Ph.D. Octopus

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with 5 comments

By Wiz

Nancy Cott’s essay in the Boston Review on the history of American marriage.

The history of marriage laws tells a more complex story. The ability of married partners to procreate has never been required to make a marriage legal or valid, nor have unwillingness or inability to have children been grounds for divorce.

And marriage, as I have argued, has not been one unchanging institution over time. Features of marriage that once seemed essential and indispensable proved otherwise. The ending of coverture, the elimination of racial barriers to choice of partner, the expansion of grounds for divorce—though fiercely resisted by many when first introduced—have strengthened marriage rather than undermining it. The adaptability of marriage has preserved it.

I always wondered if people who are opposed to gay marriage think about this history. Do they say to themselves “yes, in the past, it was wrong for conservatives to prevent interracial couples from marrying, and immoral for conservatives to try to keep women in abusive marriages, and it was terrible that women had no property rights in marriage, etc… But this time… this time we conservatives have really hit on the perfect unchangeable form of marriage and history will prove us correct! Every other conservative was wrong on this issue, yes, but we’re right!”


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 12, 2011 at 19:32

Posted in gender, marriage, sexuality

5 Responses

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  1. Nice catch at the Boston Review Wiz. This is something I pondered this summer, taking a look at why Cott’s testimony seems so crucial to changing the gay marriage debate:

    Quite honestly I think that your average American doesn’t “get” the history of marriage, i.e. s/he hasn’t really taken the time to explore or read up on it, and it takes moments like Cott’s testimony to bring the changing nature of marriage to light. Public memory is short and I wonder how many Americans actually remember or realize that miscegenation existed until so recently. Also prejudices shift, and given how “over” race we are (NOT, but how much we think we’re over race in our lovely post-race world) I could guarantee many a person who thinks that miscegenation was ludicrous because obviously there is nothing essential about skin color, but who think that gender is essential (different body parts!) and therefore it still really does matter what gender you marry. That is, given the way we think about sex primarily in terms of vaginal intercourse, sex looks the same no matter your race but not no matter your gender.

    But yes, I really think Nancy Cott and George Chauncey’s historical work is extremely extremely important in this matter, so go Team Cott/Chauncey!


    January 12, 2011 at 20:23

  2. For conservative Christians who rely on the Bible for guidance on the current marriage debate, I would say that yes, they believe that “this time” they are in the right. Marriage is “between a man and a woman,” says Genesis, which is often the verse used by Christian conservatives. There are no racial, violence, or property barriers discussed in the Bible, but gender is. It may be too simplistic for you, but it seems like rational, though not sophisticated, stance.

    And your final paragraph as a whole is bit ahistorical, isn’t it? Until the 20th century, virtually every politician/official supported stricter divorce laws, not just the “conservative” ones. The current political divides over issues don’t go back much further than 20th century, if even that far. And I don’t think most conservatives are looking for “history to prove them right.” That is quite a Whiggish statement, more apt to the trajectory progressivism envisions for the country than conservatism, which often overplays today’s moral, social, political decline.


    January 13, 2011 at 11:41

    • Its not my speciality but I would say that debates about divorce and rights within marriage well predate the 20th century. I know that Fanny Wright advocated liberalizing such things in the 1830s and the early women’s rights movement did address things like property rights within marriage. And whatever the Bible says about property rights, abuse, etc…, it certainly has also been used to advocate for far more than simply that marriage be between and man and woman (submission, etc…).


      January 13, 2011 at 17:22

  3. A point Luce made in that earlier post is important in answering Wiz’s question, I think:

    Of course when talking about “tradition” or “biological parenting,” at root opponents of gay marriage have always been evoking traditional concepts of gender within marriage. But I think there’s a strategic discursive shift to be made in driving home the point that banning gay marriage isn’t just about sexuality, it’s about turning back the clock on gender roles for all American spouses.

    While (most) conservatives and probably all “moderates” would deny a desire to undo many of the specific historical changes in marriage laws that Cott mentions, I think there’s a real, persistent investment in the sort-of “soft” gender-role traditionalism still widely-associated with marriage today on a cultural level.

    Apparently, a recent study by the self-described “moderate progressive” think tank Third Way reaches similar conclusions: “moderate” straight people “feel like they are literally losing control of the definition of marriage because others are trying to change it.” The study’s author goes on to make a bunch of arguments about the need for gay couples to accomodate these current opponents and “conform to the current rules” that are basically the opposite of my views (and it sounds like luce’s too). But I think it’s correct to note that the persistence of non-legal forms of what Cott calls “gender asymmetry” in marriage, and the real desire of many people to embrace and defend it, is an important factor.

    Brian J. Distelberg

    January 13, 2011 at 11:48

    • Oh–and, it’s my first time commenting, but I’ve really been enjoying the blog. Congrats on the Cliopatria Award!

      Brian J. Distelberg

      January 13, 2011 at 11:49

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