In a recent and thought-provoking article for The Atlantic, David Frum connects the nation’s plummeting abortion rates with its surging unwed motherhood rates, suggesting that these trends developed in part because social conservatism “made its peace with unwed parenthood as the inescapable real-world alternative to abortion.”
In fact, social conservatives have most certainly not made peace with unwed motherhood, but are instead leading the cause of marriage as both a social and economic good for men, women, and children. But Frum does highlight a tension inherent within the pro-marriage movement, which is, how do we effectively advocate for marriage without condemning those who have chosen to have children outside of it? And his article raises the question: How can the pro-marriage movement model the successes of the pro-life movement in a time when, as Frum puts it, “single parenthood has become the norm for non-affluent Americans of all races?”
In his analysis of the success of the pro-life movement in influencing both opinions and behavior, Frum argues, “The cause originated as a profoundly socially conservative movement. Yet as it grew, it became less sectarian. Women came to the fore as leaders. It found a new language of concern and compassion, rather than condemnation and control.”
These are two tactics the pro-marriage movement can adopt. The movement must cultivate spokespeople from the demographic we seek to impact. Since nonmarital childbearing is most common among women in their twenties, it is women in their twenties we should be hearing from. Young women who can speak positively to having made a decisive choice to marry before having children, and young women who can speak firsthand to the challenges of having had a child without a husband will be the most effective advocates for marriage in today’s social landscape.
It’s also essential to cultivate pro-marriage, young female voices because it is women who are the most likely to be the head of single households, as well as the more likely of the sexes to be economically and emotionally harmed by single parenthood. This despite the fact that marriage has been effectively framed by the feminist movement over the past several decades as a barrier to female success and flourishing. To combat this, the pro-marriage movement must invest heavily in voices from an emerging new feminism that values marriage as a key to female empowerment in society.
Investing in strategic voices for the movement will contribute to developing a mode of communication that is concerned and compassionate rather than condemning and controlling. Already, pro-marriage advocates have moved away from the moral censure that previously marked our side of the debate, and towards a strategy that is anchored by a wealth of statistics and that frames the issue in terms of concern for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. When “a dad” is among the top ten requests British children make to Santa, there is plenty of material that enables us to lead with concern and follow with solid policy recommendations.
I would add, however, that it is not enough to focus on single mothers who have never been married, who are only half of the single mother picture. Divorce reform is an absolutely essential but under-discussed part of the marriage long game. It’s easy to forget that, despite the surge of women having children without ever having married, more than half of all single mothers were at one point married. And to the point about nurturing pro-marriage female voices, it is actually women who are more likely to initiate a divorce, putting themselves on a likely trajectory towards poverty. Our language of concern should not exclude those mothers who find themselves single parents after having said “I do,” as they and their children suffer problems similar to those of women who never did.
In sum, while we are not at peace with a demographic trend that threatens the well being of women and children in particular, we shouldn’t think of ourselves as being at war, either. Rather, we might take a cue from a man who has won accolades around the globe for his effectiveness at communicating a vision in a non-moralistic fashion, a man who recently cold-called a single mother to offer his compassion, Pope Francis, and work to “accompany” those women who find themselves struggling through single motherhood.
With the right voices at the forefront speaking in the right tone, we might make the case for marriage a successful one, too.