What 19th-Century Marriage Controversies Can Tell Us About The Fight Over Gay Marriage

The Supreme Court declined to hear five same-sex marriage cases on Monday, thus opening the door to the expansion of marriage rights into 30 states. For supporters the decision represents an unequivocal victory for equality, while for critics, this “redefinition of marriage” marks a dismaying shift away from tradition. But this latest decision is simply a variation on a theme, continuing another chapter in the nation’s centuries-old argument over the definition of marriage.

In her latest book, Leslie J. Harris, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, surveyed five types of 19th-century marriage controversy: domestic violence, divorce, polygamy, free love, and miscegenation. RD spoke with Harris about her project and what it reveals about our contemporary attempts to define, and redefine, marriage.

Your book is concerned with nineteenth century marriage controversies, so same-sex marriage is seldom mentioned. But it was on my mind the whole time I was reading. Did it inspire or influence your writing in any way?

Yes, the same-sex marriage controversy was an important factor in inspiring the book. I’ve been very interested in the issue for years, but I was particularly intrigued by the rash of state constitutional amendments in the early 2000s. I couldn’t help but wonder why marriage mattered so deeply to so many people.

For those advocating the amendments, marriage seemed to function as a status and idea that was much larger than any particular relationship. War metaphors were common as advocates declared that marriage was “under attack” and needed to be “defended,” and marriage was commonly represented as a sacred and unchangeable institution. While the other side of the debate emphasized the huge number of laws and policies tied to marriage, simply changing laws and policies quickly became an inadequate response. Marriage seemed to function as a status that enabled full citizenship, and advocates often made the analogy to nineteenth and early twentieth-century bans on interracial marriage.

By examining the history of these controversies we can better understand what is at stake today. In the nineteenth century the topic of marriage arose in almost every major controversy of the time including women’s rights, westward expansion, slavery, immigration, religious diversity, temperance, and state’s rights. Marriage functioned as a lens through which complex issues of belonging, identity, and status were debated.

I’ve become convinced that today’s debate about same-sex marriage is not simply about preserving a seemingly sacred and unchanging institution, or securing particular rights and privileges. Rather, it is about negotiating the boundaries of American-ness. I reference the recent Supreme Court decisions about marriage in the book’s conclusion because they illustrate this point well.

The court said that marriage enables “pride” and “dignity,” especially in reference to raising children (who were said to be humiliated by DOMA). Even as the Supreme Court seemed to open space for same-sex marriage, it (perhaps inadvertently) limited the acceptable gay family to one that models the traditional nuclear family.

Contra those who claim that marriage has always been stable and static, you show that it has been controversial for a long time. Did you observe any particular consistency or development in the arguments from controversy to controversy?

One reoccurring theme across controversies is marriage as a religious institution and the role of religion in public life. Arguments against expanding grounds for divorce, for example, consistently invoked arguments about marriage as ordained by God. If God created marriage as a permanent union between a man and woman, humans could not legitimately change the institution of marriage. Much like many current advocates for same-sex marriage, some proponents for expanding divorce laws argued that religion should be separate from politics and that marriage was essentially a civil institution.

Religious tropes were also used in attempts to change understandings of marriage. Polygamy (nineteenth century Mormons) and free love (some groups of Perfectionists) were two dramatic attempts to change marriage that were based in religious and often explicitly biblical justifications. Religion can be a malleable tool in negotiating the meaning and significance of marriage in public life.

The perceived connection between marriage and the future of the nation also has a long history. Commentators warned, for example, that increasing rates of divorce would lead to the fall of the United States, much like the fall of the Roman Republic. Similarly, polygamy was seen as causing social decline into barbarism. This technique of linking changes in marriage to a slippery slope to the nation’s destruction instilled fear of change. More importantly, however, these claims revealed underlying ideological norms about what constituted a “good” nation.

Within this reasoning, the family represents a microcosm of the nation as a whole; so it was problematic if the American family replicated seemingly barbarous families of the East, which were assumed to be polygamous. If the family looked like the racial other, the nation would begin to look like the racial other—so there were racist assumptions hidden within the image of a “good” nation.

