The “consensual approach toward commitment,”
says Patrick J. Ryan, is the keystone of modern society
and the strongest justification for same-sex marriage.
says Patrick J. Ryan, is the keystone of modern society
and the strongest justification for same-sex marriage.
In the November-December 2009 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, Patrick J. Ryan, an associate professor of childhood and social institutions at the University of Western Ontario, has an insightful article on how “traditional marriage”’s roots in property and commerce are ignored by conservatives (including, it should be noted, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).
The general premise of Ryan’s piece is that what reactionary elements within various religious institutions and groups call “traditional” family values, including “traditional marriage,” have virtually no long-term history.
“Marriage,” writes Ryan, “is a human institution embedded in a political and economic history. If we allow the ‘defenders of traditional marriage’ to blind the public to this history under the false premise that changes to marriage are a threat to the natural order or a challenge to God’s law, we will have missed the opportunity to understand the full implications of the modern world we have created.”
The crucial questions concerning “consumerist families of market societies,” writes Ryan, “must be pursued, but they should not create any nostalgia for the marital and family relations of the traditional world” – relations marked by an understanding of the home as a “site of production” and a “framework for the master-servant order.”
I thought I’d do my bit to help folks understand the “full implications of the modern world we have created” by sharing highlights from Ryan’s excellent article. This seems especially timely given that in Maine today voters will be asked to vote either Yes or No to the following question: “Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?” A Yes vote will take away the right of same-sex couples to marry, while a No vote will keep the right of same-sex couples to marry.
The “defense of marriage” argument rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding of marriage as an institution and as a word, and a deep confusion about what constitutes a “traditional” way of life. When marriage is redefined in terms of heterosexuality or even the capacity of two people to have children, it is not being reestablished in a “traditional” form but instead in a uniquely modern form, one that’s underpinned by a preoccupation with sexuality and a desire to police its forms of expression.
Traditional families hardly exist today in the United States or any other industrial society. This is not because we’ve lost our moral bearings but because we have rejected the ethics of a traditional master-servant world. Instead, we’ve constructed modern family ideals around consensual love, competent individualism, child development, and egalitarian companionship. Modern family ideals have a reciprocal relationship with a civil political order based on individual rights and a capitalist economy.
No simple definition
The first thing that one might say is that it’s nonsense to speak of marriage as if there was ever a golden age when it was a well-regulated, uniform, untroubled institution immune from political or economic conflict. Most marriage forms in the history of the world (approximately three-fourths) have been polygamous. This includes the patriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures. Until a few centuries ago, beginning in Europe, a multiplicity of forms among ordinary people were usually practiced without state or church regulation. Across the globe, marriage and sexual practices included persons we would call children or youths. It has been common in many places and times for sexual relations (including homosexual ones) to have been ritual parts of communal initiation. Thus sex has existed for most of humanity outside of a monogamous marital monopoly, or even the concept of consenting adulthood. This strange diversity troubles any simple definition of “traditional” marriage, but it makes one thing clear: what the religious Right calls “traditional” family values have virtually no long-term history.
What, they would ask in disbelief, haven’t heterosexual monogamy and protecting children from the outside world always been the central reason for marriage in Western civilization? The answer, in fact, is No. This concept of marriage wasn’t predominant until the Protestant Reformation ushered in a capitalist economy and the modern individual.
In English, the word “marriage” was derived from the French “marier” (to join) and the French suffix “—age” (denoting a condition or state of being). It referred to any joining with the connotation of permanence, whether one was marrying two bottles of wine or two people together. Against these deep and flexible etymological roots, our current sense of marriage is only a few centuries old.
The medieval church didn’t much concern itself with the regulation of the profane: sex, children, women, marriage, or family. Medieval marriage was one of the lesser oaths of master-servant fealty. In everyday life, if you lived as husband and wife, you were married. For many centuries in traditional Europe, what we call “common-law marriage” was how the vast majority of couples were bonded prior to the 16th century. Marriage banns, elaborate ceremonies for commoners, state licenses, family courts, the preoccupation with sexuality, and demands of romantic love, along with a sentimental approach to childbearing – all these accoutrements of modern marriage have conceptual origins in the Protestant Reformation, but they took centuries to develop and were irregularly practiced until the 19th century.
The history of “husband,” “wife,” and “family”
We can get a glimpse into family life prior to modern marriage by more closely examining the history of the relevant words. While it is true that “husbands” have always been male, this is because all owners of property were male. “Husband” comes from combining two words, “house” and “bounde” (ownership). To be a husband was to own, work, and improve the land – this is why we still speak of “husbandry.” Prior to industrial capitalism, a propertyless man was not only an undesirable spouse, he had no right to “espouse” (claim) a wife and had to accept a life as a servant in another man’s house. This makes perfect sense when we know that the term “family” originated, not as a reference to children or sexual procreation, but through the Latin word “famulus,” which meant servant, and its immediate forerunner “familia,” which meant household. A man who had no property had no way to establish a family. As a result, most men lived in a position of servitude within their master’s household. Even sons of propertied fathers, who could hope to become masters and husbands, usually had to await their inheritance before establishing an independent household. This traditional pattern of paternal control over property did not begin to erode in the Anglo-American world until the 18th-century.
The chief point of all this for the current marriage debate is that prior to the era of the American Revolution, property ownership, not individual sexual behavior or companionate preferences, defined both the terms of marital choice and what husbands did.
It is telling that the history of the term “wife” does not correspond to the term “husband.” Wife is directly linked to the word “woman,” but it is entangled with terms for women who traded things or provided valued services: “alewif,” “fishwife,” “midwife,” or “housewife.” The “housewife” legally and economically belonged to a husband (a house owner). This legal status (called “coverture”) is well represented by the practice of the dowry. Studies of colonial America have calculated that the dowry (tools and materials for household production) given at marriage with the bride were typically valued at about one-third of the property coming from the groom’s family. This property exchange at marriage ensured a competent household, which was the late medieval and early modern meaning of having a “family.”
The traditional household
Thus the words for familial and spousal relations in English did not draw boundaries around sex, reproduction, love, or children, but were far more concerned with relations of labor, ownership, and economic exchange. The pre-capitalist, pre-modern household was not a private “home,” a closed space for child rearing and romantic love of the domesticated kind. It was a site of production – a shop, a farm, a manor, a great trading House – where the distinction between public and private space was not at issue.
The traditional household was not about individual sexuality; it was a framework for the master-servant order. Just as the term “husband” was tied to the land and “wife” to trade, the terms related to childhood and youth – such as garçon, boy, bride, groom, and many others in English, German, and French – referred to the hierarchy of master-servant relations.
. . . Only in the past two centuries have the terms for childhood taken on the modern concerns with internal development and socialization. Placing the development of children at the center of traditional marriage misconstrues Old World marriage and family practice – and obscures the revolutionary implications of modern childhood development. Modern childhood aspires to create hardworking, competent individuals equipped to survive in a complex, market-based society. Starting in the 18th century, child rearing practice has overturned not only any particular tradition but traditionalism in general, favoring in its place a notion of the sovereignty of the individual and an ethic of progress.
A human institution
This brings us to the central flaw in the claim that constitutionally redefining marriage in terms of sexual identity will protect “traditional” family life, much less some imagined “natural order . . . enshrined since the beginning of time” [phrases used by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops] . Marriage is a human institution embedded in a political and economic history. If we allow the ‘defenders of traditional marriage’ to blind the public to this history under the false premise that changes to marriage are a threat to the natural order or a challenge to God’s law, we will have missed the opportunity to understand the full implications of the modern world we have created.
Modern marriage has helped to redefine legitimate family relations according to new ideals of consensual love, companionate gender and inter-generational relations, the rearing of children, and the warmth of domestic life as a shield from the competitive world. Its origins coincide with the era captured in the novels of Jane Austen, the Brontës, and Louisa May Alcott – works that rebelled against the enslavement of women in traditional marriage and insisted that the desires of the heart be included in the pursuit of happiness. The accompanying shift in family life helped shatter traditional patriarchal systems. American women sought divorces in vastly increasing numbers beginning in the late 18th century. By 1830, a Connecticut law articulated the modern definition of marriage that was coming into practice. Divorce was to be granted on the grounds of anything that “Permanently Destroys the Happiness of the petitioner and defeats the purposes of the marriage relation.” Alexis de Tocqueville observed at this time that “in America the family, if one takes the word in its Roman and aristocratic sense, no longer exists.”
