In my lifetime, I have been lucky enough to see some remarkable changes in society. Probably the most important has involved a redefinition of the social institution of marriage. I thought about this yesterday, when President Obama announced his support for gay marriage. But what nobody seems to have pointed out is that the really radical, genuinely revolutionary change in marriage, in the way we understand it and live it, has already happened. Marriage customs differ from culture to culture, of course. But basically, fundamentally, historically, marriage has traditionally been about the control, even the ownership, of women. It’s been a subset of property law. And that’s no longer true.
In Sunday School, I teach a class called Marriage and Family Relations. Great class, really enjoy it. I start by asking people to define marriage, and the answers are inevitably the same: ‘marriage is a partnership of equals.’ Everything in the manual (that correlation-approved manual) supports that definition. People use different language to describe their own marriages, but inevitably, they describe the same ideal–we’re partners, we’re equals, we make decisions together, we’re unified. If I were to say to them ‘so, you’re suggesting a feminist understanding of marriage, we’re all of us now feminists,’ most of them would be appalled. But that’s what’s happened; when it comes to gender equality in marriage, we’re all basically feminists. (Which of course does not mean that there aren’t still appalling vestiges of patriarchy and sexism in society.)
In the Bible, in the many codifications of marriage found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, when a woman is married, she passes from her father’s control to that of her husband. A woman who is raped is required to marry her rapist, and he is also required to pay a penalty to her father or oldest brother. They have been wronged, because she is their, well, property. (Maybe ‘stewardship’ is less harsh a word for it, but it would also be less accurate). Two of the Ten Commandments touch on marriage. The Seventh Commandment prohibits adultery–a woman committing it is stoned to death, a man cheating on his wife goes unpunished. The Tenth Commandment is interesting–a man who covets his neighbors wife has sinned against her husband. How she’s supposed to feel about some creeper checking her out is not recorded.
Jesus had very little to say about marriage; he was opposed to divorce. I’ve always believed that his opposition to divorce was part of his compassion for women. Divorce was a male perquisite–men got to initiate divorce for almost any causes, leaving women destitute. Prohibiting divorce was a way to temper some of the worst excesses of patriarchy. But historically, Christianity’s subsequent treatment of women was appalling.
That’s what traditional marriage meant. It meant the control and subjugation of women.In most societies, there have been restrictions on women’s ability to own property, conduct business, travel unescorted. Wife abuse, in traditional marriage, in most cultures, was rarely illegal and rarely prosecuted. Women were seldom allowed to choose their husbands, or initiate divorce proceedings against brutes.
That’s all changed, and changed recently, changed in my lifetime, certainly. I think of my Sunday School class–a Provo Ward, with young married couples together with folks in their late 70’s, and every age in between. The older folks were great–they said stuff like ‘when we were younger, we didn’t really talk about this partnership thing. But it’s what we wanted, and for you younger folks, it’s great.’ I’m not sure we reflect often enough on how profound and important that change is. When we think of a radical redefinition of traditional marriage, it’s hard to imagine anything more radical than this: ‘marriage is the ownership and control of women by men,’ to ‘marriage is a loving partnership of equals.’
The next step, the step President Obama articulated yesterday, adding gay couples to the mix, doesn’t seem all that radical in comparison. It feels like an inevitable, welcome, continued evolution, to me.