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The most radical changes to marriage happened decades ago

Dawn Deas (R) and her partner Wendy Hilts hold their finalized marriage certificate outside the Charleston Courthouse on November 20, 2014. They've been together for 14 years.
Dawn Deas (R) and her partner Wendy Hilts hold their finalized marriage certificate outside the Charleston Courthouse on November 20, 2014. They've been together for 14 years.
Richard Ellis/Getty Images

Opponents of same-sex marriage like to portray it as an unprecedented change in the institution. And obviously, that's true in a sense — marriage had long been defined as being between men and women, until people started proposing a broader definition a few decades ago.

But in her 2006 book, Marriage: A History, which was cited in today's Supreme Court ruling, historian Stephanie Coontz argued that marriage isn't the static institution that traditionalists imagine. It has been in a state of flux for more than two centuries.

Coontz argues that the expansion of marriage to include same-sex couples is the logical consequence of the more egalitarian marriages that were created by the feminist revolution. As marriage has become less gendered — with women becoming breadwinners and men doing more housework and child care — it became more difficult to explain why two men, or two women, couldn't participate in the institution as well as a man and a woman could.

Here's a transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Robin Gorsline, left, and his partner Jonathan Lebolt at their home in Richmond, Virginia. Gorsline is president of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia. Gorsline and Lebolt have been together for 16 years. (The Washington Post/Getty)

Timothy B. Lee: Traditionalists have portrayed same-sex marriage as an unprecedented break from traditional marriage. Are they right, or has marriage changed before?

Stephanie Coontz: Heterosexuals pioneered all of the major changes that almost made same-sex marriage inevitable. There are so many myths about what same-sex marriage means. People say that marriage is between one man and one woman. In fact, the most preferred form of marriage through the ages was one man and several women.

What we think of as traditional marriage, based on love and mutuality, was a new invention in history. For thousands of years, marriages were arranged — or at least parents had veto power — because marriage was a way you gained advantageous in-laws, made business deals, and expanded your labor force.

It was only in the late 18th century that we told people they should marry for love and that young people should be free to choose their own mates. For 150 years after that, marriage was still expected to be a relationship between a dominant man and a subordinate woman. Only in the 1920s did it become acceptable to say that a respectable couple should explore their sexual attraction before and within marriage and that sexual fulfillment was an important part of marriage. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that people gained the right to choose not to have children or the right to have children through assisted reproduction even if they could not biologically have children.

And it was only in the late 1960s that the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a right to marry even if we disapprove. [In addition to striking down a ban on interracial marriage in 1967], the Supreme Court also said prisoners have a right to marry [in 1987].

TBL: How did these changes shape the argument over same-sex marriage?

SC: All of these things paved the way for gays and lesbians to say that if marriage is about love and sexual attraction, not necessarily about children, if it's a human right, then it should apply to us. The one thing that stood in the way until recently was that marriage was a gendered institution that gave some rights to men and a different set of rights to women. When that changed, I think it was inevitable that gays and lesbians would say, "Hey, what about us?"

So I think many things paved the way for gay marriage. I think the civil rights movement paved the way; I think the feminist movement paved the way.

Another important thing was the willingness of gay and lesbian activists themselves to come out of the closet. People said, "These are not perverts from another planet, these are our sons and daughters, or at least our neighbors." There was this incredible change in consciousness. People are saying the Supreme Court is imposing something. The Supreme Court did impose something against the will of a majority of Americans when it ruled on interracial marriage. But today, a majority of Americans approve of same-sex marriage. This has been a stunning transformation in the last 10 years, and it preceded the Supreme Court decision.

TBL: Were earlier changes in the institution of marriage as controversial as same-sex marriage has been?

SC: One thing that surprised me when I was doing my research on the history of marriage was how shocked many traditionalists were about the idea that you should let people choose to marry for love. They were horrified. They said this would lead to chaos because some people wouldn't marry at all because they weren't in love. They also predicted — correctly — that it would lead to more divorces.

One American politician I read predicted — again, correctly — that this emphasis on love would cause men to relinquish their authority over their wives.

Interracial marriage was extremely controversial. It had much less popular support than gay marriage does today.

The equality of women in marriage was also controversial. In 1977, we'd already passed the first marital rights law in one or two states, the court had ruled that segregated want ads were illegal, and we'd passed the Civil Rights Act. Even then, an overwhelming majority of Americans believed the man should be the breadwinner and the woman should be the homemakers, and should defer to her husband's judgment.

Some people have real religious and moral objections to homosexuality. But I think part of the reason same-sex marriage is so vehemently opposed is that it really drives home the extent to which marriage is no longer a gendered institution. Some of the people who oppose it most viscerally are people who just hate the idea of men and women playing the same kind of role in marriage. They really want to go back to a more strict division of labor.

(Zoran Milich / Getty)

TBL: Critics have argued that same-sex marriage will lead us down a slippery slope toward other changes, such as legal recognition for polygamist marriages. Do you expect that to happen, or will marriage settle down for at least a few decades?

SC: I think marriage will settle down. We already have much more openness to nonmarital arrangements, whether those are open marriages or cohabitation or whatever. Those sort of things have already existed, but they are all coming out of the closet now.

That doesn't mean that they'll demand equal marriage rights. It's perfectly reasonable for a state to say, "Look, we have an interest in helping two people sustain their commitments, developing exit rules for when they break those, giving them support systems. But we can't afford to extend this to five people or six people."

So I don't think there's going to be that kind of slippery slope. To the extent that we're going to see more acceptance of unconventional family arrangements, that was a done deal before this ruling. It was a partial cause of the ruling rather than being a result of it.

TBL: Do you think the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage will affect heterosexual marriages?

SC: In fact, one of the exciting things about this is that as we embark on a really new experiment with heterosexual marriages that are egalitarian, where both partners share housework and breadwinning, having the model of heterosexual marriage creates new opportunities to look at what works and what doesn't.

One of the flashpoints in heterosexual marriages is how to divide the housework and child care. We're finding that throughout Europe, there's been this shift where women's dissatisfaction is an increasingly important cause of marital conflict and divorce. So to have the model of a group that has traditionally divided this more evenly and discussed it more thoroughly than heterosexuals have done suggests to me that it may strengthen, not weaken, heterosexual marriage.