You thought the DOMA ruling was just a triumph for gay rights? Actually, it changes everything—for women, for parents, for workers. Even straight ones.
What a happy historical coincidence. Exactly 50 years after Betty Friedan—herself no proponent of sexual openness—showed in The Feminine Mystique that gender roles in families suppress women’s personhood and potential, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, that last legislative shrine protecting gender roles from those who argued that the legal trappings that go along with heterosexual marriage hurt equality between both gay and straight people, and between men and women. Today, the Supreme Court granted the full legitimacy of the law to gay matrimony—and, explicitly, to gay parenthood. Believers in gender equality should rejoice just as much as supporters of gay rights over a ruling that brings America one giant leap closer to real, substantive equity for people of all sexual orientations, and for parents of both genders.
There is a reason the idea of gay marriage terrifies conservatives so thoroughly: its consequences for gender norms within society as a whole, for the organization of families, for employer relationships with parents of both sexes and parents’ relationships with each other, could be staggering. Ultimately, the ruling forces us as a country to reconsider our collective answer to a social and economic question with profound implications: the Family Question. That is, what’s the best way to care and provide for our children? At the moment, the law enshrines a conservative answer to that question: gendered role specialization. Under this model, men do the breadwinning, and women do the caregiving. When women dabble in breadwinning, they must fit it in around their caregiving responsibilities. Law professor Deborah Widiss recently reviewed how marriage law crystallizes and protects this gendered specialization: tax, Social Security, welfare, and divorce regulations all encourage married couples to specialize, which harms women in their careers and men in their role as parents.
Why, then, in this era of equality, has the conservative answer to the Family Question proved so durable? Besides meshing nicely with religious prescriptions about sex roles in a country where nearly 80% profess Christianity, the conservative answer is a very convenient one for business. It allows employers to demand 100% commitment of male employees, with extremely limited legal support for fathers to assume a parenting role that would distract them from their breadwinning. These gendered expectations also allow employers to penalize women, often perceived as less committed, for being anything other than single-minded worker bees. The principal opponents in Britain of paid paternity leave, for instance, were private-sector businesses, who were unprepared to make the thorough shift in perspective needed to begin building in flexibility for all employees, even male ones, to take care of their families.
Couples or families for whom the conservative answer to the Family Question provides no solution—gay couples, for instance, or single-parent households, or households in which women would prefer not to believe that they can’t “have it all,” even though their husbands can—represent a threat to a structural status quo that works very well indeed for some powerful groups. But the DOMA ruling will now allow gay couples to work out for themselves the logistics of the Family Question. Lisa Mundy recently examined in The Atlantic how gay couples are replacing gendered solutions with their own ad hoc division of responsibilities based on factors entirely unrelated to sex. Observing that many gay couples also decide to specialize—with one partner doing the breadwinning and the other staying home with the children—she concludes that this occurs “either because this is the natural order of things or because the American workplace is so greedy and unforgiving that something or somebody has to give” [emphasis mine].
I’m inclined to believe it is the latter. Specialization is often forced on couples by labor markets hostile to the very idea of helping working parents juggle multiple roles. But involuntary specialization will simply create new inequities and unhappiness in families, whether parents are gay or straight. Friedan’s book remains a powerful message on how locking people in a kitchen entertaining frustrated ambitions with only toddlers for company leads to a Problem That Has No Name, a decay in human identity and loss of personal potential.
Many women, anticipating how motherhood limits their choices under the conservative solution to the Family Question, start “leaning out” of their careers, structuring their careers around parenthood, long before their children even arrive. But I predict that gay parents, not having internalized this societally imposed self-limitation, will start to chafe under a regime of enforced role specialization. Soon a new chord will be added to the chorus of voices calling for policies that make it easier to have both a satisfying career and family life—policies like paid leave, flexible work schedules, better daycares, etc.
The SCOTUS ruling marks the end of “family values” rhetoric as the exclusive domain of conservatives, and allows supporters of equality for both genders and all sexual orientations to innovate solutions to the Family Question that force neither partner to throw him or herself into work at the expense of family time, or vice versa. It will force business to acknowledge that employees are people, who juggle several personal roles besides that of worker bee. The ruling will probably also reduce the motherhood penalty that women now face in the workplace, as the spread of gay couples with children decouples parenting responsibilities from being female in employers’ minds.
Our country will be begin to see what families look like when they are not built on pushing one parent to chase his or her dreams while the other looks after the tykes. And when mothers and fathers tell their daughters and sons, “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up,” their children will see what that really means.
For that, we have SCOTUS to thank.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Bogotá, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group.