How Marriage Has Changed

Posted on 10 Jan 2011 at 3:22pm

Stephanie Coontz provides a useful primer at the Washington Post on how marriage has changed over the years as gender roles have changed. She sees same-sex marriage as a logical step in the evolution of marriage. The entire article is worth reading. Here are a few excerpts:

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. . . . 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. . . .

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.

During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, sociologists and psychiatrists remained adamant that 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 American Medical 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 individuals who were 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.”

Coontz’s essay provides valuable historical perspective to counter arguments that marriage is a sacred institution solely meant to further procreation. It should be required reading for marriage equality activists.

Hat tip to Gay Marriage Watch for spotting this one.




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