Cara Boekeloo

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

“Life as a single woman can be full of purpose,” Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, said last week. Unfortunately for many women in conservative Christian circles, single life can also be full of confusion.

Marshall’s single “life of purpose” was news to attendees at the Conservative Women’s Network luncheon at Heritage on June 24. About 70 young women–with a few middle-aged women mixed in–came to hear Marshall discuss her new book, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.

Conservative Christians tend to emphasize marriage as the ultimate goal of a woman’s life. They support abstinence education, which completely ignores the fact that 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex. But despite this rhetoric, even conservative young women can find themselves in their mid- to late-twenties with no husband, picket fence, or children on the horizon.

Many young women–particularly those living in urban settings such as Washington, D.C.–have graduated from college without an “MRS” degree” and now must face the supposedly daunting task of living a fulfilling single life. Conservative relatives and friends are prone to repeatedly asking if these young women have found “the one,” and caution them not to become so self-sufficient lest they appear too much of a “career woman” to want or need a man.

In her book, Marshall offers advice for making singleness “more than a holding pattern” from a conservative Christian perspective. “This book is about redeeming the time between now and the ‘not yet’ for which we hope,” she writes in the introduction.

On Thursday, Marshall shared anecdotes from her research for the book, which mostly involved interviewing women about their conceptions of single life. Due to the fact that conservative Christians around the country responded to her poll, Marshall concluded that “this is a cultural conversation that everyone wants to participate in.” This is probably because conservative women have never had it. Progressives started the conversation about single young adulthood decades ago with the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. But Marshall claimed feminism did more harm than good.

“There is a price people feel that they are paying on account of feminist trailblazers,” Marshall said. “Feminism does at a very personal level affect our lives in a very negative way.”

With the advent of feminist “propaganda” came problematic sexual liberation. Referencing a study by the Institute of American Values, which she called “a great organization with a great report,” Marshall discussed the “hook-up culture” that has evolved on college campuses.

“The most pressing question,” she said, “is what we will do with this today in these circumstances.”

Despite her attacks on feminism, Marshall admitted enjoying “the benefits of equal opportunity [that the feminist movement afforded] without commitment to the egalitarian cause. When doors opened, we walked through.” In fact, 15 out of Heritage’s 62 staff experts are women, something that wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of feminists who pushed for equality in higher education and the workplace.

Marshall asserted that even with the doors that have been opened for women, there is still “no concept of a single woman in the positive sense. … Many young [single] women strike us as sad, lonely, and confused.”

But some women actually “make valuable use of their single years,” Marshall revealed. She cited successful female professionals she interviewed who were “willing to rearrange priorities when things like marriage come along.” Responding to the skepticism of the audience, she assured, “They’re not feminist, but their life hasn’t taken its planned course either.”

This “planned course” was a recurring theme throughout Marshall’s talk, as she frequently alluded to “the purpose for which women were put on the earth.” Unfortunately, Marshall said, fulfilling this purpose has become increasingly elusive.

“It’s more difficult to enter marriage in the 21st century than ever before,” she said. When she cited the fact that three out of 10 women are single at age 30, murmurs of disapproval and disbelief rippled through the audience. But Marshall offered a 10-step plan for coping with “the spiritual and emotional struggle that is a reality of single life.” Some of the recommendations, such as continuing to hope for marriage and not “callous[ing] your heart,” seemed simple and harmless. But others appeared to value pursuing a spouse above pursuing a career.

“Don’t be a workaholic,” Marshall urged. “Be open to rearranging your professional life for a husband.” Marshall insisted that “now is as important as the ‘not yet’ for which we hope.” But how can a woman truly be satisfied in the “now” if she is constantly thinking about the “not yet”?

“Have a sense of purpose anchored in God,” a phrase to which she constantly came back, seemed to be her answer. But while faith is a grounding board for some, it is divisive for others. When asked how women who were not spiritual could use her suggestions, Marshall replied, “A self-centered view is very isolationist.”

Among the crowd were three men–Zach was one of them. The women in attendance, perhaps less enthralled with what Marshall referred to as the “worldly independence” of single life, gave Zach no lack of attention. In between bouts of making awkward eye contact and tossing their hair back to flaunt pearl necklaces, young women approached your lucky co-author to try out the latest pick-up lines to come out of Heritage’s domestic strategy center.

When Zach was not engaged in what apparently passes for flirting in conservative circles, he was being attacked for suggesting there might be more to life than getting married and having children.

While he was waiting in line for lunch, three older women accosted him to ask what he thought of “all this marriage talk.” He responded that while he thought much of what Marshall said might be helpful, he believed it was important to be able to experience life and have relationships without focusing on marriage. After the women peppered him with questions about his personal life, eventually learning that he did not oppose premarital sex, they pounced.

“That behavior leads to unhappy marriages,” one of the women said. “If a man is going to have sex with a woman he’s not married to then, what’s to say he won’t have sex with a woman he’s not married to once he’s married?”

Zach responded that the two cases were not analogous since the married man has taken a vow to be faithful to his spouse. He added that many people engage in premarital sex exclusively with their significant other, so it is wrong to assume a link exists between premarital sex and infidelity. When the women pointed out that Christians believe premarital sex is immoral, the young man responded that not everyone shares the same religious beliefs. Apparently disturbed by this thought, the women abruptly ended the conversation.

Instead of ending conversations with those who embrace feminist ideals, conservatives should recognize the advances the movement has offered to women everywhere. Without it, single women would have no hope for self-advancement and the satisfaction that Marshall spoke about.