Despite his own apparently solid marriage, President Barack Obama seems bent on debasing the coin of the institution by refusing to support the Defense of Marriage Act in limiting marriage to couples comprising one man and one woman, and throwing his weight behind the same-sex marriage cause. In this way he, incidentally, garners a lot of pink dollars for his election campaign. But does he increase his voting constituency?

The question arises from an article in The Atlantic magazine which itself begins with an intriguing question: What if the goal of women’s equality within the American political system is partly dependent on the persistence of marriage as an institution here? The writer, Garance Franke-Ruta, shows that single mothers (the most unequal of all women) and other unmarried women are less likely to turn out and vote than others, although those that do tend to vote “heavily Democratic” in the hope, presumably, of a more supportive government.

Franke-Ruta picks up on a theme explored in a New York Times article a couple of weekends ago (and previously explored very thoroughly in the 2011 State of Our Unions report) — namely, the growing class divisions in family structure. Marriage followed by children is increasingly the domain of the college-educated class, while less educated women are increasingly unlikely to marry at all, although they have children nevertheless.

About 41 per cent of births in the US now occur outside marriage, but only 10 per cent of births to college-educated women occur outside marriage while nearly 60 per cent of births to less-educated women are extra-marital. Scholars estimate that this trend may account for as much as 40 per cent of the growth in certain measures of inequality in the US (and almost certainly elsewhere).

But the decline of marriage not only increases poverty — it prevents the usual remedies. Franke-Ruta produces graphs that show unmarried mothers tend to register as voters and turn out in the lowest percentages of all women — classed by marital status. Top of the scale are married women without kids, closely followed by married women with kids.


Graph: The Atlantic

Although the number of single mothers eligible to vote has increased from 8.6 million to 10.2 million between year 2000 and 2010, their turnout has declined from 45.8 per cent to 29.7 per cent.

Franke-Ruta assumes that these women, who struggle to support themselves and their children, could “only benefit” from turning out (and voting Democrat). That they don’t, she puts down to their being “too pressed to vote”. Or, one could say, too demoralised by their lonely struggle. She comments:

All of which adds up to an unavoidable logical inference: The transformation of motherhood into a non-marital phenomenon — a social practice that at the same time hurts women economically and pulls them away from the political world — could well lead to a decline in political power for mothers, and eventually for all women, since more than 80 percent of women eventually have kids. And it also could lead to a decline in the political fortunes of Democrats in all but the most motivating contests.

Despite its noise, the same-sex marriage lobby concerns the desires of only a small minority of people. Isn’t it political suicide for a Democrat president to focus on the marital aspirations of that minority and ignore what ails more than half the parents of his wide constituency?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet