• Email
  • Print

How Are Women Doing?


Choice” has been an effective watchword for those who would allow women to decide whether to continue a pregnancy—especially since it implies that the alternative is forcing people to have children they do not want. In fact, many women who become pregnant have chosen to do so; they are happy they have become pregnant and hope a birth will result. Even so, those who feel this way are not typical, as one might think. A survey of pregnant women by the National Center for Health Statistics found that almost 40 percent were not elated about their condition, and most in this group did not want it to proceed.1 If these women are also to have a choice, abortion services must be widely available.

Between 1974 and 1997, the years for which we have figures, almost 35 million abortions were performed in the United States, or 390 for every 1,000 live births. If most “pro-life” proponents had their way, virtually every pregnant woman would be compelled to bear her child, with only an exemption if her own life might be at stake. They also think that if abortion were abolished, there would be less sex of the sort that now leads to clinic visits. On the other side, many “choice” advocates believe that women would want to have even more abortions, but have been thwarted by obstacles created by hostile states and localities. Some also feel the number would rise if counseling were offered to teenagers who haven’t pondered the consequences of early motherhood.

Abortions have recently been declining, from a height of 1.6 million in 1990 to just over 1.3 million in 1997, lowering the ratio to 342 for every 1,000 births. Even Planned Parenthood does not believe that clamoring pickets and restrictive regulations have had much to do with the drop. One reason is that contraceptive use is up, even if only modestly, encouraged by fears of AIDS and other venereal risks. Also, with an aging population, there are fewer teenagers and young women to have unwanted pregnancies; teenagers’ share of all abortions has dropped dramatically. But the chief cause has been an increasing choice by unmarried girls and women to complete their pregnancies and take the babies home, which has lifted nonmarital births to an all-time high. Among women who are now raising children on their own, fully 43.3 percent have never been married, by contrast with the 6.8 percent a generation ago. As for the fathers, fewer of them feel pressured or obliged, let alone inclined, to wed the women they made pregnant. (So today, brides with a baby on the way are less frequent.)

Rickie Solinger, in Beggars and Choosers, dismisses the whole idea of choice as “fairly ridiculous,” since not all women have a full range of reproductive options. Freedoms that in theory are available in fact have price tags attached. She cites the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal Medicaid funds from being used for abortions. The poor must join the rich in paying for the procedure themselves. As for women on a tight budget, one senator advised them to scrape up the cash by “sacrificing on some item or other for a month or two.”

Solinger doesn’t mention that states can pick up the tab, as nineteen do. Still, populous ones like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas are among those that don’t. She recalls how women considered improvident or unfit were once routinely sterilized, and goes on to show that the sentiment behind such steps hasn’t wholly disappeared. Thus some of the pressure for making single mothers take jobs is accompanied by a hope that they’ll come home too tired to make more babies. The “family values” credo according to which youngsters are served best by having a full-time mother is reserved for those who have found and kept a husband who can foot the bills. Through messages like these, Solinger writes, poor women are told they have a “reproductive duty to refrain from reproducing.” I don’t recall seeing the word “eugenics” in her book, but she essentially accuses many better-off Americans of seeking to halt what they see as promiscuous breeding at lower social levels. (A group in California offers payments for tubal ligations.)

The bottom line for Solinger is what she calls “reproductive autonomy,” which ensures “the right to decide whether and when to become a mother and the right to decide whether or not to raise one’s child.” Like “choice,” at first reading this also seems beyond challenge. After all, few Americans openly support giving some agency the power to decide who may create children. But the issue hardly ends there. In fact, much of the procreation we see occurring is fortuitous, if not capricious, on the part of people who have no moral business becoming parents.

To voice this concern is not to hold that all prospective parents must be declared fit before they can have a baby. Rather, this is one of those matters in which while many of us don’t favor official intervention, we still find ourselves wishing that certain kinds of behavior didn’t occur. Prominent in the news this year has been the case of a middle-class Texas couple who kept on having children despite the wife’s history of depression; then one afternoon, she drowned all five of them. They, like others who are neglected and abused, are the ones who pay for the freedom adults have to procreate.

