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Wealthy Women Can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can’t

(Source: theatlantic.com)

Taking a stand against patriarchy is much easier if you’re well-educated, have a stable income, and live in a community where you could theoretically find an educated, employed man to marry. For poor, uneducated women, especially those who have kids, the question of whether to get married looks a lot different: It’s the choice between raising children on one or two incomes, between having someone to help with household chores and child-rearing alone while working multiple jobs. 

And that’s the big difference: For a poor woman, deciding whether to get married or not will be a big part of shaping her economic future. For a wealthier woman, deciding whether to get married is a choice about independence, lifestyle, and, at times, “fighting the patriarchy.” There’s a cognitive dissonance in Ehrenreich’s straight-up dismissal of the economic benefits of marriage, because the statistics tell an awkward truth: Financially, married women tend to fare much better than unmarried women.

This topic has been covered extensively in The Atlantic and other publications. But the way this question is covered in the media tells a similar story of the fundamental divide in who can afford to stand against marriage on principle. Take, for example, two articles on marriage in the New York Times: One is about a 35-year-old Argentinian woman who fears that marriage will erode her independence, while the other is about the vast economic disadvantages that poor, single mothers face. The women profiled in the second story aren’t worried about being controlled by men or losing their carefree lifestyle; they’re worried about how one income can feed, house, and clothe two (or more) people. Wanting a certain lifestyle, or even wanting to fight against societal pressures to marry, are both questions of privilege.

This is not to say that all low-income women should marry, that it’s their fault if they’re not married, or that marriage is the silver-bullet solution to solving income inequality, as Fleischer and his supporters might argue. But it is important for the resistance against “patriarchy” to be mixed with a recognition of statistical reality: Marriage is good for women economically.

As chanteuse of the single lady, Beyonce is an interesting litmus test for this. She recently wrote an essay about gender inequality in the Shriver Report on women and poverty, and a song on her most recent album contains this sample from a TED talk given by artist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?

This is an important question, especially because it frames the cultural pressures surrounding marriage in the right way: Why don’t we teach boys that they need to get married, the way we teach this to girls? For the single, poor women (and single, poor men) of the world, this question needs to be accompanied by another: If I choose not to marry, what will be the economic consequences? 

“Single ladies” who decide not to get married should be empowered to make that choice and share their perspectives with the world. But women who can comfortably support themselves (and possibly their children) on one income should not assume that low-income women are facing an identical choice. 

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Emma Green is a staff writer at ​The Atlantic, where she covers politics, policy, and religion.

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