Most of us are familiar with the traditional, middle-class courtship script. The man asks and pays for the first date and then places the follow-up call in the next couple days to ask for a second date. After the pair starts dating regularly, he is the one who is supposed to shift the relationship from casual to committed and later, if all goes well, to propose marriage. But given that the majority of women now want egalitarian relationships and increasingly have the resources to negotiate one, male-driven courtship may seem passe and at odds with their supposed relationship desires. My research shows, however, that women remain committed to these conventions.
In order to understand why women continue to support traditional courtship conventions and how they reconcile this support with their desire for egalitarian relationships, I interviewed 38 college-educated, heterosexual and bisexual women in the San Francisco Bay Area about their dating and relationship experiences and desires. By interviewing socially progressive, economically privileged women, I was able to examine this contradiction between women’s autonomy and traditional gender beliefs.
Women referred to popular claims about men’s need to be the dominant partner and their reluctance to commit to justify traditional courtship behaviors. They argued that if a man is interested, he will pursue, and that aggressive women who engage in role reversal are considered unattractive partners. In addition, by allowing men to both pay and establish the level of commitment in the relationship, women felt more secure about men’s investment in the relationship. Women believed that if they asked for commitment or a marriage proposal, men would find them desperate, others would question the validity of the relationship, and they would worry that their partners were not as committed to the relationship as they were.
But while women used narratives of men’s essential, and therefore unchangeable, nature to justify these traditional behaviors, they experienced their own participation in these practices as mere preference and did not believe that the traditional behaviors would interfere with their desire for an egalitarian relationship. In fact, women considered themselves liberated enough to engage in these behaviors without jeopardizing their autonomy and power within their relationships. I argue, however, that when women emphasize narratives of gender difference during courtship, they end up prioritizing men’s desires and reify beliefs that may then be reproduced at work and in their families in the form of gender inequality.
By Ellen Lamont on her article, “Negotiating Courtship: Reconciling Egalitarian Ideals with Traditional Gender Norms,” forthcoming in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society. The article is currently available here through OnlineFirst, or the press release is available here.