The Marriage Gap in the Women’s Vote

This past year America has seen a trumped up “War on Women” that claimed women’s freedom depends on “reproductive rights.” At the height of the Presidential election, the Obama camp courted the female vote with an exhortation to “vote like your lady parts depend on it” (in an e-card on the Obama campaign Tumbler that was quickly removed, but not before conservative media drew attention to it) and compared voting for President Obama to losing one’s virginity (an Obama for America online ad featuring HBO’s Girls producer, 26 year old Lena Dunham). Then there was the Life of Julia campaign, an ad which showed how a woman could depend on an Obama-style government to provide for her needs throughout her entire life.

“There’s no way they’ll win on that,” skeptics thought, “this election is about the economy and jobs, and women are smarter than to allow themselves to be reduced to their private parts and government aid.” The skeptics were wrong. The buzz and data post the re-election of President Obama tells us that it was the women voters whose support for the President put him back in the Oval Office.

Nationally, the President won 55 percent of the women’s vote, but that vote was boosted by a large sub-demographic: unmarried women, who accounted for nearly a quarter of everyone who voted. Governor Mitt Romney won the married women’s vote by 53 percent to Obama’s 46 percent, but Obama won 64 percent of the single women’s vote, according to election day polling by the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund (WVWVAF). These women include those who are divorced, separated and never married. Many of them have a child or children.

As it turns out, the election was about economics for these women too—they just saw the economic issues differently than married women. Single women, who don’t have their husband’s income and support to fall back on, tend to favor more government support in their lives—support like no cost birth control, a benefit wrapped into the Affordable Care Act which President Obama enacted and Governor Romney vowed to roll back due to the religious liberty threat it poses.

According to analysts, the marriage gap in female voting is not new. But the size of the single woman demographic is new. According to the US Census there are 102 million unmarried individuals in America, and unmarried women are the majority of that group with 89 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women. Additionally, for the first time in Census history, marriage rates are below 50 percent with only 48 percent of households married. The average age of marriage is at record highs at 26 for women and 28 for men.

Along with the rise of singletons, America has witnessed a rise in out of wedlock childbearing. According to the CDC, 41 percent of births occur outside of marriage. And more than half of all births to women under the age of 30 are to women who are not married. In short, the traditional American path to marriage and parenting is not so traditional anymore.

It’s important to pause here to acknowledge that a great deal of social science marshals evidence that the best environment to raise a child is in a committed, man-woman marriage. Social science has also found marriage is very often the best path to stability and prosperity—both fiscal and emotional. This path deserves social and political support, therefore, not simply because it is traditional but because it is a key to happiness and the American Dream of a better and fuller life.

The question for conservatives, in the light of their political defeat, is how seriously they take the issue of marriage and the path to it. It is time to reflect seriously on their political platform and messaging and to ask how America arrived at the point where an election could be influenced, perhaps decisively, by encouraging sex without babies, and babies without marriage—all with government support.

Hindsight is 20/20, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the message of contraception and abortion as absolutes for women’s health and freedom won out in this election. After all, for the past 40 years a majority of women have bought some version of the feminist message that equality for women will only be found when women became more like men.

Contraception has allowed women to “have sex like men”—that is, without concerning themselves about pregnancy. They can be child-proofed by contraception as the first “protector” and abortion as the “back-up.” When the “protection” fails because of human or method error (as it often does given that 54 percent of women seeking abortion were using contraception around the time they became pregnant), abortion is often expected.

Many women, though constrained by their biological clock, still want marriage and children, but social pressures no longer predominantly demand that a man wed a woman who is bearing their child. So, when a woman decides to give life to her child, it is, as the mantra goes, “her body, her choice”—and often largely hers to raise.

This “sexual freedom” was supposed to empower women and make them less dependent upon men. Well, women are less dependent upon men now. But it appears their dependency has shifted to the government. And can we really blame them for wanting—in some cases needing—some sort of support?

