Whether you grew up getting your ideas about marriage from your family or pop culture, there is a lot of social significance in what marriage means and, historically, a lot to unravel. In this series I interview five marriage historians, trying to get an honest look at the history — and future — of marriage.
It seems hard to argue that there is any “sanctity” to the institution of marriage. Sure, humans have long been marrying, and according to EJ Graff, scholar and author of the book What is Marriage For, there are five static reasons: 1. property, 2. kin 3. money 4. order 5. heart. Yet, the types of marriages we see vary greatly, from polygamy to the wife-auctions of the 17th century, to the monogamy of today. Which type of marriage again is the one with sanctity?
Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage a History, also points out the New Testament was somewhat “suspicious of marriage.” “It was considered holier to leave your family and spread the word of God”— apparently being single was a more “sanctified” state than marriage.
“Marriage has not only varied from culture to culture, but changed over time in the same cultures. Even the biblical tradition of marriage has changed,” says Coontz. “The type of family most mentioned in the first five books of the Old Testament was polygynous — one man with several wives.” At some points in history, if a man had more land, he would take more wives to tend to it. “Commoners took multiple wives if they owned enough property or livestock and needed more female labor. Or, as with the Plains Indians, when they were hunting for the fur trade and killing more animals than they needed for household consumption,” says Coontz in a previous interview with Solidarity-US. It wasn’t just commoners taking multiple wives, but often more elite members of society, who took wives to ensure they had enough heirs.
While the fact that marriage has never meant the same thing throughout time pokes holes in its “sanctity” the phenomenon of matrimony remains. The only culture Coontz found that didn’t marry was the Na or Mosuo, a small matriarchal society near Tibet. Because Na people don’t marry or live with partners, children are raised by their mothers and mother’s family.
In her studies, Coontz found some form of marriage in almost all societies. How has marriage spread so far? “The one thing marriage does in every single society is create in-laws. Marriage arose as a way of extending social cooperation between groups: acquiring allies, trading partners and making peace. The Anglo-Saxon word for wife is peace maker,” says Coontz.
Yet, of course, another gap in the holiness of marriage is the coercion involved. Historically, for the peace making wife, there was little choice. “One can say that women were once chattel” says Marilyn Yalom, author of History of the Wife, “In Ancient Greece they were ‘gifted’ from their fathers to husbands.”
In England in the 17th century, wife selling became popular. This was during a time when only the very rich could divorce. The wife sale would be announced in a newspaper, and during the event, the woman would be led around by a rope or ribbon, shown off to the crowd and then sold to the highest bidder. According to E.P. Thompson’s study of the sale of wives, the wife might already be living with her new partner, who would surely be her highest bidder — though she might be subject to bids from complete strangers. Thompson tells of one bargaining where the woman didn’t like the highest bidder, so she and the former husband opted for a lesser bidder.
While women may have been bought and sold as wives, they did have important roles in the family businesses. In the 17th century and prior, a woman who married a shopkeeper would keep the books and deal with customers. The wife was a business partner, but legally, the husband owned all wages. “That situation began to change in the mid-1800s, as judges and legislators began to allow wives to keep the wages they earned. Women also succeeded in getting some states to offer more grounds for divorce. Back then women initiated divorce proceedings more often than men did, and that is still true today,” says Coontz.
The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of another shift in the culture of marriage. “Work left home. Men were kicked out of the house into offices and upper and middle class wives were locked inside. Instead of being a shared economic bond, marriage became an emotional haven,” says Graff.
The purpose of marriage went through another fundamental change. Instead of marrying to start a business together, which was apparently holy, marrying for love was a shocking new idea. Until the 18th century, families had the biggest say over marriage. In this way, young men were just as much prisoners to marriage, having not much more choice than women. Read this way, the institution can be seen as less about men controlling women and more about families controlling their offspring.
This new idea, marrying for love, was the radical idea that humans had a right to happiness. “Social conservatives of the day were horrified. They predicted that once marriage was based on love, some people might refuse to marry without love, while others might demand the right to divorce if there was no love. They worried that men might stop exerting their authority over their wives and start giving in to them. It took a while for these things to play out, but they were quite right,” says Coontz.
And today, social conservatives are just as outraged as where marriage is now headed — to equality, for the right of all couples to marry. But if there is anything sanctioned about marriage, in my view, it is that marriage always shifts over time. And this direction is natural and inevitable.
Statistics show that, for the first time, the majority of Americans are for same sex marriage. But as these victories take hold, there is an emerging movement of anti-marriage activists asking, “should we be questioning the so-called sanctity of marriage, or should we be questioning whether or not we as a culture, should be moving toward more marriage at all?” Surely, Kim Kardashian will be “moving toward more marriage,” at some point again in her lifetime. But maybe this time, we’ll lose the idea that there was ever any sanctity in it.
Part Two of this series will tackle the sexual revolution and the “problem without a name.” After we began marrying for love, women fought for more rights in marriage and feminism would bring about another fundamental change in the culture of marriage...