Last summer, one man who came before Wisconsin’s supreme court was $25,000 behind in support for nine children he had fathered by four different women. A lower court judge had ruled that if he did any more procreating, it would be deemed a violation of parole and he would be sent to prison. The Wisconsin supreme court voted 4–3 to sustain that ruling, holding that the state had a legitimate interest in preventing him from siring more children, who were bound to become dependent on public funds. (In other states, judges have given men the option of having a vasectomy.) As it turned out, the majority consisted of the four men on the court, while the dissenters were its three women, who issued an impassioned response. “Men and women in America are free to have children, as many as they desire,” one wrote, and “they may do so without the means to support the children.” While parents may be penalized for failing to provide support, “the right to have a child has never been rationed on the basis of wealth.”2

For her part, Solinger doesn’t say whether she wants to safeguard the “reproductive rights” of fathers, even if they walk away from the young lives they have helped to create. In this tangled issue, feminist and right-to-life positions are not far apart. Feminists do not want men telling women how they may use their bodies, even if the women keep on having babies on almost an annual basis. Pro-life proponents must also support these births, since they indicate a rejection of the abortion option.

Natalie Hull and Peter Hoffer in their new book want to show how tenuous Roe v. Wade has become, especially since the US Supreme Court has allowed state legislatures to curb the availability of the procedure. One state rule requires two visits, separated by at least twenty-four hours, before an abortion can take place; this can deter women who must come long distances, in states with few abortion clinics. A new tactic is to require excessive renovations of clinics and equipment, ostensibly for the benefit of patients. Added to which, our current president needs only to name two Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe, a tacit pledge he made to his party.

But despite their sympathies, Hull and Hoffer feel compelled to criticize Roe. In their reading, it “badly mangles the complex multiplicity of real-life factors in abortion discussions.” In particular, Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion in 1973 relied on a “paternalistic medically driven argument that doctors should be free of state interference in taking care of their pregnant patients.” In their view, it was almost as if gynecologists, mainly men at that time, were the plaintiffs in the case. The authors would have preferred a “new paradigm of women’s voice in the law,” affirming “women’s control of their reproductive lives”:

Women’s bodies belong to women, not men, not doctors, not pressure groups, not Congress, not lobbyists, and certainly not judges and justices in court.

Stating the principle in this way may not win the authors many converts. As Table A on page 64 shows, views on abortion range across a spectrum and reflect mixed feelings, with women’s opinions not much different from men’s. It’s not just pro-life zealots who are put off by the use of the term “fetus,” which considers its excision akin to removing a cyst.3 At issue, also, is the status of the patient. If there is sympathy for victims of rape, and often for terrified teenagers, it recedes if professional women are perceived as wishing to forestall a birth because it would be at a bad time for their careers. And there is even less support for those who have availed themselves of Roe more than once. Indeed, among patients in their thirties, almost half have had at least one previous procedure; and for one in four, it was their third. But this kind of counting may become moot. If RU-486 or morning-after pills are routinely taken, we won’t even know how many pregnancy terminations are taking place.


One American child in three is now born to unmarried parents, whereas in 1960 the figure was one in twenty. For white births, the out-of-wedlock ratio is 22.1 percent, and each year it moves closer to the black rate, now 69.1 percent. This makes the black figure 3.1 times that for whites; the 1970 ratio was 6.6, or over twice as great. In 1970, also, half of all nonmarital births were to teenagers. By 1999, the most recent year for figures, they had declined to 29.3 percent of the total. So more of unwed births are to older women; over half of unwed mothers have had another pregnancy earlier, and for a quarter, it is at least their third.

In the early 1970s, half of premarital pregnancies led to marriage. By the 1990s, fewer than a quarter did. Before 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade, one fifth of “nonmarital” infants were adopted. Currently, only one in thirty is. In the 1950s, fully 82.8 percent of first children were conceived after marriage. By the 1990s, that proportion was down to 47.2 percent. Another reason why the nonmarital ratio is higher is that there are fewer births overall within marriage. Couples who used to have three children now stop at two, while others are having one or none.

