Canadian band Magic! received international accolades for their song "Rude." The premise of the song is about a man asking his girlfriend's father for permission to marry her.
I was surprised to hear a new song about a ritual that seems so out of date given the modern times of normative cohabitation before marriage, rising egalitarian ideology, and increasing delay in marriage (meaning more people are well into adulthood before considering marriage). In the song, the singer refers to his potential father-in-law as an "old-fashioned" man. This echoes research findings that couples often enact gendered engagement roles and frame them positively as traditional and old-fashioned. This same study also found that most couples plan their engagement together, rendering the request a performance for his father-in-law and girlfriend, who often viewed it as romantic.
While still popular, there is some evidence that this ritual is up for debate. A Slate article this year asked, "Is it seemly or sexist to ask your future in-laws for their daughter’s hand in marriage?" Notably, the lyrics to "Rude" reference seeking the father's blessing, rather than permission. While permission invokes imagery of women as property, blessing implies the request is symbolic of respect rather than objectification.
In the song, the girlfriend's father says no to the request to marry his daughter. The boyfriend labels him rude and insists he's going to marry her anyway. Responding, Benji Cowart parodied the song to tell the "dad's side of the story."
While it's telling that he refers to his daughter as a princess and threatens violence if his daughter elopes, what stands out the most was why the dad found the boyfriend un-marriageable. In the late 1980s, William Julius Wilson called attention to the association between joblessness and rates of female-headed families, referred to as the male marriageable pool index. Recently, the Pew Research Center released survey data that found men's steady employment is important to women in choosing a partner. This parallels research findings that Professor Philip Cohen and I are working on (previewed here).
At last, another parody video was created with the "daughter's side of the story." She rejects outright the premise that either man in her life should make decisions for her. After pointing out how outdated the concept is, that women are not possessions, and that these are controlling actions, she asks, "How about what I say?"
Although couples are increasingly deciding together to get engaged, proposals continue to be performed, largely by men for women. A 2012 study found that 2/3 of college undergraduates "definitely" want a man to propose, often citing gender roles, tradition, and romance. An exception to this cultural ideology appears during Leap Years in some countries when superstition allows for women to propose to men. For example, in Scotland and Ireland, on February 29th, women propose to men. They made a movie about it, so it must be true.
UPDATE: This piece is now cross-posted with small revisions on Girl w/ Pen! Check it out here.
The Council on Contemporary Families published a report this week suggesting the gender revolution has rebounded. Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), sociologists Cotter, Hermsen, and Vanneman provided an update on public attitudes about gender. As a rookie sociologist (i.e. lowly graduate student), this seemed like a great opportunity to try my hand at replicating and extending their sociological research by looking at American high school students' attitudes about gender. This is an important population to study because scholars who study adult attitudes may be capturing changes in respondents' post hoc justifications for their behavior as a result of confronting resistant social structures and adulthood realities.
I used data from Monitoring the Future (MTF), a survey given annually to a nationally representative group of American 12th grade students. Three of the four egalitarian attitude variables in the GSS are also available from MTF and are asked in the same manner (FECHLD, FEPRESCH, and FEFAM). Whereas the answers in the GSS included a four-point agreement scale, in MTF, the respondents could answer on a five-point agreement scale: disagree, mostly disagree, neither, mostly agree, and agree. The fourth variable (FEPOL) regarding attitudes about female politicians was worded differently than the GSS on the MTF surveys: Women should be considered as seriously as men for jobs as executives or politicians. In a previous class, I replicated Cotter and colleagues original publication so I feel reasonably confident that methodological differences are not contaminating my results.
I charted the four MTF variables below. Noticeably, the question on women in politics is an outlier and remains consistently high over time. Agreement that working moms have warm relationships with kids was consistently higher than average agreement in the GSS by about 10%. Disagreement that preschoolers suffer when mothers work began at about 30% agreement and has risen to about 65% agreement for both GSS and MTF respondents.
Most interestingly, disagreement with the statement that it's better if a man works and the woman takes care of the home peaked in the 1990s at about 70% and has declined to 60% disagreement by 2012. This pattern is noticeably different than that of the averages for the population in the GSS. Today, 12th graders are less likely to disagree with these stereotypical gender roles than the general population. In 2012, 60% of MTF respondents disagreed with the statement compared to about 70% of GSS takers.
