Gay mar­riage isn’t rev­o­lu­tion­ary. It’s just next.

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - BY STEPHANIE COONTZ Stephanie Coontz teaches fam­ily his­tory at the Ev­er­green State Col­lege and is the author of “A Strange Stir­ring: The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique and Amer­i­canWomen at the Dawn of the 1960s.” coontzs@ev­er­green.edu

We are near the end of a revo­lu­tion in the so­cial un­der­stand­ing and le­gal def­i­ni­tion of mar­riage.

Op­po­nents of same-sex mar­riage worry that al­low­ing two men or two women to wed would rad­i­cally trans­form a time­honored in­sti­tu­tion. But they’re way too late on that front. Mar­riage has al­ready been rad­i­cally trans­formed — in a way that makes gay mar­riage not only in­evitable, as Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den de­scribed it in an in­ter­view late last year, but also quite log­i­cal.

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.

For mil­len­nia, mar­riage was about prop­erty and power rather than love. Par­ents ar­ranged their chil­dren’s unions to ex­pand the fam­ily la­bor force, gain well-con­nected in-laws and seal busi­ness deals. Some­times, to con­sol­i­date in­her­i­tances, par­ents pre­vented their younger chil­dren from mar­ry­ing at all. 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, peo­ple be­gan to be­lieve that they had a right to choose their part­ners on the ba­sis of love rather than hav­ing their mar­riages ar­ranged to suit the in­ter­ests of par­ents or the state.

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.

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.

But huge as the reper­cus­sions of the love revo­lu­tion were, they did not make same-sex mar­riage in­evitable, be­cause 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. Only when dis­tinct gen­der roles ceased to be the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of mar­riage— in just the past 40 years— did we start down the road to le­gal­iz­ing unions be­tween two men or two women.

Over the ages, mar­riage en­forced an un­equal di­vi­sion of la­bor, wealth and power be­tween men and women. Tra­di­tional English and Amer­i­can law­gave the hus­band sole con­trol over all prop­erty that his wife brought to their mar­riage and any in­come she earned dur­ing it. Hus­bands had the le­gal right — and the duty — to im­pose their will by force. A hus­band couldn’t cede any rights to his wife, said the courts, “ be­cause that would pre­sup­pose her sep­a­rate ex­is­tence,” ac­cord­ing to Black­stone’s Com­men­tarieson the Laws.

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. Men were re­cast as benev­o­lent bread­win­ners who ex­er­cised author­ity not be­cause they were the pa­tri­ar­chal bosses of the fam­ily la­bor force, but be­cause they were women’s nat­u­ral providers and pro­tec­tors. 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.

Dur­ing the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, so­ci­ol­o­gists and psy­chi­a­trists re­mained adamant­that mar­riage re­quired strict ad­her­ence to tra­di­tional fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line roles. In 1964, a year af­ter Betty Friedan pub­lished “ The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique,” an ar­ti­cle in a jour­nal of the Amer­i­canMed­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion de­scribed beat­ing as a “more or less” sat­is­fac­tory way for an “ag­gres­sive, ef­fi­cient, mas­cu­line” wife to “ be pun­ished for her cas­trat­ing ac­tiv­ity” and for a hus­band to “re-es­tab­lish his mas­cu­line iden­tity.”

Well into the 1970s, mar­riage was still legally de­fined as a union that as­signed dif­fer­ing mar­i­tal rights and obli­ga­tions ac­cord­ing to gen­der. The hus­band was re­spon­si­ble for sup­port­ing the fam­ily fi­nan­cially, but he also got to de­cide what con­sti­tuted an ad­e­quate level of sup­port, how to dis­pose of cer­tain kinds of prop­erty and where the fam­ily would live.

The wife, in turn, 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 were 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.

In 1970, in­spired by the Supreme Court de­ci­sion that in­ter­ra­cial cou­ples had the right to marry, two Min­nesota men ap­plied for a mar­riage li­cense. Asked by a re­porter which one would be the wife, their re­ply was: “We don’t play those kinds of roles.” The in­ci­dent re­ceived lit­tle se­ri­ous at­ten­tion. Most Amer­i­cans could not imag­ine a mar­riage in which one part­ner did not as­sume the dom­i­nant role of hus­band and one the sub­or­di­nate role of wife.

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. Over time, peo­ple came to view mar­riage as a re­la­tion­ship be­tween two in­di­vid­u­al­swhowere free to or­ga­nize their part­ner­ship and their par­ent­ing on the ba­sis of their per­sonal in­cli­na­tions rather than pre-as­signed gen­der roles. To­day, as Judge Vaughn Walker noted in his de­ci­sion strik­ing down Cal­i­for­nia’s Propo­si­tion 8, which banned same-sex mar­riage, “gen­der no longer forms an es­sen­tial part of mar­riage; mar­riage un­der law is a union of equals.”

Gen­der neu­tral­ity has made many mar­riages fairer and more ful­fill­ing than ever be­fore, which has in turn been a big fac­tor in the fall­ing divorce rates and steep de­cline in mar­i­tal do­mes­tic vi­o­lence over the past 30 years. And spouses who share an egal­i­tar­ian view­point re­port above-av­er­age lev­els of mar­i­tal hap­pi­ness, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers.

The spread of gen­der-neu­tral at­ti­tudes about het­ero­sex­ual mar­riage has also un­der­cut sup­port for lim­it­ing mar­riage to a man and a woman. Al­though well-fi­nanced cam­paigns against same-sex mar­riage still gen­er­ate vic­to­ries on Elec­tionDay, hard-core op­po­si­tion has steadily eroded. In Oc­to­ber, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­ported that for the first time in its 15 years of polling, less than half the pub­lic op­posed same-sex mar­riage. That poll also found that 42 per­cent ac­tively sup­ported it — still less than a ma­jor­ity, but a new high. Two other na­tional polls have found that a small ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans en­dorse same-sex mar­riage.

Sup­port for same-sex mar­riage is al­ready higher than sup­port for in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage was in 1970, three years af­ter the Supreme Court struck­dow­nanti-mis­ce­gena­tion laws. And since young adults ages 18 to 29 are the group most sup­port­ive of same-sex mar­riage, it is largely a mat­ter of when, rather than if, a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans will en­dorse this ex­ten­sion of mar­riage rights.

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 al- ready been de­stroyed, and the process be­gan long be­fore any­one even dreamed of le­gal­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage.

Peo­ple now de­cide for them­selves who and when — and whether — to marry. When they do wed, they de­cide for them­selves whether to have chil­dren and how to di­vide house­hold tasks. If they can­not agree, they are free to leave the mar­riage.

If gay mar­riage is legally rec­og­nized in this coun­try, it will have lit­tle im­pact on the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage. In fact, the grow­ing ac­cep­tance of same-sex mar­riage— an in­di­ca­tion that it’s not just the pres­i­dent’s views that are “evolv­ing” — is a symp­tom, rather than a cause, of the pro­found rev­o­lu­tions in mar­riage that have al­ready taken place.

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY KRISTIN LENZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

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