On their face, these numbers imply that marriage and parenthood could mitigate, or perhaps even halt, the liberal trend in public opinion. But that, too, is uncertain. On some questions, the cultural fight is effectively over. In the Pew survey, fewer than 30 percent of young people agree that it’s better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife, and the number doesn’t rise with age until you get to senior citizens. That sort of male supremacism seems to have fallen into permanent minority status. (On the other hand, even among young people, there’s a 30-point gap between the percentage who say kids do better with a stay-at-home mom and the percentage who say kids do better with a stay-at-home dad.) Furthermore, it’s highly plausible that many of the attitudinal differences between married and never-married people, and between parents and nonparents, are causes rather than consequences of marriage and parenthood. If you’re socially conservative, you’re more likely to get hitched and have babies.
But to the extent that experience affects our attitudes about women and families, what’s really intriguing in the Pew data is evidence that this factor cuts both ways. If entering marriage makes you more conservative, leaving it seems to make you more liberal.
To illuminate this pattern, you have to compare married respondents to respondents who classified themselves as separated, divorced, or widowed. On three of the four attitudinal questions, these ex-married respondents were significantly more conservative than never-married respondents, but not quite as conservative as married ones. Compared to marrieds, ex-marrieds were less likely to say that working mothers made it harder to raise kids (75 vs. 82 percent), less likely to say that kids were better off with stay-at-home moms (48 vs. 56 percent), and less likely to call unwed motherhood a big problem (65 vs. 74 percent). The only question on which the gap closed was the one about whether working mothers made it harder for marriages to succeed—a question on which a broken marriage obviously makes you more likely to say yes.
Maybe the sort of people who separate or divorce are simply more liberal than those who stay married. Or maybe the experience of living alone again, and perhaps raising a child by yourself, sometimes restores your confidence that working women can raise children without men around. Conservatives might expect the opposite: After your divorce, you’d find that raising a child on your own as a working parent is harder than it was when you had a spouse’s help. Either way, we’re better off if experience, not age, drives public opinion. Debates about marriage, motherhood, and sexual equality are best resolved not by dying but by living: not by the expiration of our elders, but by learning which claims about happiness and family structure—the left’s or the right’s—turn out, in real life, to be true.
Thanks to Wendy Wang and Anna Brown of the Pew Research Center for humoring my many requests to reslice the data. No other polling organization makes this kind of reanalysis possible.