There are, however, some temporal differences in marriage controversies. During the first half of the nineteenth century Americans were experimenting with public identity, and marriage became one site of experimentation. During this time, for example, Oneida Perfectionists practiced free love (or communal marriage) and Mormons began practicing polygamy. They were certainly controversial during their time (both groups were run out of various communities), but there seemed to be cultural space for experiments in marriage, religion, and public identity.

On the other hand, today’s marriage controversies are not only able to incorporate the powerful rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement, but they’re further enabled by new technologies. In the nineteenth century, for example, newspapers would print vivid descriptions of individuals such as the innocent and worthy “girl” who was deceived by a violent and unscrupulous husband, which helped promote identification with audiences. Today, however, such profiles are supplemented by actual visuals. Images of hard-working and non-threatening gay couples with their children enhance that audience identification even further.

I’m interested in your observation that religion is a “malleable tool” where marriage debates are concerned. Right now the UCC church in North Carolina and the “Sister Wives” family in Utah are using a “religious liberty” argument to oppose bans on same-sex marriage and polygamy, respectively. In doing so, they turn a popular Christian Right claim back on its makers. In your view, has religion traditionally inspired marriage activism, or has it simply provided rhetorical tools to those with other agendas? Maybe a little of each?

The short answer is a little of each. I can think of some examples of marriage activism (such as campaigns against domestic violence) that were not clearly rooted in religion. Yet, religion has and continues to inspire marriage activism, occasionally for contradictory aims. I find your juxtaposition of the UCC and FLDS fascinating because it gets at a central conflict for me when I was writing about the nineteenth-century polygamy controversy. Marriage is a unique institution because it is always both public and private, and both religious and civil. What then are the freedoms and limitations to religious expression in marriage?

With nineteenth-century polygamy some of the debate was over the validity of the religion and Joseph Smith as a prophet, but a significant part of the debate was about the treatment of women in polygamy. There were sensational exposés describing the degradation and abuse of women in polygamy, but at the same time women in the Utah territory were some of the first in the nation to have full voting rights, opportunities for education, and, in many cases, unusual control over their finances and homes.

Further, some of the most vocal critics and supporters of polygamy were women, and both sides claimed to be advocating for women’s rights, protections, and Christian morality. I began my research very sympathetic with opponents to polygamy, but I came to respect the polygamist women. These women wanted the government to let them practice their religion and shape their families as they saw fit. We currently see very similar arguments with same-sex families who find themselves having to explain that they are not degraded and immoral, but they are happy and healthy.

In reference to polygamy, the Supreme Court decided that the state could limit religious liberty, and, because marriage was a “foundation of civilization,” communities should regulate the institution. Even as the court emphasized the civil dimension of marriage, the community morals used to regulate marriage are inseparable from religion. If we accept marriage as always both civil and religious, then the possibilities for marriage activism become limited. Activists can attempt to dissociate marriage and religion (as activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton attempted in the nineteenth century), but I suspect that this strategy will have limited success because marriage and religion are deeply connected in the American imaginary.

The alternative, then, is to control the rhetoric of religion, making marriage activism consistent with American religious norms. I’m not attempting to suggest that changing marriage simply requires an appeal to religion. It can be very difficult to argumentatively engage with moral and ethical claims because they often function as a basic premise to an argument—the “truth” on which the rest of the argument is built. An argument that appropriates the basic premise of Christian morality has more likelihood of success. While it’s difficult to know whether religion was an inspiration or tool for any given activist, in both the nineteenth century and today, much marriage activism has deep religious roots.

Does the history of marriage controversy over the past two hundred years disclose any sort of trajectory? Do you have any predictions about where our discourse around marriage and citizenship is heading?

Predictions are difficult, but I am willing to make a few claims. First, Americans tend to have a deep commitment to monogamy, and I do not think that this will change anytime soon. Some of the most radical challenges to marriage in the nineteenth century were challenges to monogamy, but those experiments were ultimately failures. The LDS church was forced to abandon polygamy, and free love communities such as Oneida eventually failed. Even as same-sex marriage becomes increasingly acceptable in the United States, it is framed to model the traditional nuclear family.

