Evolution of Marriage

I really liked Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Her thesis, that marriage has become more personal and more egalitarian, seems to be both historically supported and charismatic.

Coontz has an editorial up at the Washington Post, in which she presents this thesis and some of the major arguments: Gay marriage isn’t revolutionary. It’s just the next step in marriage’s evolution.

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.

Critics will say that this is simplistic, which is probably true. A theory is just a model of reality, and it will always leave out parts of the whole that some people find important. But on balance, I think that Coontz is right.

Nancy Cott, Harvard historian and author of Public Vows, seems to agree. She wrote an expert report for the court in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger. An extract from this report has been adapted into an article at the Boston Review: No Objections: What history tells us about gay marriage. Because of the context, it’s much more focused on American legal history than Coontz’s work.

Many features of marriage that were once considered essential have been remade, often in the face of strong resistance, by courts and legislatures. Economic and social changes have led to increasing legal equality for the marriage partners, gender-neutrality of spousal roles, and control of marital role-definition by spouses themselves rather than by state prescription. Yet marriage itself has lasted, despite these dramatic changes. Not only that: it retains vast appeal.

Why? The core of marriage as an intimate and supportive voluntary bond has been preserved. Today constitutional law sees marriage as a fundamental right. Most Americans are legally allowed to marry as they see fit. But same-sex couples remain excluded in most jurisdictions. This exclusion stands at odds with the direction of historical change toward gender equality and neutrality in the legal treatment of marital roles.

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