For more than 20 years, social historian Stephanie Coontz has been trying to get everyone to reconsider marriage. In five books, starting with 1992’s The Way We Never Were, the Evergreen State College professor has debunked myths surrounding the American family by looking at the ways it has changed over the years—for example, by documenting romances between Victorian women or showing the “traditional” 1950s nuclear family as a very recent invention.
At the Oregon Humanities Think and Drink at the Mission Theater on Thursday, July 10, she’ll be talking about the different ways the government sticks its nose into how you get hitched. WW phoned Coontz to ask when the government got into the marriage game, and whether it should get out.
WW: Has the U.S. government gotten more or less involved in marriage over the years?
Stephanie Coontz: It goes both ways. A judge [in the Civil War era] said that if you inquired too closely, the majority of marriages were probably bigamist or illegitimate. The United States would just take your word for it that you were married. In the second half of the 19th century, state after state passed miscegenation laws—[against marriage between] not just blacks and whites, but white and Filipino, people with tuberculosis, people with mental defects. There was this period of very tight involvement in marriage by the government.
From the 1920s on, we see increasing acceptance that individuals should be allowed to marry. The Supreme Court refers to it as a right. In the 1940s, states begin to voluntarily shed their anti-miscegenation laws. At the same time, the United States begins to attach their welfare provisions to marriage. That’s an interesting combination: letting consenting adults choose marriage, but more concern by the state to say we need to know if you’re legally married to give you these rights. You can see how both of these [developments] led to the demand for same-sex marriage.
In a New York Times editorial, you questioned whether states should get out of the marriage business.
I’m up in the air. On the one hand, the state has an interest in people who say, “I’m going to help take responsibility for a partner. I’ll take care of them if they’re disabled.” That saves a whole lot of welfare payments. It’s perfectly reasonable for the government to give benefits to people who do this, and also enforce obligations. On the other hand, there are a growing number of married couples who have no children. Forty-five percent of cohabiting couples have children. Do we really want to make marriage the dividing line as to whether we have obligations to care for people?
Isn’t marriage the clean and easy way to do that?
It used to be, when you could count on most kids being born into marriage, and few marriages ended in divorce. Today it’s not such a clean and easy way. You have two 30-year-olds who don’t have parents to take care of and are childless. And they’re married. Meanwhile, you have a cohabiting couple where one person has given up a job for a long time to take care of the other, or they’re taking care of kids.
Then is marriage becoming outdated?
For most Americans, it remains the highest expression of commitment they can imagine. But it’s no longer an essential institution you have to enter—if you’re a woman, to get taken care of by a man, or for a man, to get his shirts ironed. For these reasons, it may become a more selective institution.
So it’s a luxury good?
That’s what [sociologist] Frank Furstenberg calls it. He coined that phrase: “Marriage has become a luxury good.”
GO: Stephanie Coontz speaks at the Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan St., 223-4527, mcmenamins.com, on Thursday, July 10. 6:30 pm. $10 suggested donation. All ages.