In the updated report by Cotter and colleagues, the scale stalled out through the 1990s and early 2000s but started to pick up again by 2006. However, the youth scale presented below shows a continued stall. From the graph above, we can see that attitudes on women in leadership positions has remained high over time so it's not accounting for any changes. It seems that the increase in agreement that men should work and women should take care of the home is off setting the rise in egalitarian attitudes measured by the other two variables.
Following Cotter and colleagues report, I also graphed the index by sex. Similar to that of the adult population, women persistently show more egalitarian attitudes than men in the MTF data. These differences also are consistent over time, with both stalling in the early 1990s.
I skipped replicating the gender attitudes scale by political ideology because of the large number of respondents who answered "I don't know". In place of replicating the trends by education (as all of the MTF respondents are currently 12th graders), I took a look at the scale by their mother's education. They all increased their gender ideology over time and showed remarkably similar patterns.
Overall, the 12th graders show some different patterns in gender role attitudes than the greater population. Notably, youth do not show a resurgence in disagreement that it's better for men to work and for women to take care of the home. This is especially puzzling given their high agreement that women should be considered for leadership positions. Speculatively, youth express commitment to equality but simultaneously pair these egalitarian attitudes with beliefs about stereotypical gender roles. Thus, women are viewed as peers in entering the work force, but continue to be responsible for labor at home. On the other hand, there does seem to be a persistent increase in youth agreement that working mothers do not harm children.
The Millennial generation is certainly one to watch. As noted by Cotter and colleagues, their egalitarianism is high. However, their egalitarian ideology is not consistently increasing over time. I'm not yet convinced that the stall in the gender revolution is over.
Whoa. It turns out a new trend has emerged. The promposal. It is apparently a fancy way of labeling the act of asking someone to prom. Making the internet rounds lately was an example of a promposal by a high school senior who asked his girlfriend to prom via a fake letter rescinding her acceptance to the University of South Carolina.
Never hearing of such a thing as a promposal, I decided to investigate. I started where all outstanding sociology graduate students do to conduct research. Wikipedia. Turns out, there is no Wikipedia entry for promposal. "How could this be?!" I asked myself. Undeterred, I turned to Google.
The first hint of the usage of the word promposal, according to Google, comes from the Canadian newspaper Ottawa Citizen, who apparently held a promposal contest. Unfortunately, the link provided leads to a "page not found" screen. The term makes a minor appearance in 2012 but seems to pick up traction in 2013. You can blame Huffington Post for reviving it and bringing it to the U.S. national stage. Regional interest has been mostly limited to Ottawa, Toronto, and New York, but given the widespread attention of the trend this year, it seems to be catching on elsewhere.
There are now tumblr pages, Pintrest pages, and even a Twitter handle (@ThePromposal) for documenting promposals. As far as I can tell, they seem to replicate the stereotypical courtship norms of dating and engagement proposals. One Huffington Post article calls attention to girls who are bucking the norms and asking their partners to the dance. However, this more gender flexible behavior is clearly not the norm, as evidenced in this statement: "With that said, here are some of our favorite #ladypromposals so far." Thus, promposals in general are assumed to be male initiated. Qualifications such as lady are used otherwise. By the way, if you go to Twitter and #ladypromposals, no tweets exist. On the other hand, #promposals is popular.
Despite gains in youth's attitudes about gender egaitarianism in relationships, promposals seem to evidence Ellen Lamont's findings (published in Gender and Society) that young women attempt to reconcile egalitarian ideology with conventional gendered courtship norms. While the promposal trend is still developing, how it reinforces or transforms gendered courtship norms remains to be seen.
I have strong doubts that fewer people are getting married due to rising gender equality. It’s obvious that gender equality has impacted marriage and divorce rates in the past (no-fault divorce, women’s increased employment, etc.), but it is a diminishing part of the story of marriage trends today. We know that the gains of the feminist movement have actually stalled out over the last decade or so, but marriage rates have continued to decline (maybe somebody with fancier statistical skills can make me a graph demonstrating this point!). Also, you don’t have to look too far to see that weddings and marriage continue to be overpowered by gender roles.
