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Equality in Marriage. Is it Possible?

January 30, 2010

Equal Marriage NOW

Many of my friends are 20 and 30-somethings who are eagerly anticipating engagement, frantically confronting what it takes to plan a wedding, or quietly adjusting to life post-honeymoon. Equally as many of my friends won’t ever get married because in most places the law forbids them from doing so. The adults in my life (well, I guess technically my friends are adults too) have either been married for decades or were once married and are now divorced, widowed, or remarried.

In college I swore I’d never get married (The Sexual Contract by Carol Pateman is to blame/thank). These days I find myself fighting for equal access to the very institution I once denounced.

At the crux of what seems to be my never-ending quandary with marriage is equality.

I was reminded this week that equality – particularly as it relates to marriage in this day and age – is far from a given. Thank you to both the Pew Research Center and the Proposition 8 trial in California for this reminder.

On January 19, Pew released a report asserting that analysis of demographic and economic trend data reveal that a larger share of men in 2007, compared with their 1970 counterparts, are married to women whose education and income exceed their own. And a larger share of women are married to men with less education and income.

I can’t – and have no reason to – argue with the report’s actual findings. It’s the way the data is being framed that is disconcerting. As Jessica Mack’s post last weekend aptly pointed out, the coverage has been overwhelmingly trite and sexist. There have been a preposterous number of articles referring to so-called “alpha wives” and nearly every one of them makes my eyes roll (or worse).

Conclusions such as that women’s “new financial muscle is causing havoc in the home” or  “How do women, careers and marriage mix? Not well” strike me as hogwash – or at best hyperbole.

The fact that women (albeit, some women – the Pew report neglects to meaningfully address ethnic and class distinctions) are gaining economic mobility and power is undeniable, however what this shift means is clearly in question. With a plethora of divergent voices attempting to assign the data meaning, it’s difficult to discern what to make of any of it, if anything.

Alongside the references to men’s bruised egos and re-emerging discussion of the “mancession” there is the assertion that:

“Far from hurting men, the gains of the women’s movement have helped families cope with tough economic trends that started long before this recession…”

There are those who assert this shift is further evidence that marriage’s judgment day is at hand:

“…whether marriage will remain a bedrock social institution or whether African Americans are the canary in the coal mine heralding not just the reconfiguration but the re-evaluation of marriage itself, the slow withering away of what we have always assumed to be a universal institution.”

And then there are those who purport that this is simply yet another ebb in the ongoing ebb and flow of culture shifts – stated with an underlying tone of “please, calm down.”

“First, the most unusual division of work between husbands and wives is not what is emerging today but rather what we celebrated in the 1950s…The idea of a “housewife” who exclusively cared for the children and the home only emerged in the 20th century as Americans migrated to cities and as factories replaced farms. What’s happening today is that we are returning to the more typical kind of family in which women’s work of all sorts — which now includes earning money — is crucial. That kind of family was fully accepted until the mid-20th century, and there is no reason to think it will be rejected now…”

And then there is this:

“As women’s economic and social standing has changed, so have their heterosexual relationships.”

I gasped when I read this sentence.

Why?? Because Janet Reibstein said what no one else is saying. That is, that the Pew Report and all of the related discussions are an analysis not of marriage but of heterosexual marriage. It is a debate about marriage in which being a wife requires a husband (which as this article describes, is not always the case).

Which brings me to the Proposition 8 trial.

In short, a trial is currently underway in California to decide if Proposition 8 – a November 2008 ballot measure that revoked same-sex marital rights – violates U.S. constitutional rights of equal protection and due process. This Wednesday marked the end of testimony, with closing remarks to come in March.

For Prop. 8’s sponsors, the religious coalition called Protect Marriage, extending wedlock to gays and lesbians threatens the institution of marriage and weakens parents’ connection with their children. The obvious counter argument is that same-sex marriage poses absolutely no threat to opposite-sex couples, children or the public welfare. And to deny these rights is fundamentally discriminatory.

