Stephanie Coontz: It Was Straights Who Undermined Marriage, Not Gays
[Stephanie Coontz, the director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, is the author of "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered 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....
I am old enough to remember the howls of protest with which some defenders of traditional marriage greeted the gradual dismantling of these traditions [giving the husband control of the marriage]. At the time, I thought that the far-right opponents of marital equality were wrong to predict that this would lead to the unraveling of marriage. As it turned out, they had a point....
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.
comments powered by Disqus
DeWayne Edward Benson - 11/1/2006
Banning gay marriage will not turn back the clock?
This should be considered a very child-like argument, except that unfortunately supposed mature adults use twisted logic like this rather often these days.
Reluctance to ban gay marraige reminds me of common however the good advice given by many mothers, if everyone were jumping off a cliff, would you do the same.
No, I would say that in fact keeping the sanctity of marriage, like bandaging a laceration of the body is a good idea, not only does it keep the wound clean but also protects the subject injury.
Of course if masochism is your thing in not caring about social disintigration, go ahead, but count me only as a reluctant witness.