As promised, here's the paper I'm going to deliver at the California American Studies Association Conference Friday, April 20, in Kossified form (with links instead of some of the footnotes). It's a long read, since at academic conferences like this one I'm supposed to speak for 20 minutes, But I think it's a good summary of a lot of the issues that surround marriage equality, and I get to snark more than usual, especially toward the middle of the piece.
It was fun to write, and I hope it's fun to read. Come with me while I discuss (and I hope unpack) a couple of the discourses going on about marriage in those United States below. One is outright wrong (at least one side of it, that is), and the other one is at least a little provocative.
There’s marriage then
and there’s marriage now.
Obviously things have changed, and the happiness about these changes is not universal. In some quarters within American politics, marriage has become controversial, and this controversy has managed to confuse some of the real issues that marriage confronts in contemporary American society.
A brief history of developments in marriage in the national discourse since 1950 may be in order. The 1950s, as you probably know, have been seen as a sort of golden age in the development of American society, especially as far as the institution of marriage is concerned. With the stability created by the end of World War II and the GI Bill, men and women hurried to marry and start family life. Women married at a younger age. By 1959 almost half of all women were married by the age of 19 and 70% by the age of 24, and 40% of all men were married by the age of 24 as well. As this went on, the divorce rate declined precipitously, and by 1960, 95% of all persons were married. As Stephanie Coontz observes,
the cultural consensus that everyone should marry and form a male breadwinner society was like a steamroller that crushed every alternative view.
Majorities agreed that anyone who preferred to remain single was neurotic or immoral, and that the wife should stay home while the husband was the breadwinner. Marriage appeared to be the gateway to the good life with the increase in the availability of household appliances, large and small, and women were encouraged to focus their primary attention on the home. This was supposed to be the wave of the future, and this is the era to which the opponents of marriage equality want to return.
The legal system even worked to make marriage easier for men and women. After the Supreme Court struck down miscegenation statutes in Loving v Virginia (1967), which told Americans that there would no longer be any barriers to any man to marry any woman and vice versa, American culture believed that all the issues concerning marriage had been resolved. Then, in May 1993, the Hawai’i Supreme Court held that denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples would be unconstitutional unless the state could show a compelling reason to do so.
Immediately, the opponents of marriage equality began to complain that allowing same-sex marriage would irrevocably damage the institution of marriage in the United States, a discourse that has been evolving even until now. History, as you know, has paid little attention to this,and today, six states provide marriage equality to all their citizens.
(The late Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, being married by Gavin Newson, June 16 2008, photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)
The terrain is changing more rapidly than anyone on the pro-marriage equality side could have hoped for four years ago. As Nate Silver wrote in the New York Times a year ago today,
A poll from CNN this week is the latest to show a majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage, with 51 percent saying that marriages between gay and lesbian couples “should be recognized by the law as valid” and 47 percent opposed.He goes on to observe that this is the fourth poll in the previous eight months to do so. Since then, the gap has widened: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released March 5 indicated support at 49% and opposition at 40%, with only two groups – adults over 65 and Tea Party voters -- opposed. State level polls are even more encouraging. Matt Baume at lgbtqnation.com reports that nine consecutive national polls have shown a majority of people support the right of gay men and lesbians to marry. In Maryland, polls show 54 to 44 support for marriage equality; in Maine, 51 to 41; in New Jersey, 57 to 37, in Iowa, 56 to 36, and in California, 59%.
What rationale do the defenders of “traditional marriage” provide to support their case? The terrain is changing here too. Writing in 2005, Stephanie Coontz indicates that the opposition to marriage equality emanates from several sources: deep religious conviction, the fear that it sends a message that it’s okay to raise a child without a mother and a father, and the suspicion that "this is the final nail in the coffin of traditional marriage and family life" leading to polygamy and polyamory.
Scott Bidstrup, writing in 2009, provides two lists to explain the opposition to marriage equality. The first, “The Arguments against Gay Marriage,” include Coontz’s items, as well as the ideas that marriage is for procreation and the continuation of the species, that same-sex couples don’t provide the optimum arrangement for raising children, that somehow same-sex marriage would threaten the institution of marriage, that it is an untried experiment, that granting gays the right to marry is a "special" right, that Churches would be forced to marry gay people against their will (no one can force a rabbi, an imam, a priest or a minister to marry anyone),
and that if gay marriage is legalized, homosexuality would be promoted in the public schools. Finally, he notes that one argument states that if gay people really want to get married, all they have to do is to become straight and marry someone of the opposite sex, an argument which appeared in the news last December. It seems that a teenager asked Michele Bachman at a town hall meeting in Iowa, why same-sex couples couldn’t get married,and Bachmann’s response was,
They can get married, but they abide by the same laws as everyone else. They can marry a man if they’re a woman, and they can marry a woman if they’re a man.
