[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: The Heterosexual Revolution
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Wed Jul 6 21:18:39 UTC 2005
The Heterosexual Revolution
New York Times, 5.7.5
By STEPHANIE COONTZ
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
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.
In addition, traditional marriage imposed a strict division of labor
by gender and mandated unequal power relations between men and women.
"Husband and wife are one," said the law in both England and America,
from early medieval days until the late 19th century, "and that one is
This law of "coverture" was supposed to reflect the command of God and
the essential nature of humans. It stipulated that a wife could not
enter into legal contracts or own property on her own. In 1863, a New
York court warned that giving wives independent property rights would
"sow the seeds of perpetual discord," potentially dooming marriage.
Even after coverture had lost its legal force, courts, legislators and
the public still cleaved to the belief that marriage required husbands
and wives to play totally different domestic roles. In 1958, the New
York Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the traditional legal
view that wives (unlike husbands) couldn't sue for loss of the
personal services, including housekeeping and the sexual attentions,
of their spouses. The judges reasoned that only wives were expected to
provide such personal services anyway.
As late as the 1970's, many American states retained "head and master"
laws, giving the husband final say over where the family lived and
other household decisions. According to the legal definition of
marriage, the man was required to support the family, while the woman
was obligated to keep house, nurture children, and provide sex. Not
until the 1980's did most states criminalize marital rape. Prevailing
opinion held that when a bride said, "I do," she was legally committed
to say, "I will" for the rest of her married life.
I am old enough to remember the howls of protest with which some
defenders of traditional marriage greeted the gradual dismantling of
these traditions. 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.
Giving married women an independent legal existence did not destroy
heterosexual marriage. And allowing husbands and wives to construct
their marriages around reciprocal duties and negotiated roles - where
a wife can choose to be the main breadwinner and a husband can stay
home with the children- was an immense boon to many couples. But these
changes in the definition and practice of marriage opened the door for
gay and lesbian couples to argue that they were now equally qualified
to participate in it.
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
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."
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