The Other Marriage Equality Problem

51 Pages Posted: 6 Dec 2013

See all articles by Linda C. McClain

Linda C. McClain

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: December 4, 2013


This article introduces the term “the other marriage equality problem” to invite attention to a marriage equality issue distinct from gay men's and lesbians’ access to the institution of civil marriage. That problem is captured in warnings about the growing class-based marriage divide and the “diverging destinies” of children that flow from these emerging patterns of family life, sometimes referred to as “the reproduction of inequalities.” Growing family inequality warrants attention for many reasons, including the crucial role that families, along with other institutions of civil society, play in sustaining the American experiment in “ordered liberty.” Strikingly, such warnings coexist with a different challenge to marriage, which questions whether a stable, well-ordered society needs marriage and cites to those affluent and successful Americans who remain single - and often, childless - by choice and insist that they can contribute to civil society and civic virtue, perhaps even to a greater extent than the married. To evaluate these two different stories about marriage, this article uses as foils two recent books that address the class-based marriage divide: Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and the Rise of Women and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2012. This Article highlights the relevance of gender roles and gender equality to the marriage problem. For example, Rosin’s and Murray’s books, working within a heterosexual frame, pose the question: when economic and social factors force a change in roles within the family and the workplace, how do men and women cope? The Article situates current diagnoses of class-based marriage inequality in the context of earlier concerns, in the 1990s and early 2000s, about the low rate of marriage among low-income parents (“fragile families”) and an evident gap between their marital aspirations and their marital practices. That gap preoccupied federal lawmakers debating welfare reform and welfare reauthorization and trying to shore up “personal responsibility” and family values. Recent studies, the article argues, find a similar gap in the fragile families of “Middle America,” where marriage “have nots” fail to achieve their marital aspirations and decouple parenthood from marriage. This article shows the migration from a focus on the disappearance of marriage among low-income parents - and on the interplay of economic and cultural factors - to a similar focus on a growing swath of Americans. The Article concludes by identifying empirical and normative questions posed by, and possible law and policy responses to, the other marriage equality problem.

Keywords: marriage, marriage equality, cohabitation, single parents, inequality, feminism, class difference, welfare law, matriarchy, gender roles, fragile families

JEL Classification: K19, K39

Suggested Citation

McClain, Linda C., The Other Marriage Equality Problem (December 4, 2013). 93 Boston University Law Review 921 (2013), Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 13-52, Available at SSRN:

Linda C. McClain (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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