Bidstrup’s second list is called “The Real Reasons people oppose gay marriage.” This list includes factors like people are just not comfortable with the idea, that it offends everything religion stands for (and of course this leaves out many significant religious groups), that gay sex is unnatural, especially since a man making love to another man betrays everything that is masculine (you can see the effects of homophobia here), the so-called "ick factor, that gay marriage would undermine sodomy laws (which Lawrence v Texas invalidated but which some conservatives want to restore), and, finally, that gay marriage would legitimize homosexuality (again, which Lawrence v Texas did). This list is worth comparing to the objections that groups like the National Organization of Marriage cite in their manifestos against marriage equality.
It’s not on the front page of their website, but the National Organization of Marriage has a page called “Marriage Talking Points.” It’s worth quoting at length since the site makes a concerted effort not to appear bigoted, and fails. Here is what they call their 3 x 5 card of key points:
• Marriage is between a husband and wife. The people of [this state] do not want marriage to be anything but that. We do not want government or judges changing that definition for us today or our children tomorrow.
• We need a marriage amendment to settle the gay marriage issue once and for all, so we don’t have it in our face every day for the next ten years.
• Marriage is about bringing together men and women so children can have mothers and fathers.
• Do we want to teach the next generation that one-half of humanity—either mothers or fathers—are dispensable, unimportant? Children are confused enough right now with sexual messages. Let’s not confuse them further.
• Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose; they don’t have a right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.
Let’s look at these five points. First, two points are about children. Thirty-five years ago, Anita Bryant, the former Miss America contestant and spokesperson for Florida orange juice, founded a group, Save the Children, to free Miami-Dade County from an ordinance that made it it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation in employment, housing or public services. I guess these appeals still work. Second, there’s the issue of convenience – “so we don’t have it in our face every day for the next ten years.” Both of these are at best tangential to the actual issue at hand. Third, there’s the issue of redefinition. No advocate of marriage equality wants to redefine marriage. What we do want is the right to have the real thing, not a separate-but-not-quite-equal equivalent, and we have the right to ask for that in the courts.
The fourth point, however, raises some especially tricky issues. Here, it appears that the issue is not marriage, it is divorce. Americans have always been familiar with the one-parent household, whether it is the product of divorce, or of war, or of other personal tragedy. A google search indicates that Maggie Gallagher, the founder of NOM,
has consistently opposed the idea of no-fault divorce, writing in 2010 (I just can't bring myself to link to her op-ed, or to anything in the New York Post) that the New York divorce bill is
a pro-divorce bill . . . [that permits] one spouse to divorce the other for any reason -- or for no reason at all. That's not no-fault divorce; it's uni lateral divorce.She goes on to say that
the bill's proponents repeat the same lies and half-truths that were used to justify so-called no-fault divorce statutes in the '70s and '80s -- as if we've learned nothing in the ensuing generation about the bad effects of divorce on children, society and even the taxpayers.This is a scare tactic. As for its verity, there’s a reason that the proponents of Proposition 8 in California could not get any of the spokespeople for NOM to testify under oath on their behalf.
There’s also a Q and A section, in which NOM tells its supporters how to explain they aren’t bigots:
A: “Do you really believe people like me who believe mothers and fathers both matter to kids are like bigots and racists? I think that’s pretty offensive, don’t you? Particularly to the 60 percent of African-Americans who oppose same-sex marriage. Marriage as the union of husband and wife isn’t new; it’s not taking away anyone’s rights. It’s common sense.”Yes, you are bigots, and there’s the wedge issue that NOM was so embarrassed to have people learn about. In a secret strategic memo for the 2010 elections and beyond, NOM laid out a plan “to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies,” specifically “to provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing [African-American] spokesmen and women [for marriage] as bigots.”
NOM is running scared these days. In fact, the organization recently put out a press release asking the Republican-dominated New Hampshire legislature to
pass HB 437, compromise legislation to restore civil unions for same-sex couples, and repeal same-sex marriage while protecting couples who have already been ‘married.’HB437 was defeated by a vote of 211-116.
There is, however, a second discourse, being conducted by second- and third-wave feminists, that suggests that for a certain group of heterosexual women, forces in American society have severely limited their marriage options to the point where it seems improbable that they will ever get married, most recently expressed in the cover story of The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” by Kate Bolick, November 2011.
This demonstrates that marriage may have changed coincidentally with the advent of same-sex marriage. This discourse appears to have begun with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 and the publication, in 1963, of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s expose of the status of the wife in the traditional marriage the people who oppose marriage equality want so much to return to. While the pill didn’t directly challenge marriage, The Feminine Mystique, with its emphasis on the constricting character of domesticity, made some women begin to think that the culture’s emphasis on marriage might be misplaced.
It might appear that the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in part a response to the issues Betty Freidan raised, led to the overthrow of “traditional” marriage, but, as Stephanie Coontz notes,
many of the forces that transformed marriage . . . were already at work under the surface in the 1950s.
The defense of “traditional marriage,” however, did emerge in the 1970s as a response to the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, as the liberalization of society resulted in increased acceptance of singlehood, childlessness, divorce (California had adopted no-fault divorce in 1969 and thirty-six states had followed by 1973), married women working, unmarried cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing. This sparked a backlash against feminism, led by people like Phyllis Schlafly and against any attempt to redefine marriage in what appeared to be a more permissive era.
