When it comes to weddings, we live on another planet, one apart from our everyday ideas of gender, marriage and family. You have women still wanting careers and success, yet their fantasy wedding is right out of the 1950s.

Maria Antonaccio

The sign on Deborah Abowitz's office door reads: "Mating and Marriage Is Closed." Abowitz, professor of sociology, is not opposed to mating and marriage. In fact, she's so fascinated by contemporary marriage rituals that she's taken on the subject as a major research project. It's just that her capstone course on the topic is so popular she has to turn away students.

Abowitz, whose previous research has included sociology of the Holocaust, trends in voting, and gender and poverty, first became interested in studying marriage when she became involved in the 16-month planning process of her youngest sister's wedding. "Coming of age in the '70s, I was used to people eloping or having a small wedding in the woods," she says. "I was amazed at the elaborateness of my sister's wedding — but as a sociologist, I couldn't help but be interested. I was pulled in by the sheer size and pageantry."

Through student surveys, Abowitz has found women tend more toward the rhetoric of romance, using words like "princess," "magical" and "Prince Charming." Men, on the other hand, are more pragmatic and talk about "commitment" and "tradition." She has also seen a cognitive dissonance between women's traditional wedding expectations and their actual modern career and relationship goals. "When it comes to weddings, we live on another planet, one apart from our everyday ideas of gender, marriage and family," Abowitz says. "You have women still wanting careers and success, yet their fantasy wedding is right out of the 1950s." 

Abowitz's wedding research ties into her current interest in Generation Y, loosely defined as people born in the late 1970s through mid-1990s. "Gen Y is going to shape the culture wars in this country in the coming years," she said. "Their attitudes matter." Abowitz has studied everything from Gen Y's views on social inequality and the American Dream to their thoughts on whether money buys happiness to their beliefs about romance and emotional abuse in college dating relationships.

Underlying all of her work is the question of gender and inequality, an interest that she says is a product of coming of age in the late 1970s. "When I went to college, the fight for women's rights was ongoing, and the issues were personal," she said. Professors and classmates alike let her and her fellow female engineering students know they were not welcome in that major. A sociology elective gave her a new perspective. "Making sense of the social world, the good and the bad, being able to analyze social patterns, trends and institutions, is what I find endlessly intriguing about being a sociologist," she says.

In her avocational life, Abowitz has not let gender pressures limit her adventuresome spirit. While she is recovering from one knee replacement and looking forward to another, she spent her 20s and 30s riding in a glider plane, parasailing, bungee jumping, hiking a live lava flow and racing Hurricane Iniki to the Hawaiian shore in an 18-foot sloop. Skydiving and hang-gliding are still on her list. She says, "My colleagues might be surprised to know this about me."

Posted Aug. 31, 2009

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