The Pomona Student Union (PSU) hosted a panel called “To Have & To Hold: Marriage in Contemporary America” on Sept. 30.
The debate, held in Edmunds Ballroom and co-sponsored by the Public Events Committee, featured W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National MarriageProject and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia; Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families; and Lisa Duggan, associate professor of American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.
The event’s organizer, PSU member Amal Karim PO ’11, said she wanted to plan a discussion centered around gender issues, and the topic of marriage was a way to address questions relevant to a wide range of people. Part of the motivation to put on the debate came from the idea that although “everyone comes from different kinds of families,” we don’t often discuss these differences, Karim said. She added that “maybe it was something about being a senior” that caused her to really think about how in the past and, to some extent, currently, a large majority of people went on to marry partners they met in college.
The panelists were asked several questions about the state of marriage in our society, its changing face, and the implications of declining marriage rates. Each panelist touched on different aspects of marriage and its foundations.
Wilcox discussed the significance of various research results, presenting studies and graphs to argue for the “economic, social, and emotional benefits” of marriage in society.
Coontz began by reminding the audience of the history of marriage in many cultures as an instrument for political alliance and obtaining in-laws, based not on love but on convenience or the oppression of women.
Duggan discussed the existence of multiple kinds of relationships in our society, arguing that they require various kinds of recognition.
Throughout the debate, Coontz and Duggan agreed on the necessity to recognize reality and provide the social and economic resources to support the way that people are living now. Coontz suggested that there was an oversimplification in the correlations Wilcox drew between co-habitation or other non-marital relationships and certain societal ills such as imprisonment and teen pregnancy.
The panel ended with a question-and-answer session that brought a long line of students to their feet.
One student questioned Wilcox on his position on same-sex marriage. Wilcox said that the jury is still out on the effect of same-sex relationships on children, but he added that if there were more extensive and conclusive positive data then he likely would be in favor of gay marriage.
Another question addressed Wilcox’s research methodologies, particularly the implications of marginal versus average effects and the definitions of terms used in his studies. While Wilcox defended these studies, Duggan chimed in that she is indeed “weary of certain terms such as ’healthy’ and ’welfare of the children’” because they have historically been used to argue against non-normative forms of relationships, such as miscegenation. Duggan added that responses about “happiness” from people in socially stigmatized relationships might reflect the unhappiness of being stigmatized, rather than what is actually going on in the relationship.
When the session ended, Coontz said that she was impressed by the students’ questions and the issues being raised.
Karim said she was pleased with the discussion and the turnout. She stressed that she was looking for as much diversity in perspective as possible when choosing the three participants, and felt that this came through in the debate.
Lucy Block PO ’11, who attended the event, had positive things to say about the panelists’ contributions. Block said the PSU talks “are valuable because they really offer multiple perspectives and I don’t think we get that so often as Pomona students.”