Clearly, the culture war is not over

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 22:29 EDT
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From Jessica comes the news that not only do 70% of Americans think that women should take their husband’s name, 50% of them said, “Yeah, sure” if asked if it should be legally required. It gets worse!

What’s really distressing about this news – Laura Hamilton, the study’s lead author says that when respondents were asked why they thought women should change their last names, “they told us that women should lose their own identity when they marry and become a part of the man and his family.”

Jessica and I talked a little about this, and I expressed hope that this was one of those situations where people automatically think that hyper-patriarchal bullshit is more right or moral, but if you pressed them on it, they’d start to see how they’re being dicks, or at least make exceptions. Would the 50% who want it to be a legal requirement say that if you gave them this scenario: Say your daughter becomes a famous writer at the age of 25. Two years later, she decides to marry her long term boyfriend. If she changes her name, she would have trouble re-establishing her career because everyone knew her under her old name. To preserve her career, she should have the right to retain her name?

I suspect that you’d see a different answer. People are happy to sign onto vicious sexism if it seems abstract, but if faced with particulars, they tend to sing a different tune. You see this with abortion. A lot of people who call themselves “pro-life” don’t support abortion bans. And of those who do, if you press them and ask them how much time a woman should do for getting an abortion, they start to dissemble. Sexism is sold as “family values” in our culture, and so people don’t really think too much about the ramifications if not pressed.

That said…..

What the fuck is wrong with people?! Surveys like this—or the one that showed how popular the birther conspiracy theory is, especially in the South—demonstrate that, despite our fondest hopes about the meaning of the Obama election, the culture war isn’t going away and is quite likely entrenched until many of the nastiest cultural conservatives, who are admittedly much older than the average population, die off. We’re seeing the same situation with these angry town hall mobs. The illusion that the country has really moved into the 21st century has been exposed as only half true. Half of us have. Another percentage is on the fence. And another wants the return of segregation and formal discrimination against women.

It makes a rough sort of sense. There’s been a lot of social change in the past half century plus some change, which sounds like a long time to young people, but in actuality, it’s less time than the average human lifetime. Forgetting about breaking the transmission of “values” (if you can call racism and sexism values) between one generation to the next, which is in and of itself a difficult task. We’ve asked people to go through a lot of personal change in order to keep up with the times. Some of us are just fine. We didn’t like those other values and rejected them, or we were raised by people who didn’t like those old values. Some of us are basically pushed to reject those values because we’re not white or not straight or not a submissive woman, and our self-esteem depends on rejecting those values. We moved to places where the new values are the norm and we adapted.

Obviously, though, the change hasn’t penetrated some places of the country much at all. That’s why you see such geographic differences in polling data. The South particularly creates this conform-or-flee environment with regards to enforcing a white supremacist patriarchy. But other people just retreat into their homes, or their increasingly wacky religious beliefs. And now we have this situation where all these factions really are hardened. Half the country thinks that a woman should be required to change her name, and meanwhile, half the women in my peer group that I know who are married didn’t even consider it. Obviously, for sanity’s sake, as well as for common sense’s, we can’t just say people need to mix it up more and this polarization will stop. Maybe all we can do is weather the storm, and believe that this social conservatism is dying out, and just making a lot of fuss as it goes.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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