From “Time Immemorial” — Prop 8 and a False Sense of History

In the U.S. Supreme Court discussions of Prop 8 yesterday (March 26th, 2013), Chief Justice John Roberts said something that made the little anthropologist deep inside me cringe.

Chief Justice John Roberts worried about change to an “institution that’s been around since time immemorial.”

Now, that quote doesn’t seem so bad, does it? On the one hand, we know what he means: that the institution of marriage has an unbroken lineage in the West. That’s more or less true, as far as it goes. But there are certain implications to his statement that are misleading.

Marriage isn’t really the same across all cultures.

There are actually multiple variations of marriage across cultures. Like gender, these categories are much more fluid than ideologues would have us believe.

There are a whole collection of practices that are beyond the pale of “traditional” Western culture: gay marriage, plural marriage, polygamy, polyandry, concubinage, and so on.*

Going further, we can also see that the practices of people are much more diverse than the ways we have to talk about it. Even in places in the U.S. where gay marriage is not accepted, a close look will find couples who are practicing it, even if it’s not legally recognized. In other words, the law is not “activist” as doesn’t promote homosexuality — just changes its legal status.

Marriage isn’t an unchanging institution.

Louis XIV Wedding
Was Louis XIV’s marriage like your own?

“Time immemorial” isn’t really all that long. A quick historical examination of how marriages are formed demonstrates that a hundred and fifty years ago, at the start of the American industrial revolution, marriages were much more between families than individuals.

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that the whole idea of getting married and striking out wholly on your own came into vogue. When the American population moved from being predominantly agriculture-supported to urban-dwelling, the internal relationships of families changed.

If we look further out, we see that the “natural” American pattern of newlyweds setting up their own households is actually pretty rare worldwide. Neolocal residence patterns, while common in the West, only account for 5% of marriages worldwide.

Modern models of marriage are also a relatively recent development, and we still have traditions that come from our older system.  We consider asking a parent for a spouse’s hand in marriage to be quaint but a bare five generations ago, it was deadly, deadly serious.

If there is any shift that changed the nature of Western marriage, it was not, and will not be, the legal recognition of interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. It is, rather, the right of women to hold property and receive wages directly for their labor. This shift in gender roles is still having effects, and we’re still working out what it means.

Compared to the amazingly significant change that shifting gender roles in marriage is having, the recognition of gay marriage is nothing but the froth atop a much larger wave of change.

The  gender roles of American culture are both shifting and diverse. The negotiation of the meaning of gender may be complicated by the addition of new categories, but their inclusion into a more comprehensive legal framework will work to strengthen values of equal protection under the law. This battle isn’t a conflict between American and un-American values, but an attempt to resolve a conflict between two sets of values we hold dear.

* Note: I’ve picked only practices that a) are well documented in the anthropological record, and b) are generally considered consensual.


5 thoughts on “From “Time Immemorial” — Prop 8 and a False Sense of History”

  1. THe first time I read about heterosexuals having gay sex, I couldn’t stop laughing and it defeats why some people are so concerned about LGBTs being allowed to marry as if they would stop them from doing their thing.

    1. I’m not sure I follow your point entirely.

      But yes, many people worry about things that are little of their business, and often for reasons not much better than “I like gossip.”

      On the other hand, gossips are the first line of defense of any culture, whether liberal, conservative, or whatever. They serve an important role.

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