The impending demise of marriage has been proclaimed for more than 150 years. Many radical thinkers of the 19th century announced it was only a matter of time before Free Love replaced the chains of matrimony. Victoria Woodhull, just as one example, was a stockbroker who by 1870 had made a fortune in the market; Cornelius Vanderbilt, a confidante of her sister Tennessee Woodhull, had provided the initial seed money. Her business success helped finance the activities for which she is better known: feminist publishing and her run for the Presidency in 1872. (Though just a handful of voting districts allowed women the vote in 1872, the only Constitutional requirements to be President were, and are, to be over 35 and a natural born citizen – there never were any gender restrictions.) Free Love was part of Victoria’s campaign platform: "Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, Constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere." In 1872 this wasn’t a vote-winner, but she and her supporters thought that the times they were a-changin’.
They had a long wait. In fact, Victoria’s generation died with all the numbers pointed the other way. For nearly a century after 1870 throughout the West not only did the marriage rate rise, but the median age of first marriage dropped: in the US the age dropped from 26 for men/22 for women in 1890 to 23 for men/20 for women in 1960. In the 1960s 80% of adults under 35 were married. Yet, the Free Lovers' predictions were not so much wrong-headed as longer term than expected. Since the 1960s marriage rates have plummeted and median age of first marriage risen. In the US the median age of first marriage is 29 for men and 27 for women, an all time high; in 2011 the majority of adults under 35 are unmarried, and well over half of those never have been married. The US is lagging behind Europe in the trend. The Nordic countries are the most advanced along the path. In Sweden marriage is so unimportant that 54% of births are out of wedlock – in the US the number is 39% and rising. Americans are a more religious bunch than Europeans, which probably accounts for much of the difference, but this only slows the shift a little.
Conservative culture warriors – it is worth noting, by the way, that not all matrimonial conservatives are political conservatives – decry the change, but whether or not their dire warnings hold any merit doesn’t really matter. They are howling at the wind, which pays no attention; the change continues regardless. Only gays seem to show any increased enthusiasm for marriage, and that has more to do with the principle of legal equality than with anything else.
Why is the shift happening now? The economic and educational rise of women (along with a corresponding decline of men, not just relatively but absolutely) is an obvious and oft-cited reason. There is no need for a woman to look for economic support from a man; also, the common female preference for hypergamy (marrying up) is stymied by the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of “up” out there. Less often mentioned, but surely part of the equation, is a growing hesitancy among men, not least because divorce remains financially and personally devastating, and there is a 50-50 chance of that.
There are more positive reasons for the change, too. Some of the hopes of the 19th century Free Lovers finally are being fulfilled. Freedom to follow one’s heart without legal and social encumbrances was what they were after. It seems their time has arrived.
Jingle, Jangle, Jingle – recorded by Kay Kyser in 1942