Marriage for Millennia

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.



2 thoughts on “Marriage for Millennia

  1. Christy Thomas

    It is as simple as the days of creation. Adam needed a helper and God made a woman. It is very obvious that women are made to be with a man.

  2. J Nova

    Dear Justice Kennedy:
    During oral arguments, you opined that the “definition [of opposite-sex marriage] has been with us for millennia. And it’s very difficult for the Court to say, oh, well, we know better.”
    With all due respect, may I remind you that over the millennia this definition of marriage has evolved significantly from when the wife was not much more than chattel belonging to the husband. Yes, over the millennia, marriage has evolved from being an arrangement akin to ownership to a more enlightened bonding between two loving individuals.
    And with regard to the LGBT community, may I also remind you that it was not many years ago in this Country, when it was illegal to be gay. The pink triangle is a stark reminder of how the LGBT, as a class of people, could be singled out and imprisoned in Concentration Camps. May I also point out that in too many countries today, LGBT are still considered criminals and they are subject to being arrested, tortured, and executed.
    For these LGBT people, I doubt they are asking for Marriage Equality. Instead, many of the LGBT community are asking for much more basic human rights. If we could use Dr. Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs as a barometer, I can assure you that many LGBT are still struggling with the basic physiological needs for survival and safety. Too many LGBT are far from achieving the higher levels of love and belonging. The question is – – Will we open the door and lead the way to these higher levels?
    If you believe that it might be “difficult” for the Court to act, then let me urge you to do what is difficult – – and do what is right.


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