May 10, 2012
President Barack Obama announced that he now supports legal recognition of same-sex marriage, the first sitting U.S. president in history to do so. The statement comes on the heels of a vote in North Carolina that banned state recognition of same-sex unions. According to a Gallup poll released on May 8, half of the American public supports legal recognition of same-sex marriages with all the rights and privileges of "traditional marriage." Forty-eight percent of those surveyed oppose it. But what exactly is a "traditional marriage" in Western society? And how has the United States treated the institution through its history? While opponents of legal recognition of same-sex unions define marriage as strictly a partnership between one man and one woman, the real answer is more complex than that.
Can You Choose to be Gay?
Long before marriage was about the union of two people in a romantic relationship, the institution had simply been about survival. For men, marriage was a means of ensuring the paternity of their children by entering a committed relationship with a woman (or more). For women, who often didn't enjoy the same rights as men, the institution ensured their own social security and that of their children. Aside from the personal implications of marriage for the parties involved, ancient marriages in Western culture were also about politics and social status. Marriages were arranged to promote diplomatic or economic ties. Money exchanged in the form of a dowry or a bride price wasn't uncommon as a means of securing a union.
Etruscan House Reveals Ancient Domestic Life
Although wedding ceremonies themselves vary by culture and religion, the near-universal symbol of the union is a wedding ring, a tradition that dates back to pre-Imperial Rome. The wedding rings in this photo trace back to an Etruscan ceremony dating to between the 6th and the 4th century B.C.
Bride for Sale
For those without power, money or status, the process of finding a suitable partner took on an entirely different meaning. Created by British artist Edwin Long in 1875, this painting is called "The Babylonian Marriage Market," and is based on a passage from "Histories" by the ancient historian Herodotus. The painting depicts how women in ancient Babylonia who didn't enjoy the privilege of a dowry were auctioned off to the highest bidder based on their beauty. The high prices paid for the most attractive women would supplement the dowries of the plainer-looking brides-to-be.
Although polygamy was common practice in ancient cultures, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were among the first to consider a monogamous marriage between one man and one woman as necessary in order "to foster mutual love, respect and companionship among husbands and wives." Roman emperors were among the first to outlaw the practice in the third century, equating polygamy as a crime equivalent to rape or incest, and punishable by death. The decree, however, certainly didn't erase the practice of plural marriage.
Thou Shalt Divorce
Romans not only led the way with the idea of marriage as a partnership between two people. During the Imperial era, divorce was also common. Divorce wasn't invented by the Romans. In fact, this image depicts a royal divorce decree dating back to the Hittite Empire in 1250 B.C. They did, however, grant it more liberally and equitably than past civilizations. Although either the husband or the wife could dissolve a marriage, it was easier for a husband to get a divorce than it was for a wife. However, a woman did have the right to insist upon the return of her dowry. When the first Christian rulers assumed control of the empire, beginning with Constantine, greater restrictions were placed on the grounds for which a divorce would be granted.
The spread of Christianity across Europe transformed the institution of marriage. The influence of the church helped clamp down on divorce, and marriage itself began to change in terms of how two people formed a union. In the 11th century, a Benedictine monk named Gratian advocated for what was then often missing from the typically arranged marriages of the day: consent between the two parties actually getting married. Gratian synthesized his ideas on marriage in the canon law tome, "Decretum Gratiani." This photo shows a page from a copy of the monk's original text. This work is what laid the foundation for what we know today as wedding vows, which were formalized some 400 years later.
Starting in the 12th century, the church began to recognize marriage as sacred. The ritual became what is known within the Catholic Church as the seven sacraments, and priests began to preside over the ceremonies for the first time. The church also began to establish laws over who could and couldn't get married. As HowStuffWorks.com's Molly Edmonds explains, the church forbid unions between "in-laws, blood relations and families who were linked by the bond of godparent and godchild."
