The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Summer
2010

The Real Divide over Marriage Law


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


The academy continues to view the ideals of ordinary Americans as oddities that need to be scrutinized and discredited. That sentiment is reflected in a study by sociologists at Notre Dame and the University of Oklahoma that attempts to link strong deference to existing laws that recognize marriage as between one man and one man to counties with “weak community cohesion” where residents are “not deeply rooted in the community.” Yet the researchers’ biases cannot obscure the reality that their findings more clearly illustrate a connection betweensupport for changing conventional marriage laws and the feminist worldview of American elites.

Rory McVeigh and Maria-Elena D. Diaz compared the voting results of 2,231 counties in the twenty-eight states that passed referenda between 2000 and 2008 that recognized marriage as between one man and one woman with a large number of independent variables in hopes of explaining differences between places like Boulder County, Colorado (which voted against a state amendment to preserve the legal definition of marriage by 67 percent), and Martin County, Texas (which voted 95 percent for the amendment). In multivariate analyses that controlled for state-level differences, they found the strongest support for such ballot initiatives in counties, as might be expected, where traditional family structure and gender roles “are predominant.”

Counties with higher percentages of households composed of married parents with children under 18—and countries with lower percentages of cohabiting households (whether opposite- or same-sex)—were most likely to vote for the marriage initiative. Moreover, counties with lower rates of labor-force participation among women and higher levels of “sex segregation” in the workforce also translated into greater support for the marriage referenda. For example, in Boulder County, only 53 of the women reported working outside the home, in what the authors term “a highly [gender] segregated market” that would require 75 percent of the women to change occupations to achieve an integrated labor market. But in Martin County, where 75 percent of women work outside the home, less than 40 percent of women would have to switch jobs to achieve a gender-integrated job market.

The researchers also found greater support for the marriage initiatives in counties with higher percentages of blue-collar workers. Likewise, opposition was strongest in counties “with a high median income, higher levels of education, higher percentage of the population enrolled in college and employed in professional occupations.”

But perhaps not content with these explanations, the researchers conducted interactive tests that reveal that the effects of traditional family structure and gender roles on the marriage vote were stronger in counties “with weak community cohesion”—defined by residential instability (measured by percentage of citizens that have moved in the previous five years), lower rates of home ownership, and higher crime rates. The researchers speculate that these factors in these settings conspire to make residents fear “homosexuality as a threat to their interests and values.” However, other tests yielded seemingly conflicting results, finding that the effects of gender traditionalism on the marriage vote were stronger in “more prosperous counties.” In these tests, the lower the rate of labor-force participation of women in counties with higher-than-average income, the stronger was the opposition to same-sex marriage. In low-income counties, support for the marriage initiatives was high regardless of the rate of the labor-force participation of women.

The sociologists hope these findings help them “better understand” why the majority of Americans do not fall in line with their betters on the issue of marriage. Yet until the researchers are willing to reverse their paradigm—and probe why the social ideals of ordinary Americans threaten the values of elites—that stated goal remains out of reach.

(Rory McVeigh and Maria-Elena D. Diaz, “Voting to Ban Same-Sex Marriage: Interests, Values, and Communities,”American Sociological Review 74 [Dec. 2009]: 891–915).

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