Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Patrick Ryan on the "Defense of Traditional Marriage" Argument

The “consensual approach toward commitment,”
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).


Mark Andrews said...

"Marriage is a human institution embedded in a political and economic history." That is true, but only because marriage is a human institution embedded in a social and relational history. The trouble with Ryan's Marxist analysis is mistaking political economy for culture - it's not, it an aspect or part of culture.

Ryan doesn't know what he's talking about. Find and read Bruce J. Malina's "The New Testament world: insights from cultural anthropology." You'll learn how family structure forms and is formed by social structures. Political economy is not the chief driver.

Michael J. Bayly said...

So . . . The writer's a Marxist . . . he doesn't know what he's talking about . . . we all need to go read so-and-so's book for the real answers.

To be honest, Mark, I don't find such a dismissive, know-it-all reaction to be in the least bit helpful.

Are you really suggesting that "social and relational history" hasn't been shaped by political and economic arrangements?

Is it even possible to disentangle all of these cultural elements? Ryan doesn't. He incorporates social and relational history into his piece (dowries, for instance). Do you really believe he "doesn't know what he's talking about"?

And why is he dismissed (and presumably maligned) as a Marxist? Because he emphasizes the political and economic dimensions of culture? I think he makes a compelling case for how these dimensions have shaped our social and relational lives.

I'm sure Ryan's perspective can (and should) be legitimately critiqued, but, as I said, the style and content of your comment fails to convey to me such a critique.

Rather, it comes across more as a knee-jerk reaction to . . . what exactly, I wonder? The idea of same-sex marriage? The idea that so-called "traditional marriage" doesn't represent some changeless natural order "enshrined since the beginning of time"? What's really the issue here?



colkoch said...

Mark the relational history you refer to is one of owner and property, master and slave, have over have not, and most certainly male over female--which is why polygamy was so prevalent in these social relational arrangements and polyandry was not a factor.

Your mistake it seems to me, is to conflate religion in the cultural definition of traditional marriage. Economics had far more to do with how marriage was lived and constituted than religion did. Relgious marriage only mattered in context of the nobility and then only to give God's apparent witness to a political contractual agreement.

Great article Michael and thanks for bringing it to our attention. It deserves a lot more attention.

Mark Andrews said...

Michael & Colleen, go read Malina and then we can talk. A critical thing about Malina's work is that its descriptive, not prescriptive. And without Malina's description, Ryan's analysis has a big piece missing. I won't spoil it for you - go read it.

Mark Andrews said...

Also, Colleen, the relational history I refer to is 1st century, Mediterranean, peasant society and culture, whose pivotal values were honor & shame within small human communities, within which all "goods" were perceived to be limited.

Polygamy was prevalent in those societies first because of the social obligation of the leaders of extended families to care for widows and orphans.

To retroactively project modern notions of property, rights, power, and patriarchy onto ancient society and culture, and onto the social relationships within that society, that created its culture, suggests (as a Zen teacher I had once told me) more hard training is necessary - for me, for you, for everyone.

And Michael - "we all need to go read so-and-so's book for the real answers" - you can't tell me you've never said as much. You have quite a long bibliography on this site to prove it.

Mark Andrews said...

Here is a link to Malina's book on Google Books. A nice way to look at the text without leaving the comfort of one's laptop (though I recommend buying the book. Used copies can be had reasonably).


Sorry for the long URL, but that's what Google gave me for a link.

TheraP said...

"Defense of Chattel" is what it sounds like.

Which certainly makes the "defense" much like trying to defend slavery. so marriage as a kind of slavery for women.

I've been married (42 years now) to someone who grew up in an agrarian culture in another country - where the saying goes: "A wife should be in her kitchen, with her leg broken." Now that is a peasant way of putting things. But it sure tells you something about the value of women and the need to keep them in their place (at least in terms of the fantasy of men). If anyone wants to defend that "traditional marriage," be my guest!

