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What is Marriage?


Man, Woman, and Child (1913)

Married couple with child, 1913.

Photo: Library of Congress.
Question: What is Marriage?
Answer: That's an excellent question, but the answer isn't clear. This is because the institution of marriage is in a state of transition, and has been since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

"Primarily an Economic Arrangement"

Feminist writer Emma Goldman's sardonic description of marriage, from 1917, was meant to be radical at the time but would have probably been accepted at face value by most intellectuals had it been written a century or two earlier:
Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact. It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting.
When social conservatives talk about how society as we know it has been built on the institution of traditional marriage, they are technically telling the truth. It has been, and for thousands of years. Look, for example, at the biblical Book of Ruth and you will find a story centering on marriage that is not a story of love, but rather a story of economic survival. Ruth knew that, as a widow, she would condemn both herself and her mother-in-law Naomi to poverty and the risk of starvation if she did not find a new husband. When she found a new potential husband, Boaz, his wealth and his kindness were praised but there was no suggestion of any particularly deep relationship between the two. The Book of Ruth's great statement of love and fidelity that is so often quoted at weddings--"whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge" (1:16)--is actually spoken by Ruth to Naomi, not to Boaz. It has nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with compassion and solidarity.

This is not to say that marriage has never been about love, and there are tales of loving marriages that stretch back as far as the Book of Ruth. But generally speaking, marriage has served a more pragmatic purpose than that: It allows a man to work without having to concern himself with household matters or the raising of offspring, and it allows a woman to keep a household and raise offspring without having to worry about her or her children's financial security. It should come as no surprise that, as women achieve more social power, the concept of marriage is changing.

Marriage as a Political Alliance

When the blushing bride and dashing groom are both too wealthy or too powerful to worry about economic survival or basic household needs, marriage serves as a means of establishing a connection between powerful families and producing suitable heirs to institutional family power. In 1659, for example, Louis XIV of France was forced to give up the woman he loved, Marie de Medici, and instead marry Maria Theresa of Spain--a marriage that was celebrated not with an embossed certificate, but as a clause in the Treaty of Pyrenees, which ended the Thirty Years' War between the two countries:
In order that this peace and union, confederation and good correspondence be as one desires; its being more firm, durable, and indissolvable, the said two principal ministers, Cardinal Duke and Marquis Count Dnc, in virtue of the special power that they have had to this effect from two Lord Kings, have agreed to and taken to their name the marriage of the Very Christian King (Louis XIV) with the Spanish Infanta, Lady Marie Therese, eldest daughter of the Catholic King, and this same day dates that those present have made and signed a particular treaty in which one touches upon the reciprocal conditions of the said marriage and the time of its celebration. The treat aside and marriage capitulation have the same force and strength as the present treaty as the principal and most dignified party as well as the largest and most precious gage of the surety of its duration.
This is what the "sanctity of marriage" has historically been--a means of ensuring economic survival among the poor and marginalized, or building alliances among the rich and powerful.

But from time to time, some leaders sought to abandon tradition and redefine marriage. On December 10th, 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American. By contemporary standards, this might be seen as a "traditional marriage"--but in 1936, it was an outrageous scandal. The fact that they were one man and one woman of the same race was meaningless. What mattered was that he was heir to the throne of England, and he wanted to marry a divorced commoner. This defeated the entire social purpose of getting married, if one was a king. It made no sense.

Marriage and Bigotry

This concept of marriage as a caste-preserving institution has never been limited to the idle rich. As long as we're waxing biblical, let's look at a verse that doesn't get much airplay. I'm talking about the Book of Numbers, chapter 12, verse 1:
And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.
In verse 12:8, "the anger of the Lord is kindled against [Miriam and Aaron]" for their objection to what was at the time a socially unacceptable marriage between a black African and an Egyptian-born Jew. Thousands of years later, in Pace v. Alabama (1883), the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the State of Alabama's right to impose that objection. The ruling would stand for 84 years, until it was finally overturned in Loving v. Virginia (1967).

The Loving ruling is significant because it put an end to laws banning interracial marriage, but in so doing it also fundamentally changed the way the Court sees marriage. Take a look at the ruling's conclusion, for example:
The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.
Before Loving, marriage in the United States was a regulated social institution. Now it is a fundamental right. The Loving ruling itself was of course not the reason for this change--it only reflected a far slower, more gradual change in societal priorities--but it set out a future-oriented definition of marriage, one we're all still trying to figure out.
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