The Divorce Culture

Leora Tanenbaum reviews "Divorce Culture: How Divorce Became An Entitlement and How It is Blighting the Lives of Our Children" by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.


Leora Tanenbaum
January 9, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

At the end of 1993, after Murphy Brown decided she wanted a child more than she wanted to wait around for a husband, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote an essay titled "Dan Quayle Was Right" for The Atlantic Monthly. Her argument was that, yes, the vice president was right to blame the decline of civilized life on the disintegration of the nuclear family. She trumpeted that the two-parents-with-kids family structure -- long held in check by religious, social and legal sanctions, but eroding since the 1960s -- is the best one for raising well-adjusted children. As evidence Whitehead cited a number of social science studies showing that, as compared to children from two-parent families, children living with divorced single mothers are more likely to be poor, disconnected from their fathers, school dropouts and teen parents.

Whitehead's thesis has been effectively countered by a number of writers, most notably journalist Caryl Rivers (in her recent book "Slick Spins and Fractured Facts") and sociologist Judith Stacey (in The Nation). It turns out that Whitehead, a research associate at the conservative Institute for American Values in New York, deliberately chose data that supported her arguments. And the data she most favored, from a study by Judith Wallerstein, is by no means "scientific" because it lacks a comparison group. Indeed, as Rivers and Stacey explain using evidence from many other studies, it's poverty, not family structure, that is the culprit for nearly all of children's problems.

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Case closed? Hardly. Now Whitehead has expanded the Atlantic article into a book, "The Divorce Culture," but she hasn't revised an iota of her original thesis. "For most of the nation's history," she writes, "concern for the well-being of children was a central reason for avoiding divorce." But today, she laments, there is a "greater emphasis on individual satisfaction in family relationships," and divorce has become "an event closely linked to the pursuit of individual satisfactions, opportunities, and growth." Whitehead blames many different social forces for the rising acceptance of divorce, but feminism particularly rankles her. She complains that feminists have "pointed to marriage as the source of women's stunted growth and personal unhappiness." Actually, feminists have pointed to inegalitarian marriage -- not marriage per se -- as the problem.

It's hard to take Whitehead seriously when she exhorts that we become a nation of "sacrifice" and "wholeness of self" through "service and commitment to others." After all, many of her best-known fellow family values pundits -- Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh -- are themselves divorced and have created "fragile and unstable family households." Next to them, even feminists don't seem so bad.


Leora Tanenbaum

Leora Tanenbaum writes about gender and culture for Ms. and other magazines. She lives in New York City.

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