Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Is Traditional Marriage?

A point often made by those opposing same-sex marriage is that they are supporting "traditional marriage." This phrase is at once ideologically weighty and so vague as to be meaningless. The term implies that marriage has existed unchanged throughout time. However, a look at history tells us that marriage has evolved throughout the centuries in response to other changes in society.

For most of recorded history, the institution of marriage was not primarily about love, or about the union of a husband and wife, or even about the rearing of children. Rather, marriage was primarily an economic union used to unite families and to create a work force. In primitive hunter-gatherer societies where survival depended on the cooperative effort of a large group, marriage tended to be a way of forging alliances between bands and extending cooperation and sharing resources beyond the immediate group. As technology improved, societies were able to obtain surplus resources and become more sedentary. This, in turn, encouraged the development of complex rules of organizing society, including the private ownership of property. Marriage was no longer viewed as a way of pooling resources, but as a way of consolidating them. With such high stakes, the emotional preferences of the individuals entering the marriage were not viewed as important concerns, and those without property were often not viewed as eligible for marriage.

This conception of marriage survived throughout the ancient and medieval eras. A major shift in the economic and ideological foundations of society created a corresponding shift in what marriage meant. The Eighteenth century saw the rise of the market economy and its attendant intellectual revolution, the Enlightenment. The rise of wage labor made young people less dependent on their families and their property, allowing them to be more independent in their decisionmaking. This independence allowed children to break free from tradition and make their own life choices, including what trade to engage in and whom to marry.

The ideological shift toward individual rights changed people’s expectation about relationships as well. As philosophers such as Locke were rejecting the divine right of kings, women questioned the absolute rule of husbands, instead arguing that "marital order should be based on love and reason, not on a husband’s arbitrary will."1 The change in society was summed up by John Stuart Mill:

What is the peculiar character of the modern world—the difference which chiefly distinguishes modern institutions, modern social ideas, modern life itself, from those of times long past? It is, that human beings are no longer born to their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable.2

As the Enlightenment largely discounted marriage as an institution based on extended family property networks, further economic and cultural shifts changed the purpose and meaning of marriage as an institution. As the industrial revolution shifted the means of production from agriculture to manufacturing, it changed the incentives for bearing and rearing children. Children were traditionally laborers, working on the farm from as early as age four. However, "[a]s people flooded from rural villages to cities, an uninterrupted flow of children stopped being a labor boon and became a poverty guarantee."3 Child labor laws further recast children as economic liabilities rather than labor assets.

The economic need to limit childbirth created a demand for, and the removal of the stigma against, birth control. The decoupling of marriage and childbirth changed the nature of marriage by making women more independent economically as well as focusing more attention on the intimate bond between couple rather than the duties of care for children. Sex within marriage had become an end in itself—"the attainment of that spiritual, mental, and bodily unity with the person beloved."4

Another economic change was the ability of women to make a living independent of men. While the market revolution of the Enlightenment made children less dependent on their parents, it also created an economy where women were financially dependent on a breadwinner husband who worked for wages outside of the home. However, household labor was a full-time job vital to the survival of the family. This interdependence did not create equality between the partners. Because men's economic contribution to the family resulted in cash, women were effectively denied entry into the public cash economy. This situation existed through the 1950s.

However, as mass production technology became more efficient, it became cheaper for families to buy many products rather than produce them at home. Also as labor-saving devices became widely available to consumers, homemaking no longer became a full-time job. Wives began to look for personal fulfillment outside of housework, including looking for employment. Meanwhile, single people could begin to get by without a homemaker at home.

Meanwhile, the booming economy of the 1950s fell into recession between 1973 and 1986, with real wages falling, job security decreasing, and housing prices rising. It became increasingly harder for men to support a family on just one income, and so women began to enter the job market, even those who were content with a domestic life. Dual-worker households naturally saw increased conflict about how to divide domestic labor. This period of job insecurity and negotiated labor helped shift attitudes away from traditional roles of husband and wife to more individualized arrangements.

This experience with market labor also made women more financially independent and more likely to leave an unsatisfactory marriage. The ability to survive on one’s own has also made women more reluctant to enter into a marriage unless their prospective husband has both the economic prospects and the emotional dependability to make pooling their resources worthwhile.5

In sum, when talking about "traditional marriage," it is important to understand that an egalitarian love marriage is not traditional by any sense of the word. Economic forces have changed marriage from an institution focused on wealth and survival to one that is largely centered around choice and love. Property, children, and a male breadwinner are no longer essential to make a marriage work. This frees individuals to focus on more emotional preferences such as emotional compatibility, and insist on equality between spouses. I'm guessing that most defenders of traditional marriage are not looking for a return to the "good old days" of coverture, dowries, and agrarian economics. With that in mind, what is so great about traditional marriage?



2. JOHN STUART MILL, THE SUBJECTION OF WOMEN 15 (1869) (Everyman’s Library 1992).


4. Id. at 84.

5. The source material for this essay comes from COONTZ, supra note 1, and GRAFF, supra note 3.


Charlie said...

Fantastic! I would recommend Newsweek's cover story for this week, but I'm sure you've already read it.

Jacobenz said...

Very nice! Thank you!