There Is No Such Thing As “Traditional Marriage”
Marriage has always been an evolving institution.
Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting article by Stephanie Coontz that makes clear the extent to which the “institution of marriage” has evolved over the course of human history, and in the process fairly decimates the idea that there really is any such thing as “traditional marriage”:
For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than mutual attraction. It was a way of forging political alliances, sealing business deals, and expanding the family labor force. For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty. For others, it was a privilege, not a right. Servants, slaves, and paupers were often forbidden to wed, and even among the rich, families sometimes sent a younger child to a nunnery or monastery rather than allow them to marry and break up the family’s landholding.
The redefinition of traditional marriage began about 250 years ago, when Westerners began to allow young people to choose their partners on the basis of love rather than having their marriages arranged to suit the interests of their parents. Then, just 100 years ago, courts and public opinion began to extend that right even to marriages that parents and society disapproved.
In the 1940s and 1950s, many states repealed laws that prevented particular classes of people—including those with tuberculosis and “the feeble-minded”—from marrying. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to prohibit interracial marriage. In 1987 it upheld the right of prison inmates to marry.
The path to same-sex marriage was further opened up when heterosexual couples began to push back against state control over their sexual and reproductive lives. Until the 1950s, some states forbade married couples from using assisted reproduction to have children, ruling that artificial insemination was tantamount to adultery and any resultant child was illegitimate. Conversely, until the Supreme Court ruled in 1965 that couples had a right to sexual privacy, many states refused to allow the sale of birth control to married couples who wanted to prevent or limit their childbearing.
But the most important cultural change that has increased support for same-sex marriage is the equality revolution within heterosexual marriage.
For most of history, the subordination of wives to husbands was enforced by law and custom. As late as the 1960s, American legal codes assigned differing marital rights and obligations by gender. The husband was legally responsible for supporting the family financially, but he also got to decide what constituted an adequate level of support, how to dispose of family property, and where the family would live. The wife was legally responsible for providing services in and around the home, but she had no comparable rights to such services.
That is why a husband could sue for loss of consortium if his spouse was killed or incapacitated, but a wife in the same situation could not. And because sex was one of the services expected of a wife, she could not charge her husband with rape.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, however, most Americans came to view marriage as a relationship between two individuals who were free to organize their partnership on the basis of personal inclination rather than preassigned gender roles. Legal codes were rewritten to be gender neutral, and men’s and women’s activities both at home and work began to converge.
Today, the majority of American children grow up in homes where their parents share breadwinning, housework, and child care. Some couples even decide to reverse traditional gender roles, with the woman becoming the primary breadwinner or the man becoming a stay-at-home dad.
This isn’t the first time that Coontz has written on this topic. Back in 2007, in The New York Times she noted that the very idea of marriage being a legal institution at all is a relatively recent one:
For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.
For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.
In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illictly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.
Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.
The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.
By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, “mulattos,” Japanese, Chinese, Indians, “Mongolians,” “Malays” or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a “mental defect.” Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.
In other words, to a great extent, the entire purpose of government getting involved in deciding what a “valid” marriage was for the purpose of preventing unacceptable unions. Some of those laws are based on the ages old incest taboo, obviously, but those types of marriages were already barred by the laws of every Church in Christendom. What was became new was the entire idea that there were other classes of people who shouldn’t be permitted to marry, either because they were deemed “defective,” or because one of the parties to the potential marriage was the wrong race. The licenses were a means of controlling the population, which is in fact the reason behind so many of the things that the state steps in to “regulate.”
The debate over same-sex marriage usually begins with someone on the right claiming that they oppose the idea of two men or two women being married because they wish to defend “traditional marriage.” What becomes clear after a short while, though, is that their idea of “traditional marriage” is roughly equivalent to what we saw on such 1950’s era television shows as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. Either by choice or pure ignorance, they seem to be unaware of the real history of the institution of marriage, which has been evolving from the very beginning in the manner that Coontz describes in her article. In the beginning, women had almost no rights once they became married and were considered property of their husbands. Indeed, the colloquialism “rule of thumb,” refers to a medieval rule that said that a man could hit his wife with anything that wasn’t bigger than the width of his thumb.1 Children didn’t fare much better in those days. Today, though, such treatment of a married woman is viewed, rightly, as a crime in the Western world, and societies where it is still permitted are, also rightly, viewed as barbaric. Would the advocates of “traditional marriage” want to return to that tradition? Of course they wouldn’t, which means that they too have to acknowledge that what marriage is has changed over time and that today, it is largely defined by what the people in the relationship want out of it, and typically that means a relationship where men and women are equal partners.
As Coontz points out, it is this evolution in the concept of marriage that has led to the point where same-sex marriage has become more and more acceptable. With the government now the primary determiner of when someone is “married,” the idea that it is an institution primarily guided by religious principles no longer holds force with many people. Traditional gender roles have changed significantly, so the idea of the working man and stay-at-home woman is no longer the only possible relationship people can have. Even more importantly, the relationship between child-rearing and marriage has been severed to a great degree both by the rise in out-of-wedlock births and the number of couples who either choose not to have children at all, or choose to have them later in life and thus have to rely upon assisted reproduction techn0logy. It’s not that far a leap now from the idea of marriage between a man and a woman to the idea of a marriage between two women or two men.
Indeed it’s not entirely clear that “marriage” has always meant just a marriage between one man and one woman. In his new book Sex And Punishment, Eric Berkowitz notes that there was a time when two men could go through a ceremony, performed in a Catholic Church before God no less, that sounds an awful lot like a wedding:
In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male bonding ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as ever more severe sodomy laws were put into place.
Such same-sex unions—sometimes called “spiritual brotherhoods”—forged irrevocable bonds between the men involved. Often they involved missionaries about to set off on foreign voyages, but lay male couples also entered into them. Other than the gender of the participants, it was difficult to distinguish the ceremonies from typical marriages. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions, for example, involved the pair joining their right hands at the altar, the recital of marriage prayers, and a ceremonial kiss.
So maybe same-sex unions are nearly as “untraditional” as their opponents think they are.
1 As noted in the comments, this may not be true. Nonetheless it is beyond dispute that women’s rights in marriage were fairly limited well into the 20th Century.