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I've referenced Stephanie Coontz's book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, before and am looking through it now to pull some passages for reference in an upcoming post. Of the books I've read on marriage, Coontz's is the most comprehensive take on how the "institution" has changed with every social change that's come down the pike. In fact, it's been in a constant state of flux. If you don't read any other book on the history of marriage, I'd recommend Coontz's book.

In the meantime, you can check out her recent op-ed, "'Traditional Marriage' isn't as Straight Forward as All That." (Love the play on words in the title. Don't you?)

Claims of historical fact about marriage can be proved true or false, and three of the historical claims made by opponents of same-sex marriage in Connecticut are demonstrably untrue.

First is the claim that the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman goes back thousands of years. Second is the claim that the Judeo-Christian heritage has always seen marriage as a sacred relationship that must be defended above all others. Third is the claim that marriage has endured for thousands of years without change.

...Whether one is for or against legalizing same-sex marriage, we must understand that it is heterosexual couples who have been tampering with marriage for the past 200 years. Heterosexuals repealed the old laws mandating wives' subordination to husbands and prohibiting divorce. It was a lawsuit involving a heterosexual Connecticut couple that led the Supreme Court to overturn laws forbidding the sale of contraceptives, thus giving married people the right to decide not to have children.

Heterosexuals also pioneered assisted reproduction, allowing couples who cannot have children to become parents anyway. And it was heterosexuals who repealed the legal definition of marriage as the union of a husband who must play one role in the home and a wife who must play a different one.

... Once marriage came to be seen as an institution bringing together two individuals based on mutual affection and equality, without regard to rigidly defined gender roles or the ability to procreate, it's not surprising that gays and lesbians said, "That now describes our relationships too, so why can't we marry?" If you don't like these changes in the institution, blame your grandparents, not the gay and lesbian couples seeking entry into this new model of marriage.

You'll have to read the rest of Coontz's piece to see how she catalogs the changes in marriage, or better yet read her book, but her point is that marriage has changed constantly, and what's referred to as 'traditional marriage' today is a relatively new invention that's already reinvented and changed as a result of social changes.

Ironically, the early Christian church wasn't exactly pro-marriage, or even pro-sex-witihin-marriage, because JC was gonna be back soon, so what was the point of marriage, sex, and procreation? After all, that time would be better spent preparing, because any minute now... But among elites, marriage was a way of cementing political and economic alliances, and securing family wealth. So, the church (when it was clear that "back soon" meant something entirely different to Jesus than it did to them) eventually got in on the act, attempting to codify what marriage was or wasn't, and who could or couldn't marry whom.

And then people started demanding the right to choose their own spouses, instead of the marrying whomever their parents chose for them...

Then the industrial revolution brought about economic changes that took people out of their rural communities, altered the economic framework of marriage for agrarian and rural classes, and made having a huge family more likely to cause a slide into poverty than to provide a much needed workforce...

That's around the time that the "breadwinner husband/homemaker wife" model was introduced and the "cult of motherhood" was born. But even that didn't last long, once women gained retain property and earn their own money. That and the increasing availability of education for women also changed marriage. Which, along with every other change, caused pronouncements of doom and destruction because of the way these social changes also changed marriage. Coontz's book contains several examples, but this is my favorite.

Dr. Charles Meig explained to his all-male gynecology class in 1847 that a female had "a head almost too small for intellect and just big enough for love." Women who attempted to use their heads for more than lover were "only semi-women, mental hermaphrodites," declared Henry Harrington in the Ladies' Companion. They ran the risk, he warned, of driving themselves mad by diverting blood an energy from their true center, the womb.

Presumably, because the blood was being diverted to the brain, but probably also because women who were educated, capable of earning their own livings, and thus not necessarily dependent on a man for their survival would probably change the institution of marriage. And they did. The majority of their granddaughters are living without spouses.

In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.

Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits.

... "This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where we can assume that marriage is the main institution that organizes people’s lives," said Prof. Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research group. "Most of these women will marry, or have married. But on average, Americans now spend half their adult lives outside marriage."

Professor Coontz said this was probably unprecedented with the possible exception of major wartime mobilizations and when black couples were separated during slavery.

William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington, described the shift as "a clear tipping point, reflecting the culmination of post-1960 trends associated with greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women."

