More Than Marriage Equality

More Than Marriage Equality

I celebrate with all my heart the recent victories of the campaigns in Washington, Maine, and Maryland to to legalize same-sex marriage. It brings me immense pleasure every time I see another crack in the wall of discrimination against LGBT people – and all people. Now the Supreme Court has taken up the issue as well and there is a lot of excellent coverage on what this might and might not mean for the marriage equality movement.

That’s not going to be my focus here, though. I also don’t intend to get into the clear parallels with interracial marriage and the Loving v. Virginia case.

Instead, I’ll explore the issue of marriage itself in thinking about the question: Why is marriage the goal?

There have been quite a number of quality essays, articles, and books that explore whether gay rights activism should be focused on marriage. In the words of American University law professor and gay rights activist Nancy Polikoff: “Marriage as a family form is not more important or valuable than other forms of family, so the law should not give it more value.”[1]

I suggest that the movement for marriage equality is only partially a legal struggle. Marriage has a strange place in the history of the United States. It’s both public and private at the same time, and represents not only an agreement between individuals but also an overarching belief structure in which families come to represent society at large. Time and again in US history “stable families” (often portrayed as heterosexual, typically white, couples with at least two children) have been seen as the first line of defense against everything from juvenile delinquency and venereal disease to anarchy and communism.

Marriage may be personal, emotional relationships between individuals, but they are just as much symbolic, institutional relationships with one’s community and with the state.

Few things illustrate the fixation on “healthy” marriages better than the rise of professional marriage counseling in the 1930s.

"Stuart Mudd (1893-1975) and Emily Hartshorne Mudd (1898-1975), M.S.W. 1934, Ph.D. 1947," Penn Libraries University Archives.
“Stuart Mudd (1893-1975) and Emily Hartshorne Mudd (1898-1975), M.S.W. 1934, Ph.D. 1947,” Penn Libraries University Archives.

The earliest marriage counseling clinics in the United States opened in the 1930s. The first were organizations like the American Institute for Family Relations, founded by Paul Popenoe in 1930, and the Marriage Counsel of Philadelphia, founded by Emily Hartshorne Mudd at around the same time. Most of the founders of these initial marriage counseling centers were eugenicists and birth control advocates who believed that “happy marriages would lead to more babies” among the target white, middle-class, “fit” population.[2] These early marriage counselors promoted the idea that the availability of professional marriage counseling meant that “couples with failing relationships who did not seek help were not as committed to marriage as those who did.” The blame for failure fell solidly on those couples who didn’t avail themselves of therapy.[3]

These clinics – which developed out of a longer history of marriage advice from friends, family, community, and advice literature – grew into a nationwide movement to manage American marriages and reduce the divorce rate. The marriage counseling profession developed out of a variety of disciplines: from medicine and eugenics, to social work and psychology. Over its eighty-year history the field would both shape and be shaped by clients’ ideas about marriage and their hopes for the personal fulfillment and self-realization it could provide.

Historians like Rebecca Davis and Kristin Celello have written wonderful histories of marriage counseling in recent years. Davis suggests that marriage counseling, for the past eighty years, has simultaneously made marriage seem both “more flawed and more essential to the well-being of the individuals involved and the communities to which they belong.” The combined interests of marriage counselors and their clients have helped shape an obsession with marital happiness and success. Even as the definitions of these qualities changed over time they’ve been wrapped up in goals of personal satisfaction, socioeconomic stability, and benefits for the individual and community.[4]

Kristin Celello similarly argues that, through popular advice literature and marriage counseling, marriage experts popularized the notion that “marriage requires work” in order to avoid divorce, and that this work was properly performed by women. She acknowledges that not every American read advice literature or visited a marriage counselor, and that even those who did may not always have listened, but the conversation was prevalent enough to help “construct a national language and dialogue about marriage.”[5]

Still from Coronet Instructional Films' "Are You Ready For Marriage?" 1950.
Still from Coronet Instructional Films’ “Are You Ready For Marriage?” 1950.

