This article was written by Julie Kohler and Nicole Sussner Rodgers and published by The Nation.
The culmination of decades of effort to erode women’s reproductive rights reached a boiling point this week as conservative states raced to enact the most draconian abortion bans, setting their sights on overturning Roe v. Wade. The ability to access safe and legal abortion is nothing less than the structural foundation of women’s self-determination: Without it, the walls cave in. But for conservatives, the battleground may be the uterus, but the war is for the future of family. And their governing worldview requires the resurrection of the married, two-parent variety, with roles clearly demarcated by gender.
For years, conservatives have been fixated on declining marriage and fertility rates and rising nonmarital-birth rates. The refrain of “family breakdown” has become their convenient explanation for all social problems, from crime to drug addiction to poverty, and platitudes about “strengthening the nuclear family” their catchall solution. But just as the anti-abortion crusade isn’t really about “saving babies,” the restoration of a “marriage culture” isn’t really about saving marriage. Feminists understand that both are punishment for the transgression of autonomy, whether it takes the form of having non-procreative sex or even sex outside of marriage, being child-free or not marrying, or having a child without first having a husband.
A recently released report by the think tank Family Story (which we lead and serve on the advisory board for, respectively) calls this cultural reverence for the superiority of the married two-parent family “marriage fundamentalism.” It encompasses the belief that married two-parent families are unequivocally the superior type of family for children, adults, and society at large, and that poverty and other economic risks are largely avoidable if women would stop making the supposedly bad choice to become parents without first marrying—claims that, as we point out in the report, lack any clear scientific consensus. “Marriage fundamentalism” may be a newly coined term, but it has served as the basis for American social policy for the better half of the last century. In its most extreme iteration, marriage fundamentalism is also the guiding philosophy of self-appointed “family values” conservatives, a label that would be hilarious were it not so dangerous. If the current wave of abortion bans spark comparisons to the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale, marriage fundamentalism is more akin to Leave It to Beaver—a cheery, white, heteronormative middle-class version of palatable patriarchy. These philosophies are distinct, but deeply intertwined, and we cannot leave either one intact if we hope to dismantle the other.