Marriage Dogs and Ponies on the Move

Marriage this, marriage that. Since I returned South last summer, bringing my partner of six years with me, marriage has come up at every turn. Not between us, mind you. Both from divorced families, we're completely happy living together. No matter. Southerners are intensely interested in why a woman my age isn't betrothed, especially when they know I have a boyfriend and, thus, must not be a man-hater. Take the recently divorced middle-aged guy downstairs from my office who gets his daughters every other weekend. "You're 40? Why aren't you married?" he asked recently. "Because I'm happy now." "Yeah, but, you ought to be married by now." I couldn't resist: "It doesn't sound like marriage worked out so great for you."

Fortunately, he's a good sport and just nodded his head in surrender. But he captures the attitudes in our culture, especially among conservatives. Although the US divorce rate is above 50%, they argue that a traditional man-woman-children marriage is good for everyone -- our culture, our politics, even our war on terrorism. Since Sept. 11, conservatives are trying to use Bush's high approval ratings -- and the cover provided by terrorism obsession -- to slip through every conceivable device to further their so-called family-values agenda. Their efforts to overturn gains made over the past 40 years, from civil rights to children's rights to women's rights, aren't even subtle anymore.

Traditional marriage is near the top of the agenda. I heard Pat Buchanan on CNBC just last weekend implore young [Christian] women to start having children again to save our culture from radical Islamic influence. And that wasn't just an aberrant nutball Buchananism. Compassionate conservatives believe the world was better off when marriage was de rigeur, regardless of infidelity and abuse, and that two married parents of different genders should raise the kids -- regardless of whether they're happy with each other.

Wade Horn, Bush's assistant secretary for children and families and a radical fathers' rights proponent, has argued for more than a decade that a happy marriage isn't the highest priority: "[I]t may be better for a couple to stay together for the sake of the children," he told an American Bar Association conference in Miami Beach back in 1990. And in 1992, the St. Petersburg Times reported this Horn statement: "Government policy must truly value families, and not just any old family, (but) support a specific type of family structure, a mother and father found in marriage." Horn -- who seems to naively believe that fathers' rights and women's rights can't co-exist -- then was Father Bush's commissioner of the Administration of Children, Youth and Families. Between Bush administrations, he was a columnist for the Washington Times and a fellow with the ultra-conservative Hudson Institute. In the early 1990s, he pushed for welfare benefits, including public housing, to be reserved for traditionally married families, but pulled back that idea under intense criticism. (I bet money it reappears in some form.)

The Bush administration recently announced plans to spend $300 million a year to promote marriage among poor people. Horn's staff tried to sell it to me and about 20 other youth-issues journalists on a gray January morning at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington. This wasn't a typical press conference; they'd carefully pre-assigned our seats in the windowless, coffeeless room with a Stepford-smiling staffer to every couple of us. There I learned that Horn's new associate commissioner is Susan Orr, the Family Research Council's senior director for marriage and family care until January when she joined the administration (around the time that Bush increased funding for abstinence-only sex education by 33%). Last year, speaking for the FRC, she cheered Bush's move to delete contraceptive benefits from federal insurance coverage: "We're quite pleased because fertility is not a disease. It's not a medical necessity that you have it," she told the Washington Post. She added that she had heard the news at a HHS budget briefing for conservative groups a couple days before. "This is one of the things that they were happy to tell us about. They were talking about 'things that will please you.'"

Orr's efforts to federalize marriage will no doubt please her fundamentalist buddies. At our briefing, Horn gave his it's-not-so-bad spiel about his marriage plan, stressing that the government is not forcing, or paying, anyone to get married. "This is not a federal dating service," he said, adding that government should not be "neutral" on the topic of marriage. "Government should strive for more than simple neutrality." He emphasized that the goal is "helping couples who choose marriage for themselves to develop the skill and knowledge to form and sustain healthy marriage." Horn keeps repeating that pro-"choice" phrasing to the press, occasionally slipping in the real goal, as he did to CNN's Aaron Brown on Feb. 19: "to fundamentally shift attitudes about marriage." That's a bit different from assisting those who have already signed onto the idea of traditional marriage.

In March, the Associated Press reported the contents of Horn's draft marriage proposal, which predictably goes much further than just helping those who choose marriage. Money -- channeled away from the child-support collection program -- would pay for teaching young people the benefits of marriage, skill-building for what the administration sees as a healthy marriage, and for media campaigns to "rebuild cultural norms" of what a family, fatherhood and childbearing goals should be. Have no doubt: Our tax dollars would pay for commercials promoting the Family Research Council's version of family. If that isn't social engineering, I'm a conservative Yankee.

In a not-so-subtle return to the tone of Reagan's "welfare queen" wars, the Bush administration argues that welfare families will not be as poor if young mothers get married. But the would-be husbands are also poor and often unemployed -- and many have criminal records and may endanger the lives of the mothers and children, not to mention drain their resources. And conservatives always leave out the common-sense part, which is routinely supported by scientific data: Kids in bad marriages are worse off than children in happy alternative settings, whether with a single parent or unmarried parents.

A debate last year between Fox's Bill O'Reilly and feminist Patricia Ireland captured the right wing's cluelessness on the marriage issue. Ireland argued that it didn't make sense to spend tax money on marriage promotion while cutting funds for maternal and infant health care. O'Reilly: "But if they were married, we wouldn't have to cover them." Ireland: "You don't imagine that being married … [will] solve the poverty problem? … The men they are going to marry are also poor." O'Reilly: "All right, well, if they were together there would be stability. And maybe they could work themselves up instead of having chaos. We thank you very much."

That's ludicrous, of course. There is no stability in an unhappy marriage, and certainly won't be between poor, confused teenagers who aren't old enough to drink, yet, but are supposedly mature enough to marry and overcome "chaos" in their lives. The answers are education (and not the one-size-fits-all variety), jobs and community building so they'll have something to do other than have kids -- and birth control so this premature marriage question doesn't come up in the first place. But that doesn't fit the right's plan to return us to the days when women were routinely trapped in bad marriages with no way out. That's a kind of stability we can do without.

Donna Ladd ( is a writer in Jackson, Miss. E-mail her at

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