Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson and Albert Arnold Gore Jr. met at a prep school prom in 1964, when she was sixteen and he was a year older. They began dating steadily, and married soon after she finished college. They have been together ever since. By most measures theirs has been a conventional family. She took his name and stayed at home to raise four children, always adapting to the demands of his career. (In the 1980s, she launched a campaign against what she called “porn rock” music, which got her lots of headlines but had no evident effect.) After the 2000 election, the Gores essentially dropped from public view. It now appears that they were devoting much of their time to writing a long and amply documented book on the state of family life in today’s America.
They have chosen a sensitive subject, sensitive not least because it can prompt judgments about how millions of people are conducting their lives. Moreover, ideology almost always intrudes on any discussion of the family. Ideas and issues tend to divide along right-wing vs. liberal lines, largely reflecting the preemption by conservatives of the phrase “family values.” The conservative position has been elaborated in books by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (The Divorce Culture), Wendy Shalit (A Return to Modesty), Maggie Gallagher (The Abolition of Marriage), and Dana Mack (The Assault on Parenthood), most of which have been reviewed in these pages.1 Since the general perspective of such writers is well known, its precepts can be briefly summarized. First, all children should be born to parents who are married, and the parents should stay wed until one of them dies. Single persons should abstain from sex, and marriage must be confined to heterosexual partnerships. Today, few conservatives object to contraception, and many allow latitude for women taking jobs. (Indeed, they insist that single mothers work, rather than stay on the welfare rolls.) They are troubled by sex even among older unmarried adults, and even if they are faithfully living together in informal arrangements. One worry is that sex in the movies and television will embolden teenagers to have sex and bear children they can’t look after properly.
The liberal position is less sharply drawn, but on the whole, it is less inclined to censure the kinds of conduct that conservatives find distressing. One reason is that the numbers of people under scrutiny are no longer small. For example, one third of all women now becoming mothers are not married, and a large majority of them are having their babies by choice. While we no longer have precise figures, an informed estimate is that at least a quarter of Americans who have married have already been divorced, and the proportion is likely to be considerably higher among the coming generation. Moreover, given the later age of marriage—and…
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