"The conservative minds of the Heritage Foundation have found a way for Republicans to shrink the gender gap: They need to persuade more women to get their MRS degrees." So wrote the Washington Post's Dana Milbank about a panel that featured Mollie Hemingway, Karin Agness and yours truly.
It was so nice of Milbank to attend -- a shame that his mind was so clenched shut that he could hear only what his prejudices led him to expect, rather than what we actually said. Hate to interrupt a good sneer, but the panel wasn't about the gender gap; it was about feminism.
Milbank focused narrowly on the political implications of our talk and couldn't resist descending to the most tired leftist cliche, namely that "the consensus was that we ought to go back in history." The left cannot shake is starry-eyed confidence that history has a vector -- that forward is always toward the sunny uplands of equality, prosperity and happiness -- and backward is always a descent. Tell that to Germans in 1933 or Cambodians in 1975. Ask a newly captured slave onboard a ship in the middle passage if he wanted to "go back in history."
Speaking for myself and not my fellow panelists, I do believe that feminism took a number of wrong turns since the 1970s -- rejecting marriage, embracing the sexual revolution, cheerleading for abortion without any restrictions, vehemently denying that young children pay a price when they are placed in institutional care, recycling bogus statistics like the 77-cents myth, spurning the accomplishments of conservative heroines like Margaret Thatcher and Condoleezza Rice, demonizing men as oppressors. It's a long list.
But most of my talk at the Heritage Foundation wasn't especially partisan or even political. I was quoting the social science that scholars across the political spectrum agree upon -- namely, that a focus on women's progress and glass ceilings and "leaning" this way and that misses the most important news: Men are falling behind. A larger percentage of women than men finish high school. Women now earn 57 percent of bachelor's degrees, 63 percent of master's degrees, and 53 percent of doctorates. Men are earning less and dropping out of the labor force at alarming rates. Women are earning more and taking a larger percentage of managerial and supervisory posts.
The decline of marriage hurts men as well as women and children, but its effects are not evenly distributed. Among the college-educated, divorce has declined and unwed childbearing is rare. By contrast, among high school dropouts, most women will have their first child before getting married and rare is the unmarried couple who remains together for life.
The collapse of marriage among the uneducated and partially educated has unquestionably been a social and economic disaster. The data are overwhelming that children raised by married parents are happier, healthier, do better in school, and are more likely to attend and finish college than their peers from single-parent homes. This is true without regard to race or ethnicity. In fact, being raised by a single mother is a better predictor of poverty than race or ancestry.
Those concerned about income inequality, poverty and social health, I argued (and I was joined in this by my fellow panelists), must be concerned about rebuilding the marriage norm. I cited the successful effort to reduce teen pregnancy (it's dropped 50 percent in recent years). A similar campaign to stress the importance of stable families could yield huge benefits for the most vulnerable populations in our society.
Only in the question-and-answer session did the issue that so absorbed Milbank arise: How this affects elections. Responding to a question, we noted the glaringly unsurprising fact that the gender gap between Democrats and Republicans is actually a marriage gap. Single women vote disproportionately for Democrats and married women vote by a comfortable margin for Republicans.
The decline of marriage inclines more women to vote Democrat. They are, quite understandably, looking for security (a la "The Life of Julia"). It's obviously not a good campaign strategy for Republican office-seekers to lecture women about marching to the altar before having children.
But, believe it or not, it's useful to think about and discuss important social trends without always appending a D or an R to them. Serious people can seek out the illuminating research by Isabel Sawhill, Charles Murray, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Elaine Kamarck, W. Bradford Wilcox and other scholars.
Fans of shallow snark will enjoy Milbank's work.