Thus another term comes to mind: "Defense of Male Fantasies (for Female Subjugation)."

Seems to me you need to "call it" what it is. Thus shifting the "ground" of the argument. We need to "take" grounds - and force the marriage defenders' convoluted thinking to the surface.

colkoch said...

Mark, I will follow and read your link, but I'm going to warn you that Malina is going to have a tough time convincing me that marriage wasn't first and formost a property contract, and more intimate form of master/servant relationship.

But then I'm a woman, and I will see traditional marriage through a different lense. As to honor and shame, women paid a much higher price for those two values then men did. They were the property and as Ryan points out, their personal violation was never an issue.

I will give you credit on the widows and orphans point. That however, was not the only reason for polygamy, and in any event, it did include the sexual rights of the male.

Mark Andrews said...

Colleen, Malina is not going to convince anyone that marriage doesn't have some "property" aspect in some cultures, that's not what he's about. What he is about is the function, nature and purpose of marital relationships in a peasant society. The thought was not so much "people as property" as "how are we going to bind the community together in a resource-equitable way so people can get some semblance of their basic needs met when there is never enough to go around." Think Maslow.

Unknown said...

Why is it that Americans call anyone they don't like a Marxist? It's quite silly.

1) To speak of marriage as a political and economic institution is not to condemn it. It is simply to say that that sex and marriage are historical, rather than natural or universal.

2) To speak of political economy, is not to speak in Marxist terms. In fact, what I've written would contest the line from Engles about middle-class families serving as a prop for capitalism. So, I agree with those that say that its not simple a function of relations of production.

3) You might want to read the article before coming to conclusions about what I say. It is brief, but dominated by a history of keywords. This would put me decidedly outside the orthodox Marxian group.

Let me recommend some books: they range from high-quality popular works by qualified historians to very difficult theoretical works by philosophers.

Stephanie Coontz, _Marriage, a History; From Obedience of Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage_.

Michel Foucault, _A History of Sexuality_.

Holly Brewer, _By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority_.

Mary Ann Mason, _From Father's Property to Children's Rights_.

Jacques Donzelot, _The Policing of Families._

These books will dispel the idea that the middle-class family (male breadwinning, female domesticity, child nurture) is consistent with a "traditional" order. But they will also trouble (more than my little article did) the relationship between modern consensual families and human freedom.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for the link, Mark. It certainly makes for interesting reading, and seems to me to support much of what Ryan is talking about. Take for instance Malina's writing on marriage:

"In the first-century Mediterranean world and earlier, marriage symboled the fusion of the honor of two extended families and was undertaken with a view to political and economic concerns [O-oh, a Marxist analysis?!]. . . . The bride's family looks for a groom who will be a good provider, a kind father, and a respected citizen. The bride does not look to him for companionship or comfort. Instead, as in all societies that exist exalt bonds between males and masculine lines of rights, the new wife will not be integrated into her husband's family but will remain for the most part of her life on the periphery of his family. As a rule, she is like a 'stranger' in the house, a sort of long-lost relative of unknown quality."

Hmm . . . I wonder if this type of arrangement is the "traditional marriage" that the U.S. bishops contend is "written in the law of nature and in the language of the human body and spirit," and supposedly a "truth enshrined from the beginning of time"?

I would hope not. Marriage has changed over the centuries. And as Ryan points out, much of this change has been brought about by shifting political and economic arrangements - the majority of which, I would contend, have clearly benefited humanity - especially women and (hopefully soon) LGBT folks.



colkoch said...

I often wonder if the Church's push against gay marriage is really all about returning to tradtional gender roles, and gay marriage is a threat precisely because it is about affirming love with in relationships in a much more overt way than traditional marriage. At it's core, this opposition is really aimed at women.

Mark Andrews said...

Keep reading Michael...there's more to marriage than money & property in Malina's model. And to "Idiot" - marriage is more than a historical construct.