During arguments about gay marriage before the Supreme Court today, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the definition of marriage “has been with us for millennia.” Later in the proceedings, Justice Antonin Scalia borrowed the phrase and noted that marriage has meant a man and a woman “for millennia.”
These allegedly ‘best and brightest’ legal minds in the country, both graduates of Harvard Law School, sat on their bench high above the crowd and argued against gay marriage by saying “this is how it’s always been.”
As arguments go, this one comes just before “but all the other kids were doing it” on the list of Worst Reasons Ever for making a particular decision. And in this case, it’s not even accurate.
Marriage as we know it today looks nothing like marriage “for millennia.” The justices could use a quick tutorial.
A favorite example of conservatives, “Biblical marriage,” is a good place to start. The first marriage we see up close in the Bible comes in Genesis, when we meet Abraham and Sarah. Alas, Sarah can’t get pregnant so she offers her maid Hagar to her husband and he willingly beds and impregnates her. Is this an example of traditional marriage to which we should all aspire?
In the Old Testament, polygyny (one man and more than one wife) was common, and in fact was a practical response to female infertility, short lifespans, and unexpected changes to family structure (Deuteronomy 25:5 requires a brother to marry his deceased brother’s wife if she has no sons, keeping her in the family).
Notice a theme? Women were at best breeding machines, and at worst, property to be reluctantly maintained until death. For much of human history, females spent their whole lives as someone’s property, first their father’s and later their husband’s (and if the husband died, God forbid, they were at the mercy of their in-laws).
This is still the case in many societies today, with tragic but predictable side effects like infanticide of female babies and arranged marriages of girls barely in their teens.
For millennia, marriage was less about a relationship between two people than about the transfer of property from one family to another. The rich and royal got married to join kingdoms, create heirs, and form political alliances. For rich commoners, marriage was a way to merge families, real estate, and wealth.
Even for poor or middle class people, the institution of marriage existed for mostly practical reasons – running a farm or a small business was easier when two people worked on the chores. Lots of men never learned domestic skills and until recently women couldn’t earn money outside the home, so marrying was just a way of getting by in life.
Marriage has changed a lot in the last several thousand years, and mostly for the better. One of the best advancements in modern, Western marriage has been the introduction of choice and consent of the parties involved. Most Americans don’t believe that women should be forced to marry against their wills, or that marriages should be arranged by extended families.
Today, we fall in love and we are free to choose our mates. We willingly enter binding contracts where both parties make equal, life-long commitments to each other. This is absolutely not the way it’s always been, but it is the way it should be from now on.
Let’s hope Ruth Bader Ginsberg will enlighten Scalia over a nice bottle of Chianti.