"For better or worse, women are less dependent on men or the institution of marriage," Dr. Frey said. "Younger women understand this better, and are preparing to live longer parts of their lives alone or with nonmarried partners. For many older boomer and senior women, the institution of marriage did not hold the promise they might have hoped for, growing up in an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ era."

For what it's worth, Coontz also debunks the "Ozzie and Harriet" myth in her book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Even when it was supposed to be "traditional" it wasn't.

Every change heterosexuals have made to marriage also served to made it possible to argue for same-sex couples' inclusion. Do away with those changes, and you pretty much kill the debate.

So if it's "traditional marriage" people want, they might just as well do away with education and economic opportunities for women, as well as contraception (some states want to make it let pharmacists refuse to fill birth control prescriptions; condoms are on lock-down in some places; you can't talk about condoms if you're dojng HIV education in Africa; and there are people who think contraception itself is a bad idea) and divorce (Virginia conservatives are working on that), and go back to letting the parents (or their friends and neighbors, as Coontz points out was sometimes the case in villages centuries ago, when the entire micro-economy depended on who married whom) choose their spouses.

Believe me, that's an institution gay people would not petition to join. My guess is, not many heterosexuals would either. Maybe even fewer than are currently lining up at the altar.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.

Originally posted to TerranceDC on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 07:05 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Late I Know (34+ / 0-)

    And probably less likely to be read, but I wanted to get it posted. It's a good lead-in to a couple more posts I'm working on.

    Terrance Heath
    Washington, DC

    by TerranceDC on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 07:04:40 PM PDT

  •  The biggest (14+ / 0-)

    change of all--arranged marriages. Let's not pretend that arranged marriages only occurred in remote Arab countries or in India. Arranged marriages occurred for the longest time in Christian Europe and right here in America.

    I guess it was un-Christian to stop letting the man's family pick the wife...

    They are truly grasping at straws at this point. They will lose this war sooner or later.

    "People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution. They don't put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible." --J.R.

    by michael1104 on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 07:16:41 PM PDT

  •  This is really good. Thanks. (8+ / 0-)

    I am surprised that she didn't also mention that there used to be rules about which race your spouse had to be.

    Tom Menino heard the quad laser is wicked powerful.

    by theran on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 07:21:54 PM PDT

  •  Well: (7+ / 0-)

    Believe me, that's an institution gay people would not petition to join. My guess is, not many heterosexuals would either.

    On the other hand, I'm surprised covenant marriage has been as successful as it has, even if it's only marred a limited geographical area.  It's like people begging to make life worse for themselves.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 07:34:17 PM PDT

  •  Good thoughts (6+ / 0-)

    I was just floored when I read Marriage, A History.

    My senior pastor and I read it over the summer, and he led a 4-week discussion in our congregation.  What we learned from it more than anything else is that perhaps our expectations for marriage today are impossibly high.  The idea of a marriage based on love and mutuality is quite novel, historically speaking.  But where do we find intimate relationships based on love and mutuality?  Well, in (some) homosexual couples!  So it's only natural, as you say, that now that heterosexuals have tinkered with "traditional marriage" to the point that it resembles many gay relationships that many homosexuals want in.  

    If we straight folk continue to redefine marriage along the lines suggested by pending right-wing legislation, you are absolutely correct to note that even fewer people will be interested... gay OR straight.

    The Christian right is neither.

    by Lucky Ducky on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 08:08:26 PM PDT

  •  Along the same lines, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, BlueEngineerInOhio

    I really enjoyed Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family by Rosemary Radford Ruether.

  •  re: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    it is heterosexual couples who have been tampering with marriage for the past 200 years.

    Not only that, it's CONSERVATIVE heterosexuals who've done that.

    Beyond the usual Republican divorce list, guess who originally signed no-fault into divorce law in that dreaded time the right hates, the 1960s (1969?)

    That's right...RONALD WILSON REAGAN.

    Laura Bush's culture of life: RIP Michael Dutton Douglas 1945-1963

    by BlueEngineerInOhio on Tue Mar 20, 2007 at 08:49:22 PM PDT

  •  I was arguing with a family member (0+ / 0-)

    I asked him if he really thought that homosexuals threatened his marriage.  He started to think for a second and then said, "Yes."

    He's been divorced and all his wives have been divorced. Not one of the divorces involved a homosexual partner stepping in on their affairs.

