FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Just one week after a huge battle for same-sex marriage was lost in California, another is won.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight Connecticut becomes the second state in the country to recognize same-sex marriage. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Proponents are jubilant, opponents very angry. BOB GARFIELD: They don't call them the culture wars for nothing. There is hardly a more contentious issue in today’s politics than gay marriage, a showdown between those who consider it a question of basic civil rights and those it who see it as an assault on moral values and the so-called “traditional marriage.”
But, as part of our occasional series Word Watch, we wondered whether the conflict is ultimately less political than semantic. What if there were a clear distinction between the religious and cultural institution of marriage and the legal relationship between a couple and the state? You could have a church wedding or a secular one but, heterosexual or gay, the official certification would be for a civil union. In short, the government would divorce itself from the word “marriage.” Problem solved.
Well, not so fast. We spoke with E.J. Graff, author of What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution. Though she’s an ardent opponent of California Prop 8, she could scarcely even acknowledge the premise. Graff believes that people will never let go of the word “marriage” even though its meaning has changed again and again over the centuries – 500 years ago, for instance.
E.J. GRAFF: Master needed a mistress. He could not move up from journeyman unless he had a wife to help oversee the apprentices and keep the shop clean and take the goods to market and probably keep the books.
There’s a traditional saying in English lore, “He who marries for love has good nights and sorry days.” BOB GARFIELD: What about the Christian tradition of marriage, is it not more or less a continuous line over 2,000 years? E.J. GRAFF: Early Christianity rejected marriage very firmly. Their radical innovation in marriage was to say that people should be free to be celibate, to reject marriage, even when arranged by their parents.
As the centuries went on and Christianity became a ruling religion, it starts needing to deal with people as they are, instead of as they ought to be. And for mm, a good 500 years it starts fighting with the feudal lords and the various local cultural traditions.
Christianity didn't really consolidate its hold over marriage and set its rules firmly into place until the year mm, roughly 1200, 1215. I'm sorry, I'm a little fuzzy on the exact date. But it absolutely firmly entrenches the idea that you can only marry once and you have to marry for life. That was pretty hard fought. BOB GARFIELD: It’s clear that the traditions of so-called “traditional marriage” have evolved quite a bit over the centuries, but is it not possible that the world has kind of come to a conclusion about what marriage is? E.J. GRAFF: I really, I can't stress this enough - it’s always being fought over. And exactly what the rules are and exactly what the meaning is, exactly who belongs in, exactly who belongs out, that is always getting fought over.
So you have, for a good thousand years, the Church fighting to own marriage, and it owns it for about 300 years, and its rules cause a lot of mess all over Europe. Then the Protestant Reformation comes in with the rise of the city states and starts to say, this is all a mess, we're changing the rules.
Then with the new rise of industrial capitalism, between 1850 and 1950, as people start making their individual livings, then we get yet another revolution in marriage. And those battles are all over what is the ruling idea of marriage. Are you marrying for love? Are you marrying for money? Are you marrying for procreation?
And as we start to decide that marriage is about two equal partners who care for each other - each one can work, each one can own his or her own property, each one is an equal partner in the rearing of the children, same-sex couples are following, rather than leading the radical transformation of marriage over the past 150 years. BOB GARFIELD: What if when the first time governments did get involved they had not embraced the word “marriage” but used, you know, something more bureaucratic and emotion-neutral, do you think we'd be in the same fix today? E.J. GRAFF: They wouldn't have won. People would have continued to get married in their traditional ways. The state’s power grab, the attempt to own the word “marriage” only worked because they used the word “marriage.” BOB GARFIELD: But once the state got involved and used the word “marriage” to describe the legally binding contract with the state, isn't that where all the problems began? Had states started using the term “civil union” x-hundred number of years ago, would we even be having this conversation today? E.J. GRAFF: The United States is somewhat unusual in allowing religious people to perform civil marriages. In France, for instance, you’re allowed to have a religious ceremony afterwards, but if you want a civilly recognized marriage you have to go first to City Hall.
But the word “marriage” is the constant. If you’re married to a woman and you and she go to Albania, one of you has a heart attack and the other wants to see the person in the emergency room and you say, “We are married” they're going to treat you as married in Albania under their laws and customs, no matter how different those laws and customs might be here in the United States.
“Marriage” is the passport word. The word “marriage” is the one people get in their gut. That has the emotional meaning to them. It’s already there. Just change the rules, like we always have. BOB GARFIELD: E.J., thank you very much. E.J. GRAFF: Thank you so much for having me. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: E.J. Graff is a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and author of What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.