Should these trends be a cause for concern? The US Congress certainly thinks so. In 1996, it created a competition among the states, offering annual rewards of up to $20 million for those showing the greatest reductions in their out-of-wedlock birth rates (with a proviso that they could not be attained by abortions). In 2000, Arizona was one of four winners, because its rate dropped by three tenths of a percentage point, from 38.5 percent to 38.2 percent. Measured in actual numbers, Michigan recorded 719 fewer nonmarital births, and by my calculations netted $27,816 for each non-born child.

Why try to curtail the birth of such “nonmarital” children? To my knowledge, no studies have shown that people whose parents were not married, as a group, cost society more than they contributed. True, these children tend to start out poorer, which often means they do not do as well in school and are more likely to get in trouble with the law. And the odds are high they will have nonmarital children themselves. But the vast majority also get jobs, pay taxes, and do their best to better themselves. Whether they lead less satisfying lives is not easily measured. But if they do, it may to some degree be owing to the designation others give them.

But let’s stipulate that, all things considered, two parents are preferable to one. They may or may not provide a better setting in which to grow up. But if nothing else, two parents may mean there will be two incomes; or if one, it will generally be a man’s. The most recent census figures show that the median income for all married couples with children is $60,168. It is $45,315 when only the father works, but rises to $72,773 when both parents are employed full-time. In contrast, the median for women raising children on their own is $19,934, and for those who have never married it is a poverty-level $13,048. (The median for solo fathers is $32,427.)

So children in two-parent homes are more likely to have new sneakers, computers, and live in districts with superior schools. And since childrearing can be exhausting, having two sets of hands helps.4 There is also evidence that boys who grow up without resident fathers make less of their lives. But observations like these can apply as much to the effects of divorce as to nonmarital origins. If parents aren’t marrying at the rates they once did, those who do are breaking up or switching partners, despite the consequences for their children. The median income for divorced mothers is $24,363, including such child support as they receive. This means the children must live within a budget less than half of that enjoyed by those whose parents remain married. (True, families with resident fathers also have to foot his bills.)

Reasons for the rise in nonmarital sex are not hard to find. A society so overtly libidinal, from erotic soap operas to torrid advertising, impels people into bed at younger ages and with fewer formalities. Women and men now have longer spans before marriage during which they are unlikely to remain celibate. The high incidence of divorce means there will be more postmarital sex. But if conditions like these account for increased intimacy, they don’t tell us why the sex so often occurs without effective birth control. (The United States leads the advanced world in pregnancies among the young.) Or why so many single women are choosing to bear the babies and then raise them. Indeed, in the National Center for Health Statistics study cited earlier, almost half of unmarried mothers reported that their pregnancies were planned.

Of course, there is less of a stigma to being an unmarried mother than there used to be. “Illegitimacy” is a word hardly heard nowadays, and “bastardy” not at all. Even “out-of-wedlock” is being joined by “nonmarital,” as if to suggest that having children within or outside marriage is an equally acceptable option. Single women who welcome their pregnancies range from teenagers who look forward to bearing babies, to actresses and executives who decide they want to have a child. So Jodie Foster and Madonna along with Rosie O’Donnell and Wendy Wasserstein serve as models who may give young people confidence. (Madonna’s song “Papa Don’t Preach” expressed the determination of a girl to go through with her pregnancy.) These choices are also statements. One message is that a woman can sustain a family without a male presence. Or that there is a shortage of reliable men, a sentiment that—intended or not—may be passed on to their daughters.

Out of Wedlock consists of fourteen papers sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, an ambitious effort involving twenty-eight authors. The studies are based on solid research, and provide new perspectives on a subject too often entangled in emotions. For example, they note that the number and proportion of teenagers having babies has actually been declining, whereas the rates for older women have been rising.