As the current debate on the so-called “rise of wives” elucidates, the right to marry offers access to a variety of benefits, including higher levels of earnings and household wealth, social security benefits, tax relief, and social insurance of various kinds. Without access to a legally-enforceable marriage contract (and the 1,138 federal benefits that come with it) same-sex couples face significant economic disadvantage.

The rhetoric is that same-sex marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage. The reality is that permitting two individuals of the same sex to make a legally binding commitment to each other threatens only one thing – rigid gender roles. These are the roles that stereotypically relegate a woman to the kitchen and bind a man’s sense of self-worth to his job. And, again as the current debate on the so-called “rise of wives” elucidates, these are the very gender roles that are already undergoing supposedly seismic shifts (which have absolutely nothing to do with lesbians and gay men).

Rather than considering same-sex marriage as a threat – or even as something to be merely tolerated – I’d argue that opposite-sex couples stand to gain from looking to their same-sex counterparts as examples to be emulated. In general, gender roles are more fluid in same-sex relationships – whether between men or women – and therefore negotiation about who bears the burden (or the joy) of cooking dinner, fixing a car, doing the laundry, initiating sex, etc., etc. is a given rather than a bold aberration. And the result is that responsibilities tend to be shared more equally.

The same applies to same-sex parenting. Gay parents tend to raise children who are less conventional, more open-minded and more flexible when it comes to gender roles and assumptions than children raised in more traditional families. For instance, daughters of lesbian mothers are more likely to aspire to professions that are traditionally considered male, like doctors or lawyers — 52 percent of girls in one study said that was their goal, compared with 21 percent of daughters of heterosexual mothers, who are still more likely to say they want to be nurses or teachers when they grow up.

After researching interactions between committed gay couples and married heterosexual couples (and discovering that when same-sex couples argue they tend to fight more fairly than heterosexual couples) a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley said this: “Like everybody else, I thought this was male behavior and female behavior, but it’s not. That means there is a lot more hope that you can do something about it.”

We can indeed do everything about inequality.

Rather than speculating about “alpha wives” and their beta husbands and discriminating against healthy relationship patterns let’s talk about how people care for each other and let’s have honest, meaningful discussions of how we – women and men, gay or straight – share responsibility, power and authority.

But then again – what do I know, I’m not married.

Alicia Simoni currently lives in Washington, DC where she works in the field of gender and peacebuilding – documenting women’s unique perspectives and highlighting the integral role gender plays in building and sustaining peace globally. She has a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame.

6 Comments
  1. January 30, 2010 2:22 pm

    I agree totally! I also think it is worthy to note that to have marriage equality no matter sexual orientation, we also need unmarried equality. That is people who choose not to marry, or cannot, or just don’t want to, that their relationships are treated just as valid. If we get gay and lesbian equal marriage rights, that is great! I am fighting for that as well. But it still means that those who are unmarried are punished and not granted equal rights to children, medical care, visitation, end of life decisions, ect, as others. That is just as unjust because we are still privileging one type of relationship over another.

  2. Julie permalink
    January 31, 2010 4:55 pm

    I totally agree with Jukeboxheroine.
    Though I would much rather see marriage and any other religious instances removed from government and the legal system.
    I don’t believe forcing religions to change their stance is necessarily the way to go but at the same time I should not have to accept their beliefs as justification for my human rights.
    If I am forced to be tolerant of their beliefs then there should be a reciprocal action on their behalf. The easiest way for all of this to take place is to just eliminate marriage laws and legal/financial privileges.

    • alicia permalink
      February 1, 2010 9:44 pm

      Thanks for your comments.

      I agree that linking societal benefits (rights to children, visitation, etc.) to marriage privileges certain kinds of relationships over others – and that ideally this should change.

      In regards to religion, simply removing the role of the church does not fix the problem. As it stands now there are two issues – the church has deemed same-sex marriage immoral and the state (in most places) has deemed it illegal. Church and state should be separate and the state should protect the rights of all.

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