Supreme Court Justice Alito is wrong about the history of so-called traditional marriage
During yesterday’s oral arguments concerning the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, a staunch conservative, said this:
“Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new.”
But Alito was wrong on both counts. History shows that marriage is an ever-changing institution. Nor is same-sex marriage anything new.
Actually, the institution [of marriage] has been in a process of constant evolution. Pair-bonding began in the Stone Age as a way of organizing and controlling sexual conduct and providing a stable structure for child-rearing and the tasks of daily life. But that basic concept has taken many forms across different cultures and eras. “Whenever people talk about traditional marriage or traditional families, historians throw up their hands,” said Steven Mintz, a history professor at Columbia University. “We say, ‘When and where?’” The ancient Hebrews, for instance, engaged in polygamy — according to the Bible, King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines — and men have taken multiple wives in cultures throughout the world, including China, Africa, and among American Mormons in the 19th century. Polygamy is still common across much of the Muslim world. The idea of marriage as a sexually exclusive, romantic union between one man and one woman is a relatively recent development. Until two centuries ago, said Harvard historian Nancy Cott, “monogamous households were a tiny, tiny portion” of the world population, found in “just Western Europe and little settlements in North America.”
What role did love play?
For most of human history, almost none at all. Marriage was considered too serious a matter to be based on such a fragile emotion. “If love could grow out of it, that was wonderful,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History. “But that was gravy.” In fact, love and marriage were once widely regarded as incompatible with one another. A Roman politician was expelled from the Senate in the 2nd century B.C. for kissing his wife in public — behavior the essayist Plutarch condemned as “disgraceful.” In the 12th and 13th centuries, the European aristocracy viewed extramarital affairs as the highest form of romance, untainted by the gritty realities of daily life. And as late as the 18th century, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was probably too dull to be loved by another woman.
Did marriage change in the 20th century?
Dramatically. For thousands of years, law and custom enforced the subordination of wives to husbands. But as the women’s-rights movement gained strength in the late 19th and 20th centuries, wives slowly began to insist on being regarded as their husbands’ equals, rather than their property. “By 1970,” said Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Wife, “marriage law had become gender-neutral in Western democracy.” At the same time, the rise of effective contraception fundamentally transformed marriage: Couples could choose how many children to have, and even to have no children at all. If they were unhappy with each other, they could divorce — and nearly half of all couples did. Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness.
Same-sex unions aren’t a recent invention. Until the 13th century, male-bonding ceremonies were common in churches across the Mediterranean. Apart from the couples’ gender, these events were almost indistinguishable from other marriages of the era. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions — also known as “spiritual brotherhoods” — included the recital of marriage prayers, the joining of hands at the altar, and a ceremonial kiss. Some historians believe these unions were merely a way to seal alliances and business deals. But Eric Berkowitz, author of Sex and Punishment, says it is “difficult to believe that these rituals did not contemplate erotic contact.