Figures for 2000, collated in Table B, show that close to a quarter of American children—22.8 percent—are living only with their mother, more than twice the figure for thirty years earlier. What has also changed is the character of these households. In the past, the great majority of single mothers were divorced and raising children from those unions. Now fully 43.3 percent have never been married, which explains the Russell Sage finding that “second births to unmarried women are nearly as prevalent as second births to married women.” Still, most women stop at two. True, we read and hear of those who have had seven or eight children by a succession of men, often in cases that get into the news. In fact, among the group the census calls “never-married mothers” only 13.4 percent have more than two children.

Out of Wedlock does much to dispel misconceptions about single mothers. A common belief is that such women carry something of a taint, probably impairing their marriage prospects. Not so, the Russell Sage studies show, by comparing them with the majority of women who don’t have children before getting married. Of those who avoid premarital motherhood, 88.3 percent find a husband by the time they reach forty. And for those who start childbearing on their own, a respectable 71.7 percent are also married by forty, generally to someone other than the child’s father. So it seems that men are less judgmental on this score, which should be welcome news. But it was also found that “the presence of nonmarital children increases the risk that a marriage will dissolve.” In fact, this also happens when divorced women bring their children to a second marriage. Even if their new husbands make an extra effort, it is not always easy to create amiable relations with another man’s offspring. (There are also not wholly rare cases of stepfathers who take to molestation.)

Another popular image is of single mothers who are completely on their own, with the child’s father either wholly out of the picture or an infrequent presence. While this is often the case, another kind of arrangement is becoming increasingly common. At the most recent count, almost 40 percent of nonmarital births were to couples who were already living together and could thus bring the baby into an established household. The Russell Sage authors call this “cohabitation,” which they hope to certify as a new family arrangement. It can now be found in all classes, ranging from trailer parks to celebrity couples whose babies are heralded in fan magazines.

Even so, the studies also admit that “the average duration of cohabiting unions remains relatively short,” and “only about half last more than eighteen months.” Some couples end up marrying; but of these, as many as 40 percent divorce within five years. Also, the median income for unmarried couples is $39,838, well under that of their married counterparts, although some of the difference may be caused by their being younger. And compared with divorced dads, “after a breakup, formerly cohabiting fathers would be even less involved in their children’s lives.” Given so much tenuousness, it isn’t evident that these liaisons should be taken as a variant of marriage. However formalized unions themselves are showing less staying power, so the difference between the two arrangements may in fact be narrowing.

Not only several of the books under review, but a number of other sources suggest that many adults are setting young lives in motion without much thought about being dependable parents. As Table B shows, only 60.4 percent of the nation’s youngsters are living with the two people who created them. Even now, according to the Russell Sage studies, “about half of all children are predicted to spend some time in a single-parent family.” Once the figure moves a point or two higher, single parenthood could be our new norm.

While the Out of Wedlock authors take note of the general decline in births, they seem unconcerned that native-born Americans are not reproducing themselves. Moreover, the replacement ratio would drop even further if nonmarital births could be reduced. In view of the prospect of a graying population, we will need more children; if not our own, then those of immigrants.

At one point, Out of Wedlock alludes to a diminishing pool of “marriageable” men. While there are noteworthy exceptions, most women would still like a husband who brings home at least a slightly higher paycheck than their own. And this usually happens, since in almost all occupations men end up with higher earnings.5 The disparities begin early, when the first promotions are awarded, and grow as men accumulate more work experience. This means that for every woman there is a better-off man, so why speak of a shortage of potential mates?

There is a paucity of marriageable men among black Americans, owing largely to imprisonment, addiction, and early mortality. The best index is employment, where black women make up 52.1 percent of those working full time. With white women, the figure is 41.6 percent, and is similar for other ethnic groups. All told, the great majority of men should still be considered “marriageable,” if what is wanted is a steady job or the prospect of securing one. But now a great deal more is expected, apart from his not being violent or alcoholic or mentally unbalanced. Today, women who are con-templating marriage set higher standards for possible husbands than their mothers and grandmothers did. They find all too many men self-centered, wary of commitment, or just plain boring and lacking cultural interests. This may explain, at least in part, why twice as many women are now reaching their forties without marrying, which is twice the figure for a generation ago, while most heterosexual men marry by the end of their thirties.


