Martha Ertman '85 Spoke to Wellesley Students and Alumnae About How Contracts and Deals Shape Families

July 20, 2016

Wellesley has always been an incubator of thought, a place where new ideas are hatched, said Rosanna Hertz, Class of 1919–50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies. Every 10 years or so, Hertz hosts an event called "Future of the Family,” during which scholars, alumnae, and current students consider how American families have evolved and how they might change in the coming years. The most recent event, held during the spring semester, focused on the work of Martha Ertman '85, Carole and Hanan Sibel Research Professor of Law at the University of Maryland and author of Love's Promises: How Formal and Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families.

"People don't like to think about contracts and deals in their relationships, but the reality is that all kinds of people—straight and gay, married and single—use contracts to shape their relationships," said Ertman, who majored in psychology-biology (which was a hybrid major option at the time). "Exchanges can be substantial, like vows of fidelity, or small, like 'I cook and you clean.' But regardless of scope, the agreements shape the emotional, social, and financial terrain of family relationships."

Those agreements, whether verbal or written, are especially helpful for families with more than two parents, which are increasingly common, and for families who have no legal standing, Ertman said, such as cohabitating couples. In some states, private contracts may ensure that people who consider themselves a family are also legally recognized as one. As Ertman explained, judges are far more willing to give private contractual arrangements the stamp of legality than legislatures are to change family statutes.

Even when the courts do not recognize them, such arrangements can still help non-normative families feel less like outsiders. "Moreover, those contracts and deals empower people to state what they’d like to give and get in a family relationship, saving them from arguing about, say, whether to spend holidays with one side of the family or another, or who makes dental appointments for the kids," Ertman said.

Ertman used legal cases and anecdotes from her book to explain how society and family law have changed since the 1950s, when the term "family" referred only to heterosexual, married couples. She also talked about her own family and how verbal agreements have shaped the way she co-parents with her son’s biological father, who is a gay man, and her wife, whom Ertman met two years after her son was born.

"Martha Ertman's book offers much for us to think about in this changing era where contracts are becoming more commonplace between those who have never had legal standing before, such as sperm donors and a couple or between adoptive and birth parents," said Hertz.

Ertman's presentation was bookended by two other alumnae, who talked about how social norms have changed since their time at the College.

Margot Coffin Lindsay '46, who majored in art, recalled that when she was a student, contraceptives were illegal in some states, even for married couples, and abortion was unlawful everywhere. "The women's movement had not yet begun, and no one had ever heard of gender studies," said Lindsay, who founded Grandmothers for a Brighter Future (originally Grandmothers for Barack Obama) in 2008. "So the country is now at a very different place. But for how long?... It was a hard fight to get where we are. It may require an even harder fight to keep [our rights]. So please, stay vigilant," she said.

Eleanor Blume '06 spoke at the end of the program. A sociology major who rallied her fellow Wellesley students to lobby for same-sex marriage in Massachusetts (which became legal in 2004 but was contested until 2007), Blume is now an attorney with the federal government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She told the audience that contracts and deals provide crucial blueprints that can become powerful catalysts for change, especially as people make their convictions more visible.

Jordan Namerow '05, a sociology major and one of several alumnae in the audience who studied family and gender issues with Hertz, said Hertz challenged students to consider how emerging ideas and reproductive technology provide new options and new challenges.

"At that time, I certainly didn’t realize I would become a parent to a donor-conceived child 13 years later, but it was a very formative experience for me to understand how a family could be created in a way that was very different from my own life story," she said.

Wellesley encourages the kind of innovative thinking that has helped students and alumnae navigate the ever-changing landscape of the American family, said Namerow, who recently wrote an essay for the Washington Post about finding and connecting with her son's donor siblings.

"Broadening the discourse about the varied ways in which families are created will help combat the stigma and discrimination that many families continue to experience in our legal system and in society at large," Namerow said. "The more people begin to normalize the diversity of family structures, the more social acceptance all families will experience."