Monday, January 10, 2011

The changing face of "traditional" marriage

It has long been pointed out that Biblically "traditional" marriage is one guy with multiple wives. But even in modern times, marriage has changed in really revolutionary ways. From the WaPo, marriage scholar Stepanie Coontz writes, Gay marriage isn't revolutionary. It's just next..
...We are near the end of a two-stage revolution in the social understanding and legal definition of marriage. This revolution has overturned the most traditional functions of the institution: to reinforce differences in wealth and power and to establish distinct and unequal roles for men and women under the law.
Coontz goes on to point out that really traditional marriage was about controlling property and power. Think of arranged marriages between the aristocracy, loveless marriages that merged companies and estates. Marriage was, frankly, a contract between men: a groom and the father of the bride. The woman was simply part of the payment.
For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty. For others, it was a privilege, not a right. Often, servants, slaves and paupers were forbidden to wed.

But a little more than two centuries ago...Love, not money, became the main reason for getting married, and more liberal divorce laws logically followed. After all, people reasoned, if love is gone, why persist in the marriage? Divorce rates rose steadily from the 1850s through the 1950s, long before the surge that initially accompanied the broad entry of women into the workforce.
Okay, so there's revolution number 1: it allows that the couple who are to marry are the ones to make the decision, not their fathers, not their clans, not their tribes. This is a hallmark of modern society, but even so has not uniform. Lots of cultures still arrange marriages. And brides are still property, commanding a bride price, or a dowry. (Aside: interesting, isn't it, that in some traditional cultures the groom is essentially bribed by a dowry, while in others, he has to pay for her.)
Adopting love as the basis for marriage meant other changes, too, especially greater acceptance of the idea that men and women had a fundamental right to marry, even to people of whom their parents - and society - disapproved. By the 1940s and 1950s, many state courts were repealing laws that prevented particular classes of people from marrying. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for states to prohibit interracial marriage. In 1978, that court struck down a Wisconsin law prohibiting marriage by parents who had not met prior child-support obligations. In 1987, it upheld the right of prison inmates to marry.
So, we can see this as the broad culmination of 2 centuries: we can choose our partners. SO that's part of the argument. But really, as in much of LGBT rights, the issue is entangled with sex roles and the status of women.
...marriage continued to be based on differing roles and rights for husbands and wives: Wives were legally dependent on their husbands and performed specific wifely duties. This was part of what marriage cemented in society, and the reason marriage was between men and women....By the early 19th century, the old ideas that women needed to be under male authority because they were more prone to sexual passion and religious error than men, and that husbands ruled the home just as monarchs ruled their kingdoms, had given way to a gentler but equally rigid gender ideology.... Women were frail dependents whose nurturing nature and innate sexual purity predisposed them to sweet submission.

This redefinition of gender allowed 19th-century Americans to reconcile the new ideal of married love with a continued claim that husbands and wives had completely different rights and duties. And in the 20th century, even as the right of individuals to choose their partner became the cultural norm and legal reality, the insistence that marriage united two distinct gender stereotypes became increasingly shrill.
It's worth reminding you here that in the US, women were not allowed to vote until 1920. Contraception was outlawed in many states, and it wasn't until 1965 that the Supreme Court found that there was a right to contraception. It was legal for a man to rape his wife, because she belonged to him and owed him sex. Of course, this is all tangled up with property and power too, because of inheritance. Culturally, we have a lot invested in the control of women and their fertility.
During the 1940s, '50s and '60s, sociologists and psychiatrists remained adamant that marriage required strict adherence to traditional feminine and masculine roles....Well into the 1970s, marriage was still legally defined as a union that assigned differing marital rights and obligations according to gender....

During the 1970s and 1980s, however, a new revolution in marriage rolled across North America and Europe. As feminists pressed for the repeal of "head and master" laws enshrining male authority in the household, legal codes were rewritten so that they no longer assigned different rights and duties by gender. ...
And that's really the root of the issue. Homophobia (heterosexism) is just one strand to SEXISM. The problem with same sex marriage is that it makes explicit that marriage is a partnership between equals, not an unequal power arrangement. Both have equivalent rights. It's a change, of course, but as Coontz makes clear, it's not the gays who have made the change. Perhaps it's the pace of the change that is the problem. As Coontz points out, it's no accident that Judge Vaughn Walker in the Prop8 federal case spent some time on discussion of gender roles. And it's no accident that many if not most of the opponents of LGBT marriage equality have very old-fashioned "traditional" views of marriage.
Opponents of gay marriage argue that this trend will lead to the destruction of traditional marriage. But, for better and for worse, traditional marriage has already been destroyed, and the process began long before anyone even dreamed of legalizing same-sex marriage.


Erp said...

Agreed but note also for many Christians, traditional marriage was a symbol of Christ's relationship to the church (among other things) with Christ in the role of dominant husband and the church in the role of submissive wife. Does a changed definition of marriage also mean they have to change their view of Christ's relationship to the church? I think that is one of their fears.

JCF said...

Great article---says so much about how understandings of GENDER have changed, which make SSM a rather mild (as well as inevitable!) transformation of Marriage As We Know It.

My own little discovery re gender history: In the early 1990s, I worked in the payroll dept at a large US university. In that capacity, I frequently checked tax forms (W-2s, for withholding purposes). Some employees had been w/ the university for many years, so I could see how these forms had evolved. IIRC, until the mid-1970s, the form had two boxes to insert names: 1. "Head of Household" and 2. "Wife". :-O

In the words of the African-American prayer:

We ain't what we oughta be.
We ain't what we gonna be.
But PRAISE DE LAWD, we ain't what we was!