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Conservatives Say Marriage Has Always Been between a Man and a Woman. They're Wrong.

May 13, 2015 in Economics

By Trevor Burrus

Trevor Burrus

What is a marriage? Conservatives argue that it is one man and one woman in a permanent union for the purpose of raising children. This arrangement, they say, should receive special consideration by the Supreme Court because of its long-standing place in society.

They’re wrong.

Marriage is a constantly changing social institution that adapts to social and economic conditions. And when those conditions change, marriage changes.

Our modern view of marriage — one that has generally predominated in Western societies over the past 200 years — is the outlier. Historically, marriage has been about finding good in-laws and securing economic advantage. And marrying for love is a thoroughly modern invention.

While many social and economic factors have changed marriage, perhaps none has done more than the shift in the economic status of women. When women had few possibilities for remunerative careers — or any career at all — marriage was more about securing financial security for herself and her children. In situations of poverty, marrying for love is not only a luxury, it is nearly suicidal.

Marriage is a constantly changing social institution that adapts to social and economic conditions.”

In some times and places, a “marriage” defined the roles of each participant, regardless of sex. This helps partially explain why same-sex marriage has been historically rare. In ancient Rome, for example, Emperor Nero married his boy slave Sporus and treated him like a woman. According to marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, most Romans largely found same-sex marriage repugnant because “no real man would ever agree to play the subordinate role demanded of a Roman wife.”

Similarly, some West African societies have allowed women to have “female husbands” — in which any subsequent children of the “female wife” were regarded as descendants and heirs of the “female husband.” And some Native American societies made a sharp distinction between “woman’s work” and “man’s work,” allowing same-sex marriages where two gender roles were represented. In fact, according to Coontz, such marriages would not have even been considered “homosexual.”

Nevertheless, same-sex marriages have been historically rare, particularly in post-Medieval Western societies. It is somewhat perverse, however, for conservatives to argue that the general lack of same-sex marriages over “millennia,” to use a word from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s question during oral arguments, somehow underscores the value and necessity of “traditional marriage.” For “millennia,” a church/state alliance marginalized and oppressed homosexuals via the law, including …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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