Coontz’s argument concerning gay marriage has the following premises: first, that marriage has been about property rather than power for thousands of years (Coontz). This, I believe, is indisputably true. One need look only at the Torah or the Qu’ran to see that this is the case: from a theistic perspective, provisions in these texts are expressions of the divine will for the people at whom they are directed; from a non-theistic perspective, they are at the very least reflections of their societies’ attitudes concerning how marriage ought to be done and what it ought to mean. There are provisions, of course, that seem aimed at establishing domestic bliss, or at least as close as they could have gotten at the time, but promoting something resembling fair and ethical treatment and the happiness of those involved in a marriage is very different from basing a marriage on romantic love. Marriages have historically been used to preserve or distribute authority, influence, and property, and the laws and traditions that revolve around them reflect this.
Marriage for love is itself an important change in the marital relationship (Coontz). Moreover, it is not a particularly old one — but nor is it a project of this generation to redefine marriage. The shift to viewing marriage as being a relationship primarily or entirely based on love rather than the allocation of property is one that began, according to Coontz, around 200 years ago. Coontz claims that this had societal consequences, and ultimately changed our societal understanding of who may or may not get married. Coontz further believes that it is because of this shift in understanding marriage that there was a gendered redistribution of marital authority; that is, that the husband no longer maintained control over the wife’s finances, and so on.
However, I find this unpersuasive. Changes in the relationship between husband and wife, and changes in the ability of certain groups to get married, seem to have coincided far more closely with advances in rights and protections for those groups than with the — very real — shift in attitudes about marriage in particular. However, Coontz is right in one very important respect, and that is enough for her position on gay marriage to still be a well-supported one: whatever the reasons for the changes in societal attitudes about marriage, those attitudes have changed, and one of the ways in which they have changed is they have turned against an explicit gendered division of marriage. In other words, beliefs of the form, “such-and-such is the role of the husband” have ceased to be so influential. Because of this, I believe she is quite right that permitting same-sex marriage does not require changing our understanding of the institution.
Coontz’s broader point is that marriage is a reflection of society. Societal refusal to acknowledge gay marriage is a reflection of a society that persecutes Gender and Sexual Minorities in other ways, too. Even if we fail to acknowledge that refusal to allow same-sex marriage is not itself a form of discrimination, it seems very obvious that other forms of discrimination do exist: same-sex youths and even adults were, in the years leading up to the legalization of same-sex marriage, faced with widespread and relentless bullying (Kim). Refusing to allow same-sex marriage does not just mirror this persecution; it also reinforces it. The logical step towards ending other kinds of discrimination, even if we aren’t counting marital inequality, was acknowledging same-sex marriage.
Finally, societal refusal to acknowledge gay marriage is a way of still clinging to gender determinism (Schofield). By this I mean that some components of society still had and have a very strong idea, manifested in its opposition to same-sex marriage, that gender determined what a person “ought” to do in their life, at least broadly. What I mean is that some or most of these people would no longer say that a woman should be unable to get a job without her husband’s permission, but they might say things like “a woman’s place is in the home” or “women are natural caregivers.” However, in the interests of equality, it seems that most of us would prefer to abolish such attitudes, or at least refrain from encouraging them. Acknowledging same-sex marriage is a very good way to do this.
In conclusion, Coontz has some very good points. It is a good thing that marriage has been extended to same-sex couples. Further, it is very important to remember that this is in fact an extension rather than a redefinition. Marriage has not been redefined, it has been extended, and the manner in which it was extended is one that is entirely in keeping with the progressive attitudes that should motivate a responsible, secular society. It is, in short, exactly as Stephanie Coontz said: “gay marriage isn’t revolutionary. It’s just the next step.”
- Coontz, Stephanie. “Gay Marriage Isn’t Revolutionary. It’s Just the next Step in Marriage’s Evolution.” The Washington Post 6 Jan. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
- Kim, Richard. “Against ‘Bullying’ or On Loving Queer Kids.” The Nation 6 Oct. 2010. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
- Schofield, Scott. TED Talk: Ending Gender. Youtube, 2013. Film.