Second, I do not think that marriage will go away. Marriage is an important way of structuring relationships, and in the US ways of thinking about marriage have a tendency to replicate government models (I call this the family-as-government metaphor). Because ways of thinking about family and government tend to be deeply intertwined, I think that marriage is here to stay (at least for the foreseeable future).

Although it may be tempting to look for a clear linear trajectory with marriage controversies, the reality is more complex. Marriage is fascinating because the institution is about much more than love and personal commitment; it’s a lens through which Americans attempt to understand who we are and what we believe. Ultimately, marriage controversy is rooted in the anxieties and conflicts of a time, so the ebbs and flows of American identity become reflected back in these controversies.

63 Comments

  • ruis.steve@gmail.com' Steve Ruis says:

    Left out of this discussion are the children of marriage. Children were once considered chattel of their parents and have received expanded rights over this same period. Children are the assumed purpose of many marriages but have few legal protections, the marriage contract focuses on husband and wife and the children, meh. We would be better off getting out of the marriage contractual business and getting more into the procreative aspects of the protections and supports that children are due from their parents.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    No matter what man does God will for us does not include sinful behavior and relationships which is why all homosexual behavior will always remain sinful. No changing that.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Your reasoning is so circular, we could probably calculate the area of it by multiplying pi by its radius squared.

    You beg the question so often, you’re starting to appear intellectually homeless and destitute.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    I understand you cant refute the truth. What else but spouting nonsense is left for you?

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Pointing out your logical fallacy isn’t nonsense. Your logical fallacy is nonsense.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Thanks for confirming my point.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t make it nonsense.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Thanks again. You are not too bright are you?

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Would Jesus say that?

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    If it were true he would. In this case it seems to be true.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Jesus really would snarkily say to someone, “You are not too bright are you?” because they don’t agree with him?

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    No snark just truth. However snark is aplenty in your posts.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    So you think that saying to someone you don’t agree with “You are not too bright are you?” isn’t snarky? You really think it’s JUST truthful? And you really think that Jesus would say that?

  • joerogers67@gmail.com' joeyj1220 says:

    arguing with Crazy Crankie Frankie is like arguing with a brick wall. Best to just ignore him

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Jesus said a lot of harsh truthful words to the people who needed to hear it.

    Sorry you can’t accept the truth that all homosexual behavior was, is and will always be sinful.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    You’re avoiding the fact that you were attempting to belittle me, Frank. Would Jesus attempt to belittle someone who disagreed with him?

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Oh Andre do you really want to go there? Best reread your initial response to me if you are interested in who belittled who.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    God defines what is and is not sin – correct? Sounds like God has some major moral deficits. Especially since it is ultimately at fault for creating homosexuals.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    I’m not holding myself to the Jesus standard. I don’t care if I belittle you. You’re a mean little man. You’re the one claiming to be a Christian and a representative of Jesus, Frank.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    There is something very satisfying when people expose themselves for who they really are. Well done!

    Thanks again for all the confirmations.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    So, Frank, if you are a representative of Jesus, why were you attempting to belittle me? Would Jesus do that?

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    You’ve lost lad be gracious.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Are you too proud to admit that you’ve sinned?

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    God never makes anyone gay. Sin does.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Nope I sin all the time. I don’t pretend it’s not a sin however.

    You’ve lost lad be gracious.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    So, Frank, perhaps you should admit that you attempted to belittle me and apologize for sinning against me and against your Jesus.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    You are not helping yourself.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    You can’t admit when you’ve sinned, Frank?

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    I admit it all the time. Speaking the truth to you is not sinful.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    So you think that saying, “You’re not too bright, are you?” is speaking the truth? You can honestly say it wasn’t an attempt to belittle me?

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    God created the entire universe and everything in it. Therefore God created the gay. An all powerful God could have very easily created a universe where homosexuality did not exist or was impossible. The version of God you worship is kind of a douche.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    You may have felt belittled and it may have not been the nicest way to say it but I simply spoke the truth based on your posts. If you want to appear bright then consider your words and your positions more thoughtfully.

    However I am sorry if you felt belittled.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Exposing your ignorance is never a good position.

    God never makes anyone gay, sin does.

    God could have done anything but in His wisdom he knows better than us.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    You can’t admit that you have tried to hurt someone else with your words, Frank?

    You sounds like the kind of person who can’t hear the Truth about his sin, Frank.

    Perhaps you should take a break from the internet. It’s turning you into a liar, a mocker, and a hypocrite.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Doubling down on your foolishness seems pitiful. Your choice however.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    It was your choice to try to belittle me, Frank. A sinful choice. You’re lying to yourself if you think it isn’t.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Sad.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Your inability to admit to sin is sad, Frank. Why should we listen to what you have to say about the supposed sin of homosexuality, when you can’t recognize and admit to your own sin?

  • imjessietr@yahoo.com' Kelly says:

    Just like two fraternal twins shagging without marriage? Or how about all the brother-sister stuff, INCLUDING pimping them out to kings for tax breaks? Or how about one man-countless women? Or “I don’t care how many wives I got, just please, Lord, don’t kill my lovely prince”? Or “There is no such thing as marriage in Heaven. Nobody up there cares. In fact, anyone who doesn’t hate his family hates Me”….

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    I suggest you do some actual biblical study so you can understand and what you speak about before you speak and look the fool.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Aside from this illogical and misguided tract you are on, it is not me that people need to listen to, it’s God.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Then maybe you should stop speaking and let God speak instead.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    God speaks whether we speak or not. God speaks whether we listen or not. I strongly suggest you start listening.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Then why are you arguing? You’re being a terrible representative of God, Frank. Maybe you should start listening.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Andre you are on the losing end. Only you don’t seem to realize it. So sad. Feel free to have the last word so you can feel comfortable with yourself despite the public embarrassment.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    I don’t really see this in terms of “winning” and “losing.” But you don’t win by just claiming you did, Frank.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Says God – I think I’d like a second opinion.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    I can’t think of anything more pitiful than man holding God to their standards.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    I don’t really see this in terms of “winning” and “losing.” But you don’t win just by claiming you’ve won, Frank.

    Also, embarrassed in front of whom? Most people who read RD see you as the obnoxious hatemonger that you are. What’s most embarrassing, I guess, is indulging you with attention as long as i have.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    In this instance, my standards treat human beings with greater respect and dignity – so I’ve God beat on at least this count.

    And your more persistent than the Ebola virus your God created.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    Repeating your ignorance only reflects on you.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    In case you’re wondering who is “winning” this argument, Frank, it is DKeane123. Also, if you’re wondering who should be embarrassed because of his foolishness and ignorance, Frank, it’s you.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    I understand all you have are responses like this with no substance or truth. Sad.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    Then you misunderstand, Frank. Sad.

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    I understand you’ve now been further reduced to the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” strategy. So very sad.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    So very, very sad, Frank. So sad. I’m weeping at how sad. I mean, my god, the sadness, Frank. The sadness.

    You make God so sad, Frank. Did you know that?

  • SWhaption6548@gustr.com' Frank6548 says:

    It sad to see someone fall apart so publicly.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    My god, Frank. I’m just falling apart here. And it’s so sad. Everyone pities me.

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    There’s only one problem, Cranky Franky: you haven’t written anything that is true. You are not called to be God’s mouthpiece.

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    Frank is an angry little closet case.

  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    You are really on a roll, turning people away from Jesus with your hate speech.

  • asmorrell@gmail.com' Andre M says:

    I do kind of wonder… He certainly has a fixation.

  • yesdadbratt@gmail.com' 1941641 says:

    God is a myth.
    Jesus his son is also a myth.
    Bisexuals are real and exist.
    Homosexuals are real and exist.
    Straights are real and exist.
    Apes created Man, Man created Gods!
    What else do you need to know in order to close this debate?

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