. women fell from sixth to 17th in labor force participation rates—rising just one percentage point while women in the average country increased 12 points.

Here are the labor force participation rates for the 22 countries for 1990 and 2010. Dots to the left of the blue line show countries where women’s labor force presence increased; dots to the right show decreases. At the extreme, for example, Ireland saw a jump from 45 percent to 72 percent.


Source: My chart from the Blau and Kahn paper.

What happened? One big change was the advance of several work-family policies. The average number of weeks of guaranteed parental leave increased from 37 to 57 in these countries, with the U.S. adding only a 12-week rule under the Family Medical Leave Act (covering only half the workforce). The average country on this list now provides a guaranteed 38 percent of parents’ wages while they’re on leave, while the U.S. provides none. Seven of the countries now protect a right to part-time work, and three-quarters guarantee equal treatment for part-time workers. Public spending on child care as a proportion of GDP increased by more than a third outside the U.S., and the average country now spends more than four-times as much as the U.S.

Together, based on the experience of these countries, Blau and Kahn estimate these changes account for more than a quarter of U.S. women’s slippage relative to other countries. That’s not everything, but it’s a substantial bite. If we had kept up with the average country’s policies, U.S. women would have had an 82 percent labor force participation rate, putting them at 11th on the list instead of 17th.

On the Other Hand
Not all work-family policies are the same. One way to divide them is between those that protect time out of paid work (parental leave, part-time protections) and those that protect time in paid work (especially state-supported childcare). As Blau and Kahn note, U.S. women have much lower rates of part-time work than those in most other rich countries, but we also have higher rates of women in professional and managerial jobs. That might be because employers in those countries are reluctant to hire or promote women who are expected to take time out of the labor force when they have children—which is exactly the goal of some of our low-fertility peer countries. How, and whether, such policies can improve family life while also promoting gender equality is the subject of a rich debate—which unfortunately remains in the realm of the hypothetical here in the U.S.

The best they’ve got for DOMA?

The big news last week was the Obama administration’s historic throwing under the bus of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

The President already had made clear where his heart lies on homogamous marriage rights, and the administration already was undermining the law, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing homogamy as practiced in the states. But the brief they handed the Supreme Court last week in the DOMA case U.S. v. Windsor still broke ground in arguing that laws infringing on the rights of gays and lesbians should be scrutinized as if those groups constitute a minority to be protected — in other words, that the government needs a very good reason to discriminate against them — and that DOMA could not withstand such scrutiny.

But in my catching up on the case, what floored me was the brief by the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives, who are left with the sorry job of defending DOMA sans assistance from Obama. We have known for a while that the intellectual bullpen is getting a little thin on the anti-homogamy side, epitomized by the tossing-out of David Blankenhorn’s claim to expert status in the anti-gay marriage California Proposition 8 case. But I didn’t realize they had slipped this far.

This is the argument that got me: the government has to support straight (heterogamous) marriage — and straight marriage only — because that is the only way to ensure that straight people’s tendency to carelessly produce children doesn’t result in lots of children living on welfare (or worse).

If homogamy becomes legal, who will care for the orphans?
If homogamy becomes legal, who will care for the orphans?

Here is an excerpt:

The link between procreation and marriage itself reflects a unique social difficulty with opposite-sex couples that is not present with same-sex couples — namely, the undeniable and distinct tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended pregnancies. Government from time immemorial has had an interest in having such unintended and unplanned offspring raised in a stable structure that improves their chances of success in life and avoids having them become a burden on society. … Particularly in an earlier era when employment opportunities for women were at best limited, the prospect that unintended children produced by opposite-sex relationships and raised out-of-wedlock would pose a burden on society was a substantial government concern. Thus, the core purpose and defining characteristic of the institution of marriage always has been the creation of a social structure to deal with the inherently procreative nature of the male-female relationship. Specifically, the institution of marriage represents society’s and government’s attempt to encourage current and potential mothers and fathers to establish and maintain close, interdependent, and permanent relationships, for the sake of their children, as well as society at large. It is no exaggeration to say that the institution of marriage was a direct response to the unique tendency of opposite-sex relationships to produce unplanned and unintended offspring.

Although much has changed over the years, the biological fact that opposite-sex relationships have a unique tendency to produce unplanned and unintended offspring has not. While medical advances, and the amendment of adoption laws through the democratic process, have made it possible for same-sex couples to raise children, substantial advance planning is required. Only opposite-sex relationships have the tendency to produce children without such advance planning (indeed, especially without advance planning). Thus, the traditional definition of marriage remains society’s rational response to this unique tendency of opposite-sex relationships. And in light of that understanding of marriage, it is perfectly rational not to define as marriage, or extend the benefits of marriage to, other relationships that, whatever their other similarities, simply do not have the same tendency to produce unplanned and potentially unwanted children.

