Did you know that a majority of American women now live without husbands? I didn't either, but last week the New York Times announced it on Page 1: "51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse."
Taken at face value, that's a pretty disquieting statistic. If society is to flourish and perpetuate itself, it must uphold marriage as a social ideal -- it must raise boys and girls in a culture that encourages them to eventually marry a partner of the opposite sex, make stable and loving homes together, and have children who will one day form successful marriages of their own. The news that most American women now live without husbands suggests that society's "ideal" is dwindling to a minority taste.
"At one end of the age spectrum, women are marrying later or living with unmarried partners more often and for longer periods," reporter Sam Roberts notes. "At the other end, women are living longer as widows and, after a divorce, are more likely than men to delay remarriage, sometimes delighting in their newfound freedom."
That delight is voiced by nearly every woman quoted in the story. "The benefits were completely unforeseen for me," says a 59-year-old divorcee, "the free time, the amount of time I get to spend with friends, the time I have alone, which I value tremendously, the flexibility in terms of work, travel, and cultural events." Such are the joys of non marriage, another woman exults, that "every day is like a present."
Roberts quotes William Frey of the Brookings Institution, who describes this apparently happy husbandless majority as "a clear tipping point, reflecting the culmination of post-1960 trends associated with greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women."
Well, maybe. Or maybe not. For when you try to pin down the numbers, Roberts's startling finding turns out to depend on some awfully strained definitions.
"Women," for example, isn't the word most of us would use to describe high school sophomores. Yet the Times includes girls as young as 15 in its analysis. Not surprisingly, girls who in many cases aren't old enough to have a driver’s license are unlikely to have husbands. According to the Census Bureau's 2005 American Community survey, 97 percent of females between 15 and 19 have never been married. Incorporating nearly 10 million teenagers in the ranks of marriage-aged American "women" may be a good way to pad the number of those without husbands, but it doesn't make that number any more enlightening.