Stephanie Coontz teaches family history at the Evergreen State College and is the author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.” Today she had a terrific op-ed in The Washington Post about how the concept of marriage has evolved. A few key points:
- For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than love.
- 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…more liberal divorce laws logically followed.
- 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.
- During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, sociologists and psychiatrists remained adamant that marriage required strict adherence to traditional feminine and masculine roles….because sex was one of the services expected of a wife, she could not charge her husband with rape.
- Well into the 1970s, marriage was still legally defined as a union that assigned differing marital rights and obligations according to gender….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.
To this last point the author writes:
Over the ages, marriage enforced an unequal division of labor, wealth and power between men and women. Traditional English and American law gave 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 Commentaries on the Laws.
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.
Is a return to this sexist, misogynistic past what the National Organization for Marriage wants for America? Is the ultimate goal to win this fight and then shove Maggie Gallagher into the kitchen without shoes? Because if NOM was truly interested in preserving “traditional marriage”, this would be the precise outcome of its hate campaign.
The tragic truth is that NOM has very little interest in preserving even a sliver of traditional marriage. It is simply a bigoted, anti-gay campaign devoid of basic morality, modern values and historical context. In other words, it appeals to uninformed people who are scared of change, yet too obtuse to see the plainly obvious fact that marriage has already been radically transformed for the better.
NOM may score a few victories by exploiting the tapering off vestiges of prejudice. But, NOM’s Gallagher and Brian Brown will be remembered as toxins who stood for intolerance and against the tide of history. They will be seen as dishonest political hacks who made a living through chicanery and lies. Far from being the saviors of marriage, they rightfully will be held accountable for tainting and debasing the institution.
The history of marriage is a strong refutation of Brown and Gallagher’s ignoble campaign to single out, target, and harm a minority. People are finally understanding this and the polls are reflecting this reality:
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 struck down anti-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.
The writing is on the wall, but it is obvious that most of those who support NOM do not read history.