Can Black Women Lead on Rethinking Marriage?
by Dani McClain
One highlight of Election Day 2012: voters in Maryland, Washington and Maine deciding, with their ballots, whether people in same-sex relationships will be allowed to marry.
Black voters in those states -- especially Maryland, which is nearly one-third African American – may need to take cover. We know about the backlash black Californians faced after Prop. 8 passed. We also know about National Organization for Marriage's cynical efforts to drive a wedge between black and gay Americans.
But what we don't know and what I'd love for some exit poll to find out is whether black voters -- especially straight black women -- actually are skeptical of marriage equality for reasons that have nothing to do with homophobia. Could it be that we're not motivated to support these initiatives because we're not convinced that marriage should grant access to human rights in the first place?
Beyond Wedded Union
If black women are holding out for something better than marriage, then we're acting in our own self-interest. According to a review of 2010 Census data and as reported last year, black women are at the vanguard of reframing family for the 21st century: "Among African-Americans, U.S. households headed by women -- mostly single mothers but also adult women living with siblings or elderly parents -- represented roughly 30% of all African-American households, compared with the 28% share of married-couple African-American households. It was the first time the number of female-headed households surpassed those of married couples among any race group."
When these heads of household go to the polls, they may be thinking about their own desire to directly access quality healthcare or tax breaks, not whether the inability to marry is keeping someone else from the circuitous route people in the United States have come to accept.
The women described above may soon set aside any acceptance of stigma and instead start to see themselves as a political constituency. And once this happens, the same-sex marriage conversation will be forever changed. Bigots may find themselves starved for attention as the movement is forced to confront legitimate push-back.
I know that for some, that vision -- outlined clearly in the Beyond Marriage statement is too farsighted for someone who faces deportation tomorrow because they can't marry the person they love today. I know that Salt Lake City's mutual commitment registry is too local for that Texan whose heart is breaking because she can't visit her hospitalized partner. And I can see why the history of the fight to pass the federal Comprehensive Child Development Act in the early '70s is of no consolation to the person who lacks rights to the child they're raising today.
That said, these examples and the work of campaigns such as Strong Families have been sources of inspiration for me as someone who worries about the marriage equality movement's blind spots. They've helped me and others understand who gets hurt when romantic and sexual relationships registered with the state (as opposed to, say, familial or friendship bonds) are privileged under the law.
There are alternatives to treating marriage as the brass ring, and progressive family economic policy -- accessible to all Americans, regardless of marital status -- is the goal that makes the most sense for a growing number of us.
The War On (Single) Women
Of course, even if we got all progressives on board with that goal, we'd face a real fight from the Right. Conservative rhetoric and policy have long depended on the demonization of unmarried women -- from Nixon's veto of a universal childcare bill four decades ago followed by Reagan's welfare queens to Rick Santorum, during this year's primary season, asserting that the way to "reduce the Democratic advantage" is to build traditional two-parent families. Through the years, the right's underlying argument has been consistent: Within the traditional, patriarchal family structure, daddy provides so government doesn't have to, and that's a good thing.
The right-wing message machine has been savvy in this arena, but recently efforts to malign unmarried women have gotten a lot more desperate. Last year, two Wisconsin legislators proposed a bill based on the allegation that single parenthood is a leading cause of child abuse. Following their argument requires a suspension of logic, but the bill was really just the latest attempt to drive home the opening words of the 1996 federal welfare-reform law: "Marriage is the foundation of a successful society."
One particularly aggressive piece of that law incentivized states to convince low-income women that the life-sustaining support they and their children needed could and should be provided by husbands rather than by government. These Bridefare programs added sweeteners to the checks of married couples while slashing -- sometimes by as much as a quarter -- the benefits of cohabiting unmarried adults.
Writing in the pages of The Nation in 2002, Katha Pollitt critiqued this trend in government marriage promotion: "Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor?... Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women -- and men -- as human beings in their own right… Every TANF [Temporary Aid for Needy Families] dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people."
How are these Bridefare marriages doing a decade later? Did they improve the financial stability of participants? Have their divorce rates been lower than national averages? The answers may be further proof that the right wing's belief in a marriage cure is flawed. They'd also tell us something how marriage is experienced by low-income and poor women, and how those experiences match up to the messages pushed by prominent groups within the marriage equality movement.
Soccer Moms, NASCAR Dads and Satisfied Singles
The obsession with unmarried women isn't just political. It's cultural, too. The film amplifying Steve Harvey's ubiquitous advice that we should "act like a lady, think like a man" is just the latest example. Two years ago, the mainstream media's fascination with black women's marriage rates hit a high point, and we became the topic of a conversation that we were not in a position to control. Unfortunately, that conversation was driven by media outlets that couldn't be bothered to check their numbers.
When 2009 data showed that 70.5 percent of black women between the ages of 25 and 29 had never been married, the narrowness of that age range was often left out of mainstream news reports. Headlines implied that 70 percent of all black women had never married. The truth is that as we age a majority do, but still not at the same rates as women of other races and ethnicities. According to the same data, 13 percent of black women age 55 and older had never married, compared with just five percent of white and Asian women and nine percent of Latinas.
These stats -- while not as wildly surprising as initial reports suggested -- support my thesis: Unmarried black women are an untapped force for change because we're more likely to stay that way and so are best positioned to lobby on behalf of the rights of single people and those in non-traditional families.
But there's at least one reason why we're not doing it. A number of black women across the sexual preference spectrum do desperately want to be married. Rather than heed some rallying cry to demand that policies reflect our realities, many of us are mired in frustration. What can feel most pressing is that marriage is out of reach because of larger social forces, such as the high incarceration rates of black men, the joblessness that has hit our communities especially hard during this recession (14 percent of black people in the U.S. were unemployed in July, compared to eight percent of the population as a whole), white supremacist beauty standards and other factors that put us at a disadvantage in the marriage market. These are real concerns.
I don't expect that a sizable number of unmarried black women will publicly eschew marriage and brand themselves as a voting bloc anytime soon. But I do think it's coming. And a review of how we vote on marriage initiatives may offer a window into how far away that day is.
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