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The End of the Child Bride: Social Movements and State Policymaking on Underage Marriage
How did the issue of child marriage go from relative obscurity in the United States to occupy a prominent place on the agendas of the majority of state legislatures in the span of a few years? The marriage of minors is internationally recognized as a human rights abuse – yet, until recently, it has remained legal under state law. This issue has just in the last six years ascended to legislative agendas even without public attention or the backing of powerful lobbying groups. I argue that social movements were integral in heightening legislative attention to this low salience issue. The movement to end child marriage engaged in both outsider tactics like theatrical public protests and insider tactics like testifying in committee to engage legislators on this issue. Communications from social movement organizations framed underage marriage around survivor experiences and child protection. I complete two case studies of efforts to ban underage marriage in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Pennsylvania became the third state to ban child marriage in 2020 while Massachusetts could not get a vote in both houses on marriage age reform. Evidence in this study includes analysis of traditional and social media campaigns and other archival materials as well as in-depth interviews with social movement actors and legislators. I also conduct a 50-state statistical analysis of those factors relevant to agenda setting and policy adoption on marriage age reforms. In case studies, I find social movement actors caught the interest of legislators even amongst an ambivalent public through their framing of child marriage and the centrality of child marriage survivors to their advocacy. I find a low salience issue like marriage age reform is less likely to reach policy adoption when those frames conflict with more salient issues like abortion. My findings in the longitudinal 50-state study support my hypotheses on the centrality of social movement actors at both the agenda setting and policy adoption phases. The existence of outsider tactics and online campaigns were both positively and statistically significantly related to a higher likelihood of agenda setting on marriage age reforms. In the policy adoption phase, the use of insider tactics is positively and statistically significantly related to a higher likelihood of adoption. This project increases our understanding of how social movements can drive policy change even in the absence of public attention through direct appeals to legislators.