A new order
In a very real way, the American Declaration of Independence was a writ of divorce from the traditional world, and with it the master-servant family started to give way to a new order. In 1848, the feminists of Seneca Falls, New York, sought to move the process along, taking Jefferson’s document as the model for their “Declaration of Sentiments.” There are factors that contributed to the development of secular society and its family relations, but if you need a scapegoat for the death of tradition, you can’t blame the gays; you have to go back to the American Revolution and to the rise of capitalism.
As family law was transformed into modern terms throughout the 19th century, market societies consolidated wealth through the rise of corporations, factories, and mills, and this progressively put the small householder out of business, transforming members of peasant, yeoman, merchant, and craft households into either laborers or professionals. Servants and slaves were replaced by employees, masters by employers. Apprenticeships became compulsory public schooling. Women gained rights to property; dowry and coverture were abandoned. No longer were all mothers, children, and laborers the property of a master. In line with the new economy, marriage emerged as a contractual state between consenting adults. Same-sex unions are the logical extension of this transition, because they rest on the strongest source of modern authority, the authentic wishes of the individuals engaged in the relationship.
Much has been written to condemn, and rightly so, the vulnerability and dehumanization of workers under capitalism, and there are serious questions about whether the consumerist families of market societies are ecologically sustainable. These fruitful lines of thought must be pursued, but they should not create any nostalgia for the marital and family relations of the traditional world.
One example might suffice: in early modern English law the rape of a girl over ten years of age could only be prosecuted as a property crime against her father. If he could not work out a deal with the “seducer,” he might sue for damages to his household. During the Industrial Revolution, such violence was re-conceptualized in law as a crime against the personhood of the victim, and a whole new possibility for human dignity became conceivable. This legal shift highlights the stunning moral reorientation that has come with the decline of the traditional family grounded upon the paternal ownership of property.
The larger public appeal of the religious Right in America hangs on certain key mystifications. One of them is the difference between a traditional and a modern social order; another is confusion about the world-historical role that American families have played in undermining Old World traditionalism. Clarifying the two allows one to relate modern marriage to the rise of personal autonomy over traditional bondage. Once this is established, it becomes harder to escape the conclusion that the consensual orientation of modern values provides the ethical foundation for a right to same-sex marriage. It should be part of a conscious effort to reframe the discourse around the question of equal protection under the law. Obviously, much division will remain. It seems to me, however, that a consensual approach toward commitment remains the keystone of modern society and the strongest justification for same-sex marriage.
- Excerpted from “Here’s Your ‘Traditional Marriage’” by Patrick J. Ryan (The Gay and Lesbian Review, November-December, 2009).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
John Corvino on the “Always and Everywhere” Argument
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
Scandalous News from Maine
The Same Premise
Is Anyone In the Least Bit Surprised By This?
The Real Gay Agenda
Separate is Not Equal
An Ironic Truth
A Catholic Voice for Marriage Equality at the State Capitol
A Surprising Finding Regarding Catholics and Gay Marriage
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Recommended Off-site Links:
Same-Sex Marriage Supporters Rally Outside Catholic Church - (WMTW, November 2, 2009).
Gay Marriage Supporter Removed from Ministries - Chuck Colbert (National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2009).
Six Tests for Equality and Fairness - New York Times (November 1, 2009).
A NO Vote in Maine is Important for Uganda - Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, November 2, 2009).
Marriage Equality as a Religious Issue - Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, November 1, 2009).
In Maine, Same-Sex Marriage is a Catholic Issue - Chuck Colbert (National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2009).
Beyond Comprehension - Thom Curnutte (Ad Dominum, October 23, 2009).