The solution these experts provided American couples was an ideology that “marriage required work—and that wives, in particular, should do most of it.”[6] The marital advice of the Victorian era became more and more out of date into the twentieth century. As Americans came to demand emotional satisfaction, love, and intimacy from their marriages they were bombarded from all sides – prescriptive literature, films, radio programs, newspaper columns – by marriage experts who argued that happy marriages were achievable, but would require work. These idealized marriages often presumed particular gendered behaviors.

Discussions about the evils of divorce and the need to stable marriages often focused on restrictive gender roles and expectations, and often put the onus of marriage “work” on women, but the counseling itself had some unexpected effects. Rebecca Davis argues, for example that marriage counseling clients (mostly white, middle-class women) “transformed marriage counseling into a venue for candid confrontations over the gendered expectations of marital companionship.” They were, in fact, frequently unhappy or conflicted about their marriages and in their personal interactions with counselors found a means toward greater control.[7] Further, the emphasis on marital happiness and “the possibility of achieving that happiness through therapy and counselling – inadvertently contributed to a ‘discourse of discontent’ that laid the groundwork for women’s liberation.”[8] While these effects may not have been true for all women, it’s clear from looking at the history of marriage in the United States that much has changed since even the 1950s, even as others have remained remarkably constant.

Marriage today has a long history in restrictive gender norms and inequality. Marriage has deep emotional and personal resonance with many people (myself included) who experience it as a symbol of commitment and love. At the same time, it’s consistently rolled out in debates about poverty, single parents, race, and gun control to suggest that marriage and a particular type of family is the foundation of a stable society – not very different from the arguments made by marriage activists in the 1930s.

Activists who question marriage as a goal, then, do so in the context of this history of marriage. Dean Spade and Crag Willse, for example, point out that:

Right wing pro-marriage rhetoric has targeted families of color and poor families, supported a violent welfare and child protection system, vilified single parents and women, and marginalized queer families of all kinds. Expanding marriage to include a narrow band of same-sex couples only strengthens that system of marginalization and supports the idea that the state should pick which types of families to reward and recognize and which to punish and endanger.[9]

These are without doubt complicated and personal issues. I believe the struggle to fundamentally redefine how we think about issues like gender, race, and marriage is important and should continue. Further, I think we too often deprioritize issues like these because they seem too idealistic or unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for them.

That said, I feel that these issues aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

I hope that opening marriage to as many people as possible will have a [liberalizing] effect on the institution, rather than a limiting effect on the participants. If nothing else, debates over marriage equality bring this otherwise taken-for-granted institution into popular conversation and perhaps will lead more of us to ask why we, as a society, prioritize certain types of family arrangements over others both culturally and through our legal system.

As it gains ground, the fight for marriage equality needs to be more broadly conceived. Marriage equality means not only tearing down the barriers to marriage for all as a civil right, but also working to achieve equality within marriage as a human right.


1. Nancy Polikoff, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, Beacon Press, 2008, 3.

2. Kristin Celello, Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 37.

3. Celello, Making Marriage Work, 39.

4. Rebecca L. Davis, More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 259.

5. Celello, Making Marriage Work, 12, 39, 162.

6. Celello, Making Marriage Work, 43.

7. Rebecca L. Davis, “‘The Wife Your Husband Needs’: Marriage Counseling, Religion, and Sexual Politics in the United States, 1930-1980” (Dissertation, Yale University, 2006), 9.

8. Molly Ladd-Taylor, “Eugenics, Sterilisation and Modern Marriage in the USA: The Strange Career of Paul Popenoe,” Gender & History 13, no. 2 (2001): 322.

9. Dean Spade and Crag Willse, “No to State Regulation of Families!: Statement,” accessed December 19, 2012, See this page for a list of a number of other good essays, articles, and statements on the topic of marriage equality.

Feature image was taken by Flickr user fenderfour (Robert Fisher) on December 9, 2012 in Capitol One, Seattle, WA, US, (

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This post by Adam Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Adam Turner has a Master's degree in history from the University of Oregon and works as a web developer with a love of clean, standards-based markup and accessible, user-centered design.