I’ve referenced Stephanie Coontz’s book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, before and am looking through it now to pull some passages for reference in an upcoming post. Of the books I’ve read on marriage, Coontz’s is the most comprehensive take on how the “institution” has changed with every social change that’s come down the pike. In fact, it’s been in a constant state of flux. If you don’t read any other book on the history of marriage, I’d recommend Coontz’s book.
In the meantime, you can check out her recent op-ed, “‘Traditional Marriage’ isn’t as Straight Forward as All That.” (Love the play on words in the title. Don’t you?)
Claims of historical fact about marriage can be proved true or false, and three of the historical claims made by opponents of same-sex marriage in Connecticut are demonstrably untrue.
First is the claim that the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman goes back thousands of years. Second is the claim that the Judeo-Christian heritage has always seen marriage as a sacred relationship that must be defended above all others. Third is the claim that marriage has endured for thousands of years without change.
…Whether one is for or against legalizing same-sex marriage, we must understand that it is heterosexual couples who have been tampering with marriage for the past 200 years. Heterosexuals repealed the old laws mandating wives’ subordination to husbands and prohibiting divorce. It was a lawsuit involving a heterosexual Connecticut couple that led the Supreme Court to overturn laws forbidding the sale of contraceptives, thus giving married people the right to decide not to have children.
Heterosexuals also pioneered assisted reproduction, allowing couples who cannot have children to become parents anyway. And it was heterosexuals who repealed the legal definition of marriage as the union of a husband who must play one role in the home and a wife who must play a different one.
… Once marriage came to be seen as an institution bringing together two individuals based on mutual affection and equality, without regard to rigidly defined gender roles or the ability to procreate, it’s not surprising that gays and lesbians said, “That now describes our relationships too, so why can’t we marry?” If you don’t like these changes in the institution, blame your grandparents, not the gay and lesbian couples seeking entry into this new model of marriage.
You’ll have to read the rest of Coontz’s piece to see how she catalogs the changes in marriage, or better yet read her book, but her point is that marriage has changed constantly, and what’s referred to as ‘traditional marriage’ today is a relatively new invention that’s already reinvented and changed as a result of social changes.
Ironically, the early Christian church wasn’t exactly pro-marriage, or even pro-sex-witihin-marriage, because JC was gonna be back soon, so what was the point of marriage, sex, and procreation? After all, that time would be better spent preparing, because any minute now… But among elites, marriage was a way of cementing political and economic alliances, and securing family wealth. So, the church (when it was clear that “back soon” meant something entirely different to Jesus than it did to them) eventually got in on the act, attempting to codify what marriage was or wasn’t, and who could or couldn’t marry whom.
And then people started demanding the right to choose their own spouses, instead of the marrying whomever their parents chose for them…
Then the industrial revolution brought about economic changes that took people out of their rural communities, altered the economic framework of marriage for agrarian and rural classes, and made having a huge family more likely to cause a slide into poverty than to provide a much needed workforce…
That’s around the time that the “breadwinner husband/homemaker wife” model was introduced and the “cult of motherhood” was born. But even that didn’t last long, once women gained retain property and earn their own money. That and the increasing availability of education for women also changed marriage. Which, along with every other change, caused pronouncements of doom and destruction because of the way these social changes also changed marriage. Coontz’s book contains several examples, but this is my favorite.
Dr. Charles Meig explained to his all-male gynecology class in 1847 that a female had “a head almost too small for intellect and just big enough for love.” Women who attempted to use their heads for more than lover were “only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites,” declared Henry Harrington in the Ladies’ Companion. They ran the risk, he warned, of driving themselves mad by diverting blood an energy from their true center, the womb.
Presumably, because the blood was being diverted to the brain, but probably also because women who were educated, capable of earning their own livings, and thus not necessarily dependent on a man for their survival would probably change the institution of marriage. And they did. The majority of their granddaughters are living without spouses.
In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.
Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits.
… “This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where we can assume that marriage is the main institution that organizes people’s lives,” said Prof. Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research group. “Most of these women will marry, or have married. But on average, Americans now spend half their adult lives outside marriage.”
Professor Coontz said this was probably unprecedented with the possible exception of major wartime mobilizations and when black couples were separated during slavery.
William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington, described the shift as “a clear tipping point, reflecting the culmination of post-1960 trends associated with greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women.”
“For better or worse, women are less dependent on men or the institution of marriage,” Dr. Frey said. “Younger women understand this better, and are preparing to live longer parts of their lives alone or with nonmarried partners. For many older boomer and senior women, the institution of marriage did not hold the promise they might have hoped for, growing up in an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ era.”
For what it’s worth, Coontz also debunks the “Ozzie and Harriet” myth in her book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Even when it was supposed to be “traditional” it wasn’t.
Every change heterosexuals have made to marriage also served to made it possible to argue for same-sex couples’ inclusion. Do away with those changes, and you pretty much kill the debate.
So if it’s “traditional marriage” people want, they might just as well do away with education and economic opportunities for women, as well as contraception (some states want to make it let pharmacists refuse to fill birth control prescriptions; condoms are on lock-down in some places; you can’t talk about condoms if you’re dojng HIV education in Africa; and there are people who think contraception itself is a bad idea) and divorce (Virginia conservatives are working on that), and go back to letting the parents (or their friends and neighbors, as Coontz points out was sometimes the case in villages centuries ago, when the entire micro-economy depended on who married whom) choose their spouses.
Believe me, that’s an institution gay people would not petition to join. My guess is, not many heterosexuals would either. Maybe even fewer than are currently lining up at the altar.