Supreme Court justices called to task for saying institution of marriage hasn't changed in millenniaBreaking News
tags: gay marriage
... The consensus of court watchers is that the court will overturn same-sex marriage bans nationwide by a 5-4 vote. That's encouraging, but the tenor of the discussion was still disturbingly ahistorical.
Where did the justices get the idea that the definition of marriage has been fixed for any period of time, much less "millennia"? What are the grounds for accepting any one culture's definition at any one point as the immutable definition of "marriage"? The historical and cultural evidence is exactly the opposite, and the scholarship long has been available in historical studies, press reports and books.
Among the more recent of the latter are Marriage: A History, by Stephanie Coontz (2005), and A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom (2001). Both make it plain that of all our social institutions, marriage may have been among the most flexible over the millennia. In definition and practice, it has evolved and devolved to meet economic and political demands, shifting cultural norms and biological imperatives. The mandate of procreation to preserve the human race has always been part of the definition of marriage, certainly, but rarely the only goal or, in some cases, even the principal one.
As Coontz writes, the notion of marriage as the creation of a family unit living together--man, woman, children--is by no means a global cultural standard and is even frowned on in some communities as unduly isolating. Polygamous marriages were legal in some American communities through the late 19th century, and according to some legal holdings, still are. And in other parts of the world and other times, the practice was by no means uncommon.
In some societies the institution has been seen as an economic transaction, with the daughter as the medium of exchange; the duties of husband to wife and vice versa, and their mutual rights regarding each other, have been changing right up to to present-day American jurisprudence. The notion of marriage as an emotional bond--the love match, especially without the participation or approval of the parents--is a fairly modern development.
In Shakespeare's plays alone one finds a kaleidoscope of purposes for marriage--for love, for dynastic purpose, for spite, for sex.
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