10.29.11

Marriage, Red-State Style

The Atlantic says women are hitting 40 and opting not to wed. Not so, says Anna Fields, in a dispatch from the South.

There’s yet another manifesto about unmarried women on newsstands this month. This time it’s a splashy 13-page cover story in The Atlantic called “All the Single Ladies.” The story is about how smart, successful women are approaching age 40 and deciding not to marry—especially if the man earns less money than the woman.

“American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ‘marriageable’ men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do,” says writer Kate Bolick, who is single and 39. She blames the lousy economy, which has been harder on men than on women. Because men are falling behind in their pay while women are powering ahead, she concludes, many women are opting out of the whole marriage thing altogether.

Well, I’m here to tell you, this may very well be the case in New York and Los Angeles, the land of the alpha woman. But here’s a dispatch from America—the real world, the red states—where marriage is not so much an option as a goal that’s hammered into women’s heads since birth. It doesn’t matter how successful you are in your career—or how unsuccessful your man is. If you’re not married, you’re a loser.

I grew up in North Carolina, where I live today. For me, the “get married” drumbeat began when I was a teen. “Watch your figure, because you’ll never catch a husband with a big fanny!” my grandmother advised me. Words of wisdom such as these continued through my high-school years and on into college. When I graduated from Brown University with a degree in cognitive neuroscience, it was time to get serious. That meant catching a man. Never mind my plans to get a master’s degree at NYU. When I went home to visit, the question on everyone’s lips was “When are you getting married?”

My high-school friends had their priorities straight: they knew not to become an “old maid” or an “old mom.” They were recent college grads too, but they were busy racing to the altar. Since sex before marriage is still frowned upon in many corners of the South, there’s added incentive: get married so you don’t have to live in sin. After all, this is the land of the “purity balls,” in which women as old as 25 attend a formal dance as their dad’s date and promise him to stay “pure” until marriage.

Kelly Clarkson knows what I’m talking about. Last week on The View she said, “I’m from a small town, so everyone’s married with children or about to have children. It’s a little hard when you go home and people are like—and that’s why people think I’m gay—because they’re like, ‘Why aren’t you married?’” The Texas native and globe-trotting rock star said she feels like an “old maid.”

No wonder. She’s 29—past her prime. The average age of marriage for women in America is 26.5, according to the Census Bureau. For men, it’s 28.4. Better get busy, Kelly!

atlantic-cover

“Birthin’ babies is where it’s at,” my uncle informed my boyfriend when the two first met. My uncle uttered these words while patting my belly. It happened to be my second date with the guy. Luckily, he was from the South, too, and wasn’t in the least bit alarmed. He and I have been seeing each other for four years now, which makes me, at age 30, an unmarried old maid myself. My parents like to encourage my boyfriend to “be a man” and pop the question. When I ran into a high-school teacher recently, she suggested he and I go down to City Hall to “do the right thing.” We continue living in sin.

At least we know we’re not the only ones under the gun. Our friends Brandon and Sarah dated for six months before both their parents decided enough was enough. Her mother told her, “You had better catch a keeper before you get too old to get caught!” His mother said the same. Again and again. Brandon and Sarah just celebrated their second wedding anniversary.

It’s important to note that it’s not just the women who are pressured to wed in the South—it’s the men too. Some guys marry women they can’t stand, simply because that’s easier than listening to their parents carry on. Don’t believe me? My boyfriend took a male friend out recently to celebrate the guy’s engagement to his high-school sweetheart. Three beers in, the guy said, “I’m so not even attracted to her anymore.” Here comes the bride!

I’m just saying, the editors of The Atlantic, along with Ms. Bolick (who lives in both New York and L.A., according to her bio), might want to pay a visit to America. Women aren’t waiting around till they’re 40 out here, deciding they’ll forgo marriage because the guy is not some moneyed power broker.

I’m not saying this is the way it should be. But it is the way it is.

At least my parents are beginning to accept my own state of nonmarriage. They have moved on to more important matters. As my mother announced one recent morning at breakfast, “Oh, would you just go get pregnant?”