The conservative message that lost this election was not one that doesn’t care for those in need of support. No, the conservative message that lost was one that failed to adequately communicate how it wants to help all Americans get the support they and their families need to live happily and securely. This must include encouragement to have children within a stable marriage. After all, no one really wants to, or should have to go through the trials and joys of life alone.

A ray of hope here is that desire for marriage remains high among young Americans. According to a 2009 report conducted by the non-partisan research firm Child Trends, 83 percent of young adults ages 20 to 24 responded that it was important or very important to them to be married at some point in their life. More than three-fourths of those young adults answered that love, fidelity, and making a lifelong commitment are all “very important” components of a successful relationship. And in a 2010 survey, conducted by the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, 82 percent of respondents, ages 18 to 32, answered that they intended to marry and remain married for life.

Since at least the 1970s, social scientists have asked high school teens about their own prospects for marriage; anywhere from 77 to 88 percent of teens respond that they expect to marry someday. In fact, in a 2006 study by the Monitoring the Future project at the University of Michigan, 91 percent of high school students said that having a good marriage was either “important” or “extremely important” to them, with only 2 percent reporting it was “not important.”

But how do we help young Americans realize these desires and appreciate also the support gained through the partnership of marriage?

“It is not enough to promise health, wealth, and happiness—benefits the social science evidence shows that married couples on average enjoy—to young couples considering marriage,” say researchers David and Amber Lapp of the Institute for American Values. This is especially so since the government is attempting to provide many of those benefits.

But we fool ourselves if we believe that, in a country the size of America, we’re really in a partnership with the government or that government regulations are really able to be tailored to every individual’s needs. Instead, we must communicate to young Americans that marriage offers committed support, in good times and in bad, and reduced their need of government support—which inevitably will fail them.

Marriage isn’t always easy and there won’t always be happiness, but we should help women, and men, see that it does not mean simply becoming dependent on another person (rather than the Department of Health and Human Services) but working with another person to achieve their unique needs and desires. And most importantly, that marriage offers the fierce commitment, acceptance and love that all individuals crave.

This essay first appeared December 3, 2012 on and is reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

Meg T. McDonnell


Meg T. McDonnell is the communications director for the Chiaroscuro Foundation and a coordinator at Women Speak for Themselves.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    We cannot equate births out of wedlock with women raising children on their own.- “going through the trials and joys of life alone.”

    I do not know the figures for the United States, but in France, according to the INED, births outside marriage, represent 44% of all births: more than half (56%) of the births of first children, a third of the births of second children, and almost a quarter of the births of third children.

    Nevertheless, 85% of all children under 15 live with both their parents. This figure has remained constant since 1970, when only 6% of births were out of wedlock. Of the remaining 15%, many were born in wedlock and now form part of a “blended” family, following their parents’ divorce or separation..

    Marriage is a poor indicator of family structure, especially with the growing popularity of civil unions (PACS), 90% of which are between opposite-sex couples.

  • cloonfush

    Or we could just repeal women’s suffrage.

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  • Ford Oxaal

    The irony is interesting: “This ‘sexual freedom’ was supposed to empower women and make them less
    dependent upon men. Well, women are less dependent upon men now. But it
    appears their dependency has shifted to the government.” The whole men versus women and women versus men thing should take a rest for a few centuries now, and we should do more party planning and less work. I know that when my wife quit work to nurse our first born, thereby halving our family income, our standard of living went up tenfold: the nutty rat race of two working parents ended, a watchful eye was kept on family finances, and the food quality went from ‘corporate’ to “magnifique”. Though my wife was probably better at her job than I was at mine, the fact that she was the one lactating tilted the decision toward her quitting instead of me. I am hopeful that American women will discover that the joys of motherhood and apple pie are much greater than the workaholic culture, centered as it is on serfdom, venal entertainment, and endless plastic junk and materialism.