Is this really where we are, in legal history? Are they really still arguing that in the face of fathers abandoning their bastard children, the state’s response is to shore up marriage? Have they not noticed the millions of children born to straight parents who aren’t married, the decades-long demonization of “deadbeat dads,” the IVF, gay/lesbian couples, adoptions, and countless other family innovations in the last half century?

I’m open to suggestions for why this is anything but laughable as a legal argument against gay and lesbian marriage rights. I suppose you could use this argument against the rights of unmarried people to have children, but why, then, I wonder, did the government go to all that trouble to prevent unmarried people from acquiring birth control? Do they realize that implementing their vision also requires prosecuting adulterers and repealing no-fault divorce?

I expect anti-homogamy arguments to be hateful, or at least mean-spirited. And I recognize that this passage is just one part of a lengthy legal argument that I couldn’t stomach reading further. But this just reinforces my previous conclusion that there’s nothing left to argue over rationally.


…to my fellow college teachers: How many papers have you graded with unsourced phrases such as, “Government from time immemorial…”, and, “the institution of marriage always has been…” I wouldn’t automatically give such a paper a ‘C’ or worse, but it’s an uphill climb out of failing-grade range from that passage forward. (For real histories of marriage — which belie such ridiculous historical claims about the olden days — I recommend Marriage: A History, by Stephanie Coontz; and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, by Nancy Cott.)

…to people who write for law reviews: I’ve been working on the edits of my forthcoming article in the Boston University Law Review, which I had the privilege of writing after presenting at their law school’s conference on The End of Men. I’m super impressed by the detailed editing the piece is getting — for example, they seem to be physically checking books out of the library to verify — and back up — my references. I can’t imagine they would have tolerated such slipshod writing as what the BLAG has produced here.

Harriet Presser

Harriet Presser has died. In this post I include the death notice from the Washington Post, as well as some remarks I prepared for the award ceremony at which the Family Section of the American Sociological Association honored her with the Distinguished Career award in 2009. And then a few personal comments.

Harriet Presser in a 2004 photo from the Harvard University Gazette, as she delivered a lecture there.

This death notice appeared in the Washington Post on May 6.

On May 1, 2012, Harriet B. Presser passed away with her daughter, Sheryl, and Harriet’s partner of 32 years, Phil Corfman, by her side. Harriet was a distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work helped transform the field of demography by bringing a gender perspective to bear on the study of fertility and family processes. She was elected President of the Population Association of America for 1989. The Association named an award in her honor in 2008, to be given to recognize career contributions to the study of gender in demography. In 2010 she was awarded the American Sociological Association’s Jessie Bernard Award for work that “enlarged the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society”. At Maryland, she had founded the Center for Population, Gender and Social Inequality, and was awarded the Dean’s Medal for meritorious service to the college. A service was held in New York on Friday, May 4, 2012 at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. In early summer, Sheryl and Phil will hold a service in celebration of Harriet’s life in Rockville. In lieu of flowers, you may donate to the graduate student Fellowship Fund that Harriet had established. Checks should be made out to the University of Maryland College Park Foundation with Harriet B. Presser Fellowship Fund, Account #: 21-40452 in the memo line, and sent to: University of Maryland College Park Foundation Inc., Office of Gift Acceptance Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center, College Park, MD 20742

In my 2009 remarks, I focused on Harriet’s contributions to family sociology. This is what I prepared, with some links added:

On behalf of my colleagues on the Family Section’s Distinguished Career Award Committee – Bill Marsiglio, Karin Brewster, Michelle Budig, and Michael Rosenfeld – it is my distinct privilege and high honor to announce that Harriet Presser is the winner of the 2009 Distinguished Career Award from the Family Section of the American Sociological Association.

Harriet Presser is one of the preeminent researchers in the area of sociology now known as Gender, Work and Family. But it was in fact her work that helped to define that area, to shape that research agenda from the 1970s to the present day. As David Maume wrote in Contemporary Sociology, she “examined the poor fit between work and family obligations long before the idea of work-family conflict entered academic and public discourse.”

Harriet received a Masters degree from UNC Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Her first faculty appointment was in Public Health at Columbia, and her early work concerned fertility and family planning, birth control and sterilization, which was the subject of her dissertation on Puerto Rico. A review of her many published articles shows a path from teen motherhood and pregnancy to work and family, focusing on welfare, work and family formation. She also studied child care challenges for working women and families. Her institutional contributions include an instrumental role in the early Census Bureau data collection on child care, in the 1977 Current Population Survey – and in the Census Bureau’s decision to drop the concept of “head of household” from its surveys (which is itself a great story of life at the intersection of feminism, bureaucracy and demography in the 1970s).

In 1983 she had the rare distinction among sociologists of publishing an article in the journal Science – on the issue of shift work among dual-earner couples. The high rates of shift work among spouses with children had gone largely unnoticed as women’s labor force participation increased. The nurses, waitresses, sales workers and telephone operators of the 1970s and 80s were on the leading edge of the nascent 24-hour economy that would reshape modern family life. For example, these were the first families in which large proportions of men were the primary caretakers for their young children. In fact, viewing career trajectories and strategies from a couple perspective was one of the many research innovations for which we have, in part, Harriet to thank. With a clearness of thought and a prescient view of social trends, with which her work is riddled, at the end of that article in Science she sketched out a research agenda that read in part, “what are the motivations for shift work among couples with children? What is the quality of child care in shift work households? … what are the quality and stability of marriages among shiftwork couples compared with others? What is the distinctive effect of shift work on the division of labor within the home and nonmarital power? Is the effect of female shiftwork on family life different from the effect of male shiftwork?” In fact, each of these questions has become the subject of important research as we attempt to come to terms with the simultaneous effects of the growing service economy, dual earner couple employment, cultural trends in parenting and, always, struggles for gender equality at work and at home.

The subject matter of Harriet’s research was influenced by her own experience going to college at night while trading off child-care shifts with her then husband, in the 1950s. Her feminist orientation drew from her experience as well, including a run-in with my own department, which was not uniformly supportive – shall we say – of a divorced young mother’s academic ambitions.

In the subsequent years Harriet built a career for herself at the University of Maryland, serving as the founding director of its Center on Population, Gender, and Social Inequality in 1988, now the Maryland Population Research Center. She became a Distinguished University Professor. She was the 7th woman out of 53 presidents of the Population Association of America, in 1989, and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year, an award was established in her name by the PAA, to honor scholars with distinguished careers in research on gender and demographic issues.

This is a small sampling of her many research activities, leaving aside her countless contributions to the universities, professional associations, advisory boards, study panels and journals that make possible so much of our work. And the students whom she has advised along the way. In recognition of the use contributions and achievements, we are delighted to name Harriet the winner of the Distinguished Career Award.

[Some of the information here comes from a 1989 interview conducted by Jean van der Tak, then historian of the Population Association of America, available as part of an archive at San Diego State University.]

* * *

Yesterday I led the last meeting in the Gender, Work and Family course at Maryland, a seminar that I took with her in 1996, when I was a graduate student in sociology here. Looking back over the papers I kept from that year, I remember how supportive of my efforts in that seminar she was. My paper for her led to the publication of an article in Gender & Society which has become my most cited sole-authored piece. (She didn’t believe the article should be published because it pushed the data too far — so I was lucky to have her as a teacher instead of a reviewer. In fact it is more influential for the issues it raises than for the answers it provides, which is a testament to what I learned in the seminar.)

Anyway, I came across this snippet, which reminded me of her, and her influence on me: I don’t want to write phrases that would draw an “ugh!” from her even now.

Instead, I wish I could have one more of these:

Addendum: There is now a page for Harriet on Wikipedia.

Who’s who in the blended family, circa 1886

The fascination with family intricacy and naming relationships, as seen in The Brooklyn Magazine (v. 3, no. 5, Feb. 1886, p. 196).

A Marriage Mix.—I got acquainted with a young widow, observes a recent writer, who lived with her stepdaughter in the same house. I married the widow. Shortly afterward, my father fell in love with the stepdaughter of my wife and married her. My wife became the mother-in-law and also the daughter-in-law of my own father; my wife’s stepdaughter is my stepmother, who is the stepdaughter of my wife. My father’s wife has a boy: he is naturally my stepbrother because he is the son of my father and of my stepmother; but because he is the son of my wife’s stepdaughter, so is my wife the grandmother of the little boy, and I am the grandfather of my stepbrother. My wife also has a boy, my stepmother is consequently the stepsister of my boy, and is also his grandmother, because he is the child of her stepson; and my father is the brother-in-law of my son, because he has got his stepsister for a wife. I am the brother-in-law of my mother, my wife is the aunt of her own son, my son is the grandson of my father, and I am my own grandfather.

Note that this whole blended-family story, with many step-relatives, is made possible by widowhood — but no divorces.