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.