    When I got married over 23 years ago, I spent $1,000 dollars on my whole wedding (dress included, LOL).  We had no honeymoon.  We borrowed $10 to go see Niagra Falls minutes away from where we lived.  

    What we lacked in money we made up for in commitment to each other.  Through thick and thin we love each other and trust each other.

    Anyone, gay or straight, should be able to have that kind of marriage.

    I know there is the important legal side to marriage too, but I just wanted to talk about the love part :)


    I've had it with the Fox News: "We Deceive-You Believe" fascist machine

    by IamLorax on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 05:24:51 AM PDT

    •  YES! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Turquine, jfm

      Since marriage is properly a religious rite and not properly a state power, anything the state does to marriage, whether it be taxation by marriage license, requirement for blood test, or whether it allows marriages based on sexual preference of the partners, harms religious marriage.

      Whenever people talk about marriage they keep talking about the sanctity of it, about how they plan to get married in a church, etc. They implicitly affirm that marriage is a religious rite.

      Then they go out and pass laws denying the power of religion to control its own rites.

      Some religions allow gay marriage, some don't. That is how it should be. Religious ideas compete in such a marketplace and the winner is determined fairly.

      Let's get the state out of the marriage business

      •  Also out of the tax breaks and benefits business? (0+ / 0-)

        Teacher's Lounge opens every Saturday between 11 am and noon. It's not just for teachers.

        by rserven on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 08:12:03 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I don't know... (0+ / 0-)

        Religion had nothing to do with my marriage.  It was between my husband and I.  I also never considered where I got married as an important part of our marriage.  I was married by the Justice in his livingroom.  He was in his pajamas and had to change. He forgot our appointment!

        The powers that be grant benefits for marriage. They should grant them to all:  Straight, Gay, Bi, Trans, etc.

        I've had it with the Fox News: "We Deceive-You Believe" fascist machine

        by IamLorax on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 08:51:13 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, but there are two marriages (0+ / 0-)

        One is the civil partnership, a contract between the parties as to property and whatnot, and here the state recognizes such partnerships and taxes them differently, it changes the way your property is inherited, etc.

        The other is the religious rite, and what business has the state here?  I recall when Sen. Frist was asked about same-sex marriage, he replied that he felt it should be banned, because he believes that "marriage is a sacrament".  If the state is to decide who can receive the sacraments, what would he think of a law that tells his church who can receive communion?  It is a mark of the feebleness of our discourse that no one called him on this obvious point.

        Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils. ~Louis Hector Berlioz

        by Turquine on Thu Mar 22, 2007 at 11:22:23 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  One thing has been a constant (0+ / 0-)

    That's a good summary of the book, which I'm about 2/3's through right now.  Did you notice that there has been one constant to marriage throughout history?  No matter what the reasons were for marrying or what sex or age or what their roles were, every single marriage has given the spouses the absolute guaranteed right to conceive children together.  Regardless of how a society has handled out-of-wedlock births, no society has ever prohibited or punished in-wedlock births.  In-wedlock births have always been allowed, every single society, every single era, every single marriage. Couples that were not allowed to conceive together have always been not allowed to marry.  That makes conception rights the true universal sine qua non of marriage: "without a right to conceive together, it's not marriage," according to my reading of history in Stephanie Coontz's book.

    Now this applies to the gay marriage debate because scientists are working on ways for same-sex couples to conceive together, using genetic engineering to modify the genetic imprinting of one of the couple's gametes so that it can be joined to the other person's gamete.

    Same-sex marriage then, if it is marriage, gives people the right to conceive children with someone of their same sex, including using whatever enabling technologies might be required to do that.

    But should we allow this sort of genetic experimentation?  Experiments in mice have shown there is a less than one percent success rate, unless you count the ones that were born alive but died before adulthood, then it is about ten times that, but still only a little over 2 percent "success".  Obviously, that is unacceptable and it should not be allowed at present, if ever.

    Or, perhaps Stephanie Coontz would say that we can change marriage so that it doesn't have to grant a right to attempt to conceive, so that same-sex couples can still be married even if we outlaw same-sex conception.  But doing that would change the rights of all marriages, not just same-sex marriages.  That would mean that our individual conception rights are not protected by anything, and would be vulnerable to eugenic laws and pressures.  To preserve our conception rights, we need to preserve marriage's conception rights.    

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