There was an article going around Facebook this month contending that those who are against same-sex marriage are FOR sexism. Well, I’d have to broaden that argument – a lot of people are trapped in stereotypical marriage frameworks, not excluding those of us in favor of same-sex marriage. For example, the website Jezebel, which has been outspoken for same-sex marriage, assumes the heteronormative script that couples engage in proposals (pun intended), and that men do the proposing (while only taking issue with the spectacle and consumerism of the proposal): “If you're the person we decided we want to spend the rest of our lives with, as long as there's a little romance and maybe a splash of booze, it just doesn't fucking matter what you do.” The news Jezebel was critiquing actually perfectly represents the still very dominant expectation that men propose: a groom made headlines for spending $45,000 on a proposal. While making news because of the extravagance, lifelong romantic commitments continue to be a spectacle which centers men in the provider role and depicts women as longing to get married. A quote from this groom confirms this:
“Asked if the expense was worth it, Ogle replied that he was spending money on what was important. He said that men often didn't have control over what happened at their weddings but said he had total control over the proposal." (abcnews.go.com)
Does rising gender equality have something to do with the decline in marriage? Yes, but it certainly doesn't tell the whole story and I don’t think it accounts for current trends.
I've been thinking a lot about the progression of social change lately. Sometimes it is easy to overestimate how far we have come (marriage for same-sex couples by a popular vote!) and at other times, it is hard to believe it's 2013 given the public discourse (revisiting Roe vs. Wade). There have been numerous studies and articles published recently that seek to highlight both progress and traditionalism. Lifescience summarized a recent study that found heterosexual college students prefer men propose marriage, are appalled at the thought of the female taking the proposal initiative, and that while 60% of women were okay with adopting their husband's last name, about 60% of men were against taking their wive's last name.
It is not surprising then, that if even at a liberal campus students hold stereotypical gender beliefs when it comes to romantic relationships that a man in Florida who changed his last name to his wife's last name would be accused of fraud. In Florida (and I'm guessing a number of other states), only women can adopt the last name of their husband upon marriage, while men have to file burdensome and costly paperwork to do the same. What is new is that a male Florida resident is challenging this sexist law. In the past, there have apparently not been enough heterosexual couples where the man desires to adopt the female's last name that a policy change has been called upon. Time stands still. Yet, with more states legitimizing marriage for same sex couples, states will have to review their procedures as gender will not provide a go-to hierarchy for property ownership and an automatic loss of identity.
All this reminded me of the summary of the book "The Unfinished Revolution" written by Kathleen Gerson. Her data demonstrated that while more couples are striving for an egalitarian relationship, when confronted with barriers and needing to rely on a "fallback plan", men and women's plan B's are different: men prefer more stereotypical gendered divisions of labor and women prefering to be single. Which leads me to wonder if more progress has in fact occurred than we typically capture in data, but that a tipping point of collective action in changing the structural frameworks (such as policies that only allow women to change their name upon marriage or normalizing paternity leave) that maintain unequal relationships has not yet been reached. As long as the status-quo supports men's fallback plans, it's hard to document changing attitudes.
A further illustration of this notion of time and social change was an article published this month in the American Sociological Review. The researchers found that in relationships where men participate in doing more of the stereotypical female household chores, the couples' sexual frequency is less than compared to romantic partnerships with more stereotypical divisions of labor. Because the data that was used in the study was collected more than two decades ago, a conversation ensued about whether the results were still relevant. The optimist in me would like to believe they would not, as much progress in terms of gender equality has been gained in two decades (in fact, the first passing of the Violence Against Women Act was during the time of this data collection). However, as Salon reports, politicians are still siphoning off money from needed social welfare programs to promote the institution of marriage, as some politicians view the decline in marriage as the solution to women's poverty (See this blog post for another rebuttal).
In this sense, regardless of the passage of time, marriage remains the answer to women's poverty, not progressive ideas such as equal pay for equal work, affordable childcare, or flexible work hours. Social change remains slow and stagnant in those regards, and repeated calls for "traditional families" (or as Stephanie Coontz put it, "The Way we Never Were") resist real societal changes that might actually strengthen marriages (those equal partnerships that we know make relationships stronger, healthier, and happier). Confusingly, even as things appear to change, they sometimes stay the same. David Blankenhorn, known for opposing same-sex marriage changed his stance in 2012. While this seemed like progress at first glance, what he actually is doing is attempting to co-opt the LGBT activist cause of access to a societal institution and trying to repackage it in a way that pushes marriage as a solution to poverty. (You can hear his agenda on a recent podcast of "As It Happens" which starts at 33:25). Instead of fancy messaging to make marriage seem cool, why not investigate what people who are not married (whether by choice or opportunity) have to say on the matter? My guess is it's because we don't want to hear what they have to say. That might call us to real action.