  • Let me bring up another side of this, and ask, “why are women in the workforce and why have they adopted this lifestyle?” We sort of assume that it is a liberal plot or a government conspiracy, and to an extent, it is, at least to the degree that liberalism prepared the ground for this. But in fact, there were strong pressures for women to enter the workforce as a result of the stagnation of men’s wages and the rising consumerist propaganda that is advertising. This set up a reinforcing cycle. The more wages stagnated, the more women entered the market, which put further pressures on wages due to increased supply. Working women had more incentives to use contraception (and heard little to nothing from priests and bishops on the issue). At the same time, advertising–our real education system–encouraged greater consumption in the face of stagnant wages. The two income family turned out to be less financially stable because they came to rely on two incomes, meaning that the loss of either was a financial disaster (see Elizabeth Warren, “The Two-Income Trap” Further, the two income families had better access to credit, which means a lot of consumption could be put on the credit card.

    This implies that for the situation to reverse itself, we will have to have wages capable of supporting a family from one worker, a lowering of consumer credit, and a new attitude towards consumption. But it requires something else: a re-exmination of our political alliances. For the forces which largely created these conditions are those traditionally aligned with the right-wing, namely, corporate America. Moreover, it means we must speak in broader terms than just abortion. This is not to downplay that issue, but to reconnect it to its full context, from which it had been cut-off for political reasons. That is to say, abortion must be reconnected with opposition to contraception on one hand, and to support for the just wage and the full richness of Catholic Social Teaching on the other.

    One thing alone is certain: if we continue to do what we have done, we will continue to get the results we have gotten.

  • Alecto

    While I appreciate this gist of this article, the continuing bashing of women is frustrating and leads me to conclude that until this stops, the Catholic church will lose them. It is time to stop talking about the culture as though women are the culprits or that women ruined society. Newsflash: men are complicit. At worst, women believed an attractive theory, a convincing lie, that for many of them resulted in poverty and government dependence, a certain sense of arrogance, isolation and loneliness. My own wonderful grandmother’s parish priest instructed her to return to her physically abusive, alcoholic husband (which produced another 5 children on top of the 6 she already had) which resulted in poverty and her forced introduction into the workforce. Exactly how was that marriage “good” for the “family”? And I’ll tell you this: her story is not uncommon in the annals of Catholic family history. Have things changed? After reading this article, I’m not so sure.

    I confess I have a hard time with this issue. It seems the Catholic church is all too willing to attribute family success or failure exclusively to women. Perhaps there is someone who explain where my perspective is wrong. I don’t know anymore. I do believe the Catholic church’s historical neglect of women’s problems and concerns contributed greatly to the willingness of even Catholic women to accept feminist ideology.

    I imagine many men who remained single throughout life deal with those same issues? We are individuals, not some monolithic collection engaged in groupthink. Will we ever come around to the acceptance that women need men, and men need women? Are we not better together than apart? That women are equal to men not biologically, but as human beings with rights and duties, strengths and weaknesses?

    • Karen

      I refused to raise my children Catholic because the church told my mother-in-law to stay with my drunk FIL. Your grandmother was typical of Catholic families before 1970. What idiot wants to go back to that?

      • Briana

        Well, there is always annulment for situations like that. The Church does value marriage and holds its constituents to the ideal of staying together until death do you part, but at the same time, it does realize that some marriages are beyond repair. so sorry to hear that Karen’s and Alecto’s relatives were treated like that.

      • buckyinky


        Your comment is typical of those with no real knowledge of the situation before 1970. I was born well after then, and so I’m not saying that I have much knowledge myself, but it is clear that you don’t.

        Just so you aren’t confused, this comment is not meant for your benefit, but for others who might pass by and take your comment seriously. I probably won’t be responding to anything else you write here because I don’t think a conversation between the two of us is likely to be fruitful.

  • Ib

    I simply adore the photo accompanying this post! A bunch of womyn at their finest hour!