Despite this, Coontz, influenced by the work of the British demographer Kathleen Kiernan, suggests that the United States, by 2000, had reached a stage of social organization in which cohabitation has become a socially acceptable form of marriage.
So we are now in an era in which marriage has become more fair as it has become more optional, and in which women, in particular, have begun to rate marriage less highly than men. Society and its expectations have not necessarily caught up with this, and it is thus that “All the Single Ladies” suggests it is now time “to acknowledge the end of ‘traditional’ marriage as society’s highest ideal.” Bolick, a 36 year old single woman who has never been married, uses her own biography to illuminate the issues involved in finding a suitable marriage partner in today’s American society. She has done quite a bit of research: she cites the psychologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul F. Secord who developed a theory in 1983 that suggests that members of the gender in shorter supply are less dependent on their partners, although this differs greatly by gender. A test of this theory in 1988 found that its dynamics were more pronounced in developed countries, but that overall more men meant more married women, less divorce, and fewer women in the workforce, and more women meant fewer people marry and those who do, marry in later life. Bolick interprets this as “In other words – capitalist men are pigs.”
The main problem, for Bolick, is that a variety of studies, as well as the work of Terry McMillan in books like Waiting to Exhale, have reported “that professionally successful, college educated women [are] confronted with a shrinking pool of like-minded marriage prospects.” On the American college campus, women outnumber men by 57% to 43%, with the result that the social norms against casual sex have weakened to produce what’s called “hookup culture” which, “Depending on whom you ask, this has either liberated young women from being ashamed of their sexual urges, or forced them into a promiscuity they didn’t ask for. Young men, apparently, couldn’t be happier.” When Bolick interviewed some of these young women to ask them about their views on marriage, they all said they wanted to get married when they were 27 or 28. Bolick reports that she responded by saying “Take a look at me. I’ve never been married, and I have no idea if I ever will be. There’s a good chance that this will be your reality too. Does that freak you out?” Yes, it did, and she suggests that all unmarried women experience that panic at one point or another.
Bolick concludes by observing that more and more Americans are spending more years of our adult lives unmarried than ever before, and cites the 2010 census. The census shows that the proportion of married households in the United States is 48 percent, that fifty percent of the adult population is single (compared with 33 percent in 1950) and that this is likely to keep growing. It finds that the median age for marriage is rising, especially for those who are affluent and educated, and yet, Americans still stigmatize single people, especially single women as “perverted misanthrope, cat ladies, some form of terribly lonely.” As the social psychologist Bella DePaulo tells her, “singlism,” De Paulo’s phrase for the negative stereotyping of single people, “serves to maintain cultural beliefs about marriage by derogating those lives who challenge those beliefs.” In fact, we see this in television, especially in reality shows like The Bachelor, which, as Judith Halberstam observes, “replace family sitcoms about the drudgery and necessary hardship of marriage (Roseanne) and challenge other sitcoms about the fun of single life (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City).” Yes, marriage is in trouble, but the culture hasn’t acknowledged it completely yet.
Bolick finally reminds us of the history of marriage as we know it, covering some of the same ground that I covered earlier in this paper. The tradition of getting married to one person and staying married until death is a product of the Middle Ages, as a response to the combination of the couple’s economic interdependence (is it possible not to be interdependent in an agrarian society?) and the Catholic Church’s success in limiting divorce. As time progressed, accelerating during the late 19th and early 20th century, “these older social ties were drastically devalued in order to strengthen the bond between the husband and wife.” Now that marriage, Bolick writes, is an option rather than a necessity, people are free to look for an ideal relationship of their own making. Interestingly, she believes that “perhaps true to conservative fears, the rise of gay marriage has helped heterosexuals think more freely about their own conventions.” Besides, the United States has long been a laboratory for sexually alternative utopias, from the 19th century Oneida community and complex marriage, the initially polygamous Mormons and the celibate Shakers, to the free-thinking New Women in Greenwich Village during the first years of the 20th Century. While Bolick is not prepared to argue that we give up marriage because of its ability to provide a good environment for raising children, she believes we should study other models which provide the same strength and stability to children. Finally she visits a friend of a friend in Amsterdam, an American expatriate woman named Ellen, 60 years old, who has made a commitment to living alone in the Begijnhof, an all female collective founded in the 12th century that now houses single women between the ages of 30 and 65. She discovers that Ellen has a male partner who she doesn’t live with, and when she asks if starting the relationship was a difficult decision, Ellen responds, “It wasn’t a choice – it was a certainty.”
So to conclude. Marriage isn’t what it used to be for social, legal and economic reasons, but people want to live together. What is increasingly obvious in the way Americans live is that so-called traditional marriage is only one of a number of living arrangements for Americans, and the people who want to believe it is the only possible living arrangement, no matter how sincere they may be in this belief, are trying to return to an era that has already ended. If marriage is in trouble, it’s because it has to reflect the values of a changing society, and these values increasingly include marriage equality. If we leave it up to the decisions that individual people make, marriage can probably be saved but in a distinctly different form, as it is currently practiced in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden.