Social Historian Stephanie Coontz on the Changing Shape of Marriage

The author and Evergreen faculty member says the institution of marriage is in a state of revolution. She sits down with Humanities Washington for a 5 Questions interview on the history of marriage in anticipation of our July 17 Think & Drink.

This fall, Washington’s Referendum 74 might transform marriage in our state by upholding the legality of same-sex marriage in our state. But social historian Stephanie Coontz says that the institution of marriage has already been in a state of revolution for some time – and the same-sex-marriage movement is one step in a series of huge changes.

Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz

Coontz is a faculty member at The Evergreen State College and the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. She is the author of five books, including Marriage, a History and has appeared in media from the Washington Post to The Colbert Report.

Coontz will join civic leader Anne Levinson and KUOW’s Steve Scher to provoke conversation at Humanities Washington’s upcoming Think & Drink State of the Unions: A Conversation on the Institution of Marriage at Naked City Brewery & Taphouse on July 17. In anticipation of the event, Humanities Washington recently caught up with Coontz via email to get her perspective on politics, love and the changing shape of marriage.


What: State of the Unions: A Conversation on the Institution of Marriage, a Humanities Washington Think & Drink event
Where: Naked City Brewery & Taphouse, 8564 Greenwood Ave. N, Seattle [Directions]
When: Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Cost: Free
Note: Arrive early to secure a seat
Think & Drink

Humanities Washington: How has the institution of marriage changed over the past century?

Stephanie Coontz: Marriage has changed more in the last 50 years than the previous 500, and that’s really saying something, since there was one huge revolution (in marriage) only 150 years ago. That first revolution was the invention of the idea that marriage ought to be primarily about love …. Defenders of the traditional marriage of political and economic convenience were convinced that letting people marry for love would radically destabilize the institution of marriage, leading people to refuse to marry simply for social respectability and to demand the right to divorce if love died. They were right.

But for more than 100 years, that potential was held in check by the economic dependence and legal inequality of women. The equality revolution of the past 50 years has transformed marriage, making it fairer and more intimate than ever before. But it has also made marriage more optional then ever before, and made an unsatisfactory marriage seem less bearable.

HW: What has caused the gradual shift in public opinion toward increased support of same-sex marriage?

Coontz: Mostly it’s been because heterosexuals have abandoned the old rules of marriage for ourselves, making it harder to impose them on gays and lesbians. First we said – challenging thousands of years of tradition – that marriage should be about love rather than social respectability. Then we insisted, contrary to 19th century views of marriage, that it should be about mutual sexual attraction. A few decades later we gave married couples the right not to have children, and we also developed methods allowing couples biologically incapable of having children to produce and raise kids anyway. This made it harder to say that marriage was all about the duty and ability to reproduce.

Then in the 1960s, we said that states couldn’t prohibit two individuals who loved each other from marrying, even if they disapproved of the marriage, as Southern states disapproved of interracial marriage. And in the 1970s, we began to redefine marriage as a relationship between two individuals who could decide what their roles should be, rather than as between a husband who had one set of rights and duties and a wife who had another. At this point it became very difficult to hold on to old justifications for denying marriage to two individuals of the same sex.

HW: What are some prevalent myths about traditional families, and how do those myths continue to affect us?

Coontz: One myth is that marriage has always been “One Man/One Woman.” In fact, the most commonly approved marriage through most of history was “One Man/Many Women.” Another myth is that marriage was invented to give every child access to a mother and father. In fact, the invention of marriage was accompanied by the invention of illegitimacy, which denied the protection of a mother and father to any child born into a union that was disapproved (of) by society or by one of the parent’s kin. These and other myths about how wonderful marriage was in the past, and how unchanging it was, prevent us from recognizing and building on the gains of the equality revolution.

Marriage, a History

Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz

HW: The description for your book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage says, “Marriage has never been more fragile.” Why is that?

Coontz: Actually, that was a little bit of a misstatement, since the divorce rate has now been falling for the past 15 years. But yes, marriage is harder to sustain than it was when people basically had no choice other than to enter and stay in a marriage and when women felt compelled to make all the adjustments to make a marriage work. But the fact that marriage is more fragile is the flip side of the fact that a good marriage is also more rewarding and more equal than in the past. The fact that marriage was more stable in the past wasn’t always a good thing. Something that is carved in stone isn’t very fragile, but it’s also not very flexible.

HW: I have to ask: What was it like to be a guest on The Colbert Report?

Coontz: Scary because he’s so smart, but exciting for the same reason. And when he’s not playing the character he does so well on TV, he is absolutely charming. He’s one of the few famous hosts I’ve met who actually comes into the green room to talk with his guests personally.

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