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Management in Practice

What Sparks Social Change?

Social structures, attitudes, and laws can seem unchangeable—and then in the historical blink of an eye, a society is transformed. What prompts such change? Margaret Marshall, the judge who wrote a key decision in the development of same-sex marriage in the U.S., says it takes a lot more than any one court case.

In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made the state the first to legalize same-sex marriage. There are now 18 states plus the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal. Proponents argue that a tipping point has occurred and it’s only a matter of time before the entire country joins in. Regardless, the current state of affairs represents a huge shift from a mere decade ago, when gay marriage was inconceivable to many.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll in 2004 found that only 41% of Americans favored making same-sex marriage legal. The same poll last year found that number had risen to nearly 60%. The shift has been both cultural and demographic. Polls have found that Catholics, African-Americans, and Hispanics—three groups that tend to be more culturally conservative—all favor legalizing gay marriage. The numbers are more dramatic among younger Americans, among whom even evangelical Christians now favor same-sex marriage. The reasons for such a dramatic shift can be debated, but it’s clear that same-sex marriage has gone mainstream.

The movement to legalize gay marriage has implications for many aspects of life, including the economic. Soon after gay marriage was legalized in New York, the city’s tourism board launched a marketing campaign to promote it as a gay marriage mecca. A state senate conference estimated that the 2011 law would pump nearly $400 million over three years into the state economy, resulting from more than 30,000 gay and lesbian weddings. A similar study for Washington state estimated that gay marriage would increase tax receipts by $8 million over three years, while boosting the economy by nearly $90 million.

But these are largely short-term boons that should wane as pent-up demand abates. The long-term economic impacts results not from the wedding day but from the marriage itself. “The big prize for a lot of families…is the fact that they get health insurance,” said Lee Badgett, director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

One estimate puts the number of same-sex couples in the United States at 780,000. States legalizing gay marriage will allow many men and women to join their spouses’ employer-provided health insurance. Last fall’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act made even more options available to gay and lesbian couples, including the ability to shop on Obamacare exchanges and apply for Medicaid as families. In addition, the ruling will allow spouses to receive federal retirement, Social Security, and tax benefits.

There have been complaints from some in the business community that legalizing gay marriage will force significant health insurance costs on businesses. A study by Badget and Gary Gates of the University of California at Los Angeles’ Williams Center estimates that tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of new spouses will be added to employee health plans, and for those individuals the consequences may be life-changing. But seen in a national context, the impact will be minimal; 96% of companies won’t be affected. “Business have little to be worried about,” the study says.

Did the decision by the Massachusetts court start all this? We asked the woman who wrote the decision: Margaret Marshall JD ’76, former chief justice for Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Marshall was deeply involved in fighting for civil rights in her home country, South Africa, as part of the anti-apartheid movement. But in the case of same-sex marriage, she does not see herself as being a catalyst for social change. “Judges don’t make social change,” she said. “Judges decide cases.”

The change in the legal and social environment for same-sex marriage seems breathtakingly fast. But Marshall notes that social change—whether same-sex marriage, civil rights for racial minorities, or the enfranchisement of women—often requires decades of work leading to what appears to be a sudden transformation. “The first legal claims for same-sex marriage were actually brought 40 or 50 years ago—people forget that,” she said. “So it depends on whose shoes you’re in. Some might say the last decade hasn’t been rapid at all.”