Most girls and young women are not dropping out to have premarital babies. In fact, as a group they are generally having more educational and professional success than ever. This theme recurs throughout Christina Hoff Sommers’s The War Against Boys, a meticulous rendering of how young people are faring, especially in the competitive world of education. By almost every measure, the girls are well ahead. “Boys, on average, are a year and a half behind girls in reading and writing,” she writes. “They are less committed to school and less likely to go to college.” Studies by the College Board and the National Center for Education Statistics show that boys have lower grades in high school, largely because they are less likely to do their homework, and there are fewer of them in advanced placement courses. They also spend more time watching television and read fewer books on their own.

To my mind, the most striking single figure is that women are now estimated to make up 56.8 percent of all students who earn bachelors’ degrees, which means that 131 women graduate for every 100 men.6 Where are the missing men? One explanation might be that many now go directly from high school to well-paying jobs. But construction sites hire very few eighteen-year-olds, even if they have family connections. Nor can it be shown that high-tech firms are taking on many teenage computer hackers. (And now, neither these industries nor others are doing much hiring of any sort.)

Girls seem more willing to stick out the years of schooling. By junior high school, boys start wishing they were elsewhere and begin falling behind. In addition, girls tend to take more care with their assignments and think about what their teachers want. Boys are more apt to wing it, feeling they understand a question, when in fact they don’t (which is why their hands shoot up first).

Sommers also mentions a new development in college attendance, which can be detected in who takes the Scholastic Assessment Test. “More girls from lower-income homes,” she notes, “attempt the SAT than boys from the same background.” She doesn’t cite the figures, but it is worth taking a moment to do so, since more is involved than scores on a test. In 2000, girls made up 54.8 percent of all those who reported their family income when taking the SAT. But at the highest income level, over $100,000, the sexes were equally represented. So up there, parents are able to motivate their sons toward college. However, by the next bracket, which is a fairly comfortable $60,000 to $80,000, boys have fallen to 47.2 percent. At $20,000 to $40,000, they are down to 42.2 percent of those who take the test, and are only 37.9 percent at under $20,000. It used to be that poorer families would allow only their sons to stay in school, while the daughters went to work. Today, the reverse is the case. Insofar as higher education will remain an avenue of upward mobility, more women—and fewer men—will be able to list the expected credentials.

For many people, not any bachelor’s degree will do. After all, more than a million are awarded every year, by over two thousand institutions. Hence the undue attention given to schools regarded as highly selective, whose names are widely known and whose alumni are thought to have an extra edge. Of course, not everyone will agree on which schools make the grade; but among coeducational schools, a fairly representative sample might include the eight in the Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale), along with two smaller colleges (Amherst and Williams), plus Stanford and Duke, which now have reputations equal to the older schools.

Table C shows the ratios of men and women at these twelve schools, first in 1970, and then more recently, in 2000. In 1970, five of the twelve enrolled no women at all, and Princeton had admitted them in that year’s freshman class. Among the six that had long been coeducational, the women’s enrollments ranged from 20.6 percent at Harvard to 37.9 percent at Duke, so even they were a distance from equal enrollments. In the twelve together, 21.8 percent of all undergraduates were women.

Fast-forward to 2000. All have now embraced coeducation; and those that had only men raised their enrollments to accommodate women. The basic result is that women now make up 49.0 percent of the student bodies of the twelve highly selective colleges under consideration, varying from 46.3 percent at Harvard to majorities at Columbia, Cornell, and Brown. The larger picture is that all twelve schools now have 18,994 more women than they did in 1970 and—even more consequential—7,541 fewer men. Yale, most notably, rejected 2,072 men who would have been accepted thirty years earlier.7

