Why marriage is still a sexist institution – and what we can do about it

According Valentine's Day tradition, St. Valentine defied the emperor's orders and secretly married people in the third century,

Though the pandemic cast a shadow over weddings, it shone a light on a major issue with the institution of marriage.

While marriage is a joyous milestone for many, experts say there is no denying the institution has a history of sexism that, in many cases, can still be felt today. That doesn't mean forward-thinking young people need to shun marriage – though some are doing just that. The experts agree awareness is an important first step toward progress. 

Jocelyn Olcott, the director of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Duke University, says we've made strides in recent years, but marriage's sexist history is still seen in how heterosexual couples divide household labor and child care responsibilities. That became especially evident during the pandemic, when many women abandoned their jobs in order to care for and home-school kids.

"COVID really was like a blacklight on how precarious that progress was because as soon as the crisis hit, that maldistribution reasserted itself," Olcott says.

How far marriage has come - and the work left to be done 

Marriage before the 1970s was "legally structured as a sexist institution," says Juliet A. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles' Department of Gender Studies. Upon marriage in the 19th century, Williams explains, a woman and all of her property become the property of her husband, including her body, as evidenced by the fact that marital rape was not recognized in many places.

In some cases, women were required to take their husband's last name unless their husband gave them permission not to, and banks would require the permission of husbands for wives to set up accounts.

These days, there is "no legal difference between being a husband and a wife," Williams says, but sexism still creeps through. This is the case with financial stability, she says. 

"It remains the case that married women are financially, on average, better off than unmarried women," Williams says. 

We "live in a society where women are still incentivized to tie their fortunes to men, as opposed to being independent from them," Williams adds, and "that really is the essence of sexism. Even though we think of marriage as an individual choice rooted in romance. The reality, at least at the level of structural incentives, has to be accounted for."

Marya T. Mtshali, a lecturer in women's studies, gender and sexuality at Harvard University and a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, agrees that there are "a number of ways" in which sexism is present in the institution of marriage today for heterosexual couples, including the "assumption and societal pressure that women and any subsequent children have the surname of the husband."

Williams says the recent and fundamental changes in marriage laws are thanks in part to the activism of feminists and members of the LGBTQ community. And while it's important to appreciate the progress, there's still more to be done. 

"We shouldn't mistake equality within a problematic institution with actual equality," she says.

What we can do to eliminate sexism in marriage

While it's been "difficult to shake" the "deeply sexist history" of marriage in our society, Olcott says that doesn't mean the answer has to be to never marry, though some may choose to go that route. 

"I think it's interesting how many younger people are just opting out of marriage and don't see it as relevant to their happiness," she notes.

Instead, Williams suggests there are changes that need to be made on both a societal and individual level. 

"The goal is more thoughtfulness around the consequences of giving weddings and marriage a pass as we try to untangle all the knots that continue to constrain women and men in their full flourishing and that maintain the overall inequality of women compared to men," she says.

Williams recognizes that it's difficult to push back against division of labor in the household, but says it can be helpful to start by recognizing how much stigma there is against women who don't love taking care of the kids, for example. 

"We don't want to deny that there's agency at play in people's replicating traditional division of labor in the household, but I also think we want to be honest that our desires are conditioned by the incredibly fierce judgment and condemnation that even in 2021 bears down on anybody who's in any way gender non-conforming," she says.

Olcott says that in a household setting, keeping track of chores is a way to work toward equality.

People can also disrupt traditions rooted in sexism during marriage-related events, from the expectation that the man will be the one to propose, to asking a woman's father for her hand in marriage.

Olcott notes people have turned away from traditional wedding vows that included the language of "obeying" your spouse by writing their own vows.

Others are opting to skip white dresses, which Williams says historically were meant to symbolize virginity. 

However, Mtshali believes "gender equality within marriage cannot be achieved without other institutions in our society changing as well."

This includes the workplace, she says, with needed progress that includes eliminating the wage gap, increasing the minimum wage and guaranteeing paid parental leave.

On an individual level, Indiana University sociology professor Jessica Calarco says we can also ask men to "step up more." But she feels we need either "a massive cultural shift" or "big changes in policy" to help propel change forward. 

"As a society, we can put greater pressure on men to do more, but I think as long as those structures are in place, it's going to be hard for men to make decisions that aren't in their own financial interests," she says.