Although the Protestant Reformation brought new ideas to the institution of marriage, including relaxing notions of who could marry whom, marriages throughout the Western world represented an unequal partnership between a man and a woman, in which the man treated the woman like a piece of property. That didn't change with the arrival of the institution on American shores. In fact, in the early 17th century, when colonists began to settle Virginia, women were auctioned off in a manner reminiscent of Long's painting, "The Babylonian Marriage Market." A "pure and spotless" woman arriving in Virginia could fetch 80 pounds of tobacco, according to Genealogy Magazine. Women brought over to work as indentured servants might even end up marrying the men they were working for. The wedding ceremony itself might have been religious in nature, but marriages were purely civil affairs. Men who deserted their wives or women who were adulterers could actually be brought to trial for their misdeeds. The notion of "love" was not just absent in a marriage in colonial America; it was frowned upon. As Psychology Today notes, in the 1690s, "Protestant ministers warn spouses against loving each other too much, or using endearing nicknames that will undermine husbandly authority." It wasn't until the 19th century that the idea of love as being natural to a marriage really took hold.
When a woman married a man, she ceded all claims to property and income to her husband, essentially handing over power within the partnership to her mate. In 1839, Mississippi passed a law giving women in a marriage the right to own property separate from their husbands, one of first laws of its kind in the modern era not only in the United States but the Western world. The law passed as a result of a case in 1830 in which a Chickasaw Indian princess married a white man named John Allen who was heavily in debt. When his creditors caught wind of his wife's wealth, they sued to claim her property. Chickasaw tradition allowed women to keep their own property, so the bride fought the creditors in court in a case that lasted seven years and went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Mississippi. Other states gradually began to follow Mississippi's lead, a first step in creating a more equitable sense of partnership within a marriage. By the beginning of the 20th century, every state in the union passed a similar law.
The founding of the Mormon religion in the United States brought with it a practice that had generally disappeared within Western Christian notions of marriage: polygamy. The new religion proved controversial and anti-Mormon advocates took aim at the practice of polygamy. In 1856, the Republican party platform even called on Congress to "prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism -- polygamy and slavery." A little over one year after he took office, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill outlawing bigamy. In the 1880s, two more bills passed meant to further dissolve the bonds of Mormon plural marriage. For their part, officials of the Mormon Church outlawed the practice before the end of the century.
Prior to the late 20th century, interracial relationships, let alone marriage, were not only frowned upon, they were outright illegal. Several states had anti-miscegenation laws banning the possibility of an intimate relationship between a white person and a man or woman of color. An 1883 case brought before the Supreme Court, Pace v. Alabama, in which an African-American man named Tony Pace and a white woman named Mary Cox had maintained a sexual relationship, upheld the constitutionality of Alabama's law banning such partnerships. Although states would gradually overturn interracial marriage bans and anti-miscegenation laws, more than 80 years would pass before the Supreme Court, with the case of Loving v. Virginia (shown here), would overturn legal prohibitions on interracial marriage.
Despite the laws in many states regulating just who can and can't get married, one legal blind spot that hasn't been challenged in some states is marriage between first cousins. The most notorious example of cousins getting married in the United States might be the union between American rock musician Jerry Lee Lewis and his second cousin in 1958. Although that marriage happened more than 60 years ago, laws on the books still allow for such partnerships, even among first cousins. According to a map produced by Mother Jones' Mac McClelland, some 20 states allow first cousins to wed. Some 14 others allow either first cousins to marry, with some exceptions, or will recognize a marriage license for first cousins issued in another state.
Prior to the middle of the 20th century, American women were expected to get married, have children and spend the rest of their lives tending to their homes. Women may have been an integral part of the workforce during World War II and key to the American victory in the war. But once the conflict ended, they were expected to go right back to the kitchen. As Psychology Today notes, the social pressure to get married was so strong that a survey conducted in 1957 found that four out of five people believed wanting to remain single was "sick" or "immoral." Those attitudes began to change with the women's liberation movement that began in the 1960s, with women cutting their own path that wasn't defined by a husband. The number of single women of working age began to rise, as did divorce rates of women who would rather be alone than in a difficult marriage.
Same-sex unions first became an issue in the United States in the early 1970s with the case of Baker v. Nelson, which challenged a previous ruling restricting marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Maryland became the first state to legally define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by former President Bill Clinton, prohibited legal recognition of same-sex unions at a federal level. In 2000, Vermont became the first state to offer civil unions to same-sex couples. Massachusetts went further in 2004 when it became the first state to offer marriage licenses to same-sex partnerships. Despite the gains that same-sex marriage advocates have seen, most states still have laws on the books either defining marriage strictly as the union of a man and a woman, or outright banning same-sex marriage.