So these and other men will not have the credentials that would have been theirs a generation ago. This is not to say they will end up doing manual labor. Instead of Yale, they will have to settle for Colgate, or make do with Syracuse rather than Stanford. Here, also, we are witnessing the downward movement of a cohort of men whose places are being taken by women who have better records and show greater promise. (Or will men begin to dispute current conceptions of merit?)8

Colette Dowling wrote The Cinderella Complex twenty years ago. Its thesis was that even with change in the air, all too many women still wanted to be taken care of by fathers, husbands, lovers, mentors, rather than to create lives of their own. Her latest book, The Frailty Myth, has a rather different tone. She remains concerned that too many girls and women are “stripped of the power of their bodies,” whether by undue attention to fashion or worrying that real women don’t sweat. Whereas her Cinderella was emotionally dependent, the “learned weakness” of her new book has more to do with undeveloped muscles.

Dowling has toured the gyms and spas and jogging trails, and is pleased with what she sees. The “strength gap” between men and women is closing, because more women are exercising and mindful of what they eat. “The suspicion begins to arise,” she writes, “that maybe, when all is said and done, there is no appreciable strength difference between men and women,” and what we see is due mainly to “girls’ lack of opportunity and training.”

She grants that even in a physically equal future, the top-ranked men’s team in any sport will defeat the leading women’s team. Similarly, in golf and tennis, men stars will beat the best women. Yet there are significant exceptions. In the grueling swim around Manhattan Island, a woman holds the fastest record, which ought to dispel “the myth of the weaker sex.” So it would be useful to look at sports where the sexes take part together, even if times or scores are recorded separately.

A good case is New York City’s marathon. From 1980 to 2000, the number of women increased fivefold, while men barely doubled. This signifies that fewer men are applying, while more women are. Put another way, the pool of men who wish to run the race isn’t growing, while that of women plainly is. But even more striking is that each year more women are among the first 100 finishers, a super-elite that in 2000 included only one third of one percent of all who completed the race. That year, there were sixteen women in the first one hundred to cross the tape, which also meant they came in ahead of 99.6 percent of the men in the race. Needless to say, men will always prevail when it comes to lifting weights. But on an equally demanding terrain, and a marathon is surely that, each year finds more women passing and surpassing thousands of men.

Many of the issues raised here will receive national notice as a result of recent legislation requiring all states to test students annually on academic skills. There is every likelihood that the results will be widely publicized; and if it turns out that girls are doing better, the inferior performance among boys may well become prominent among the concerns of politicians and the public.

  1. 1

    Fertility, Family Planning, and Women’s Health (National Center for Health Statistics, 1997), Table 16.

  2. 2

    Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, State v. Oakley (No. 99-3328-CR, July 10, 2001), p. 46.

  3. 3

    While Solinger and Hull and Hoffer provide lengthy lists of references, they neither quote nor cite Kristin Luker’s classic study, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (University of California Press, 1984), which offers an evenhanded analysis of mainstream opponents of abortion.

  4. 4

    But do the two adults have to be of the same gender? For a bemusing alternative, see the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman, with illustrations by Diana Souza (Alyson Publications, 1990).

  5. 5

    According to the Census, she makes more than he does in 14.9 percent of marriages. However, its figures do not report the ages of these spouses. We should know how often he may be in graduate school, while she has a fulltime job; or among older couples, when he has retired, and she is still working. See America’s Families and Living Arrangements (US Census Bureau, June 2001), Table FG3.

  6. 6

    Digest of Education Statistics (National Center for Education Statistics, March 2001), Table 248.

  7. 7

    In 1970, the six best-known women’s colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley) had a total of 10,350 students. Even if they are added to the 10,740 women then at the other schools, they were still well behind the 38,443 men. In 2000, the six women’s colleges enrolled 11,517 students (in fact, Vassar also had 892 men).

  8. 8

    Of course, they will still face obstacles in business and professions; many talented women still find their careers blocked in the middle tiers. According to a recent book by the economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the few who rise higher have generally done so by foregoing becoming mothers, so they can always be on call. See Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children (Miramax, 2002).

  • Email
  • Print