Stephanie Coontz agrees with some of the right wingers who claim that “traditional” marriage is in danger. But it’s not because of gay marriage.
The last week has been tough for opponents of same-sex marriage. First Canadian and then Spanish legislators voted to legalize the practice, prompting American social conservatives to renew their call for a constitutional amendment banning such marriages here. James Dobson of the evangelical group Focus on the Family has warned that without that ban, marriage as we have known it for 5,000 years will be overturned.
My research on marriage and family life seldom leads me to agree with Dr. Dobson, much less to accuse him of understatement. But in this case, Dr. Dobson’s warnings come 30 years too late. Traditional marriage, with its 5,000-year history, has already been upended. Gays and lesbians, however, didn’t spearhead that revolution: heterosexuals did.
Heterosexuals were the upstarts who turned marriage into a voluntary love relationship rather than a mandatory economic and political institution. Heterosexuals were the ones who made procreation voluntary, so that some couples could choose childlessness, and who adopted assisted reproduction so that even couples who could not conceive could become parents. And heterosexuals subverted the long-standing rule that every marriage had to have a husband who played one role in the family and a wife who played a completely different one. Gays and lesbians simply looked at the revolution heterosexuals had wrought and noticed that with its new norms, marriage could work for them, too.
The first step down the road to gay and lesbian marriage took place 200 years ago, when Enlightenment thinkers raised the radical idea that parents and the state should not dictate who married whom, and when the American Revolution encouraged people to engage in “the pursuit of happiness,” including marrying for love. Almost immediately, some thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and the Marquis de Condorcet, began to argue that same-sex love should not be a crime.
Same-sex marriage, however, remained unimaginable because marriage had two traditional functions that were inapplicable to gays and lesbians. First, marriage allowed families to increase their household labor force by having children. Throughout much of history, upper-class men divorced their wives if their marriage did not produce children, while peasants often wouldn’t marry until a premarital pregnancy confirmed the woman’s fertility. But the advent of birth control in the 19th century permitted married couples to decide not to have children, while assisted reproduction in the 20th century allowed infertile couples to have them. This eroded the traditional argument that marriage must be between a man and a woman who were able to procreate.
Marriage has been in a constant state of evolution since the dawn of the Stone Age. In the process it has become more flexible, but also more optional. Many people may not like the direction these changes have taken in recent years. But it is simply magical thinking to believe that by banning gay and lesbian marriage, we will turn back the clock.
Maybe the problem the right wing has with marriage is that they don’t believe in evolution, either.