Under such rules, a woman’s life was dependent on the disposition of her husband, and though there were kind as well as unkind husbands then, rights are more reliable than the kindness of someone who holds absolute power over you. And rights were a long way off.
Until Britain’s Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, everything belonged to the husband; the wife was penniless on her own account, no matter her inheritance or her earnings. Laws against wife beating were passed around that time in both England and the United States but rarely enforced until the 1970s. That domestic violence is now (sometimes) prosecuted hasn’t cured the epidemic of such violence in either country.
The novelist Edna O’Brien’s recent memoir has some blood-curdling passages about her own journey through what appears to have been a very traditional marriage. Her first husband was withering about her literary success and obliged her to sign over her checks to him. When she refused to sign over a large film-rights check, he throttled her, but when she went to the police they were not much interested. The violence horrifies me, but so does the underlying assumption that the abuser has the right to control and punish his victim and the way such violence is used to that end.
The Cleveland, Ohio, case of Ariel Castro, accused in 2013 of imprisoning, torturing, and sexually abusing three young women for a decade, is extreme, but it may not be quite the anomaly it is portrayed as. For one thing, Castro, it is claimed, was spectacularly and openly violent to his now-deceased common-law wife. And what lay behind Castro’s alleged actions must have been a desire for a situation in which he held absolute power and the women were absolutely powerless, a vicious version of the traditional arrangement.
This is the tradition feminism protested and protests against—not only the extremes but the quotidian situation. Feminists in the nineteenth century made some inroads, those of the 1970s and 1980s made a great many more, which every woman in the United States and UK has benefited from. And feminism made same-sex marriage possible by doing so much to transform a hierarchical relationship into an egalitarian one. Because a marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian—one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it’s a relationship between people who have equal standing and so are free to define their roles themselves.
Gay men and lesbians have already opened up the question of what qualities and roles are male and female in ways that can be liberating for straight people. When they marry, the meaning of marriage is likewise opened up. No hierarchical tradition underlies their union. Some people have greeted this with joy. A Presbyterian pastor who had performed a number of such marriages told me, “I remember coming to this realization when I was meeting with same-sex couples before performing their ceremonies when it was legal in California. The old patriarchal default settings did not apply in their relationships, and it was a glorious thing to witness.”
American conservatives are frightened by this egalitarianism, or maybe just appalled by it. It’s not traditional. But they don’t want to talk about that tradition or their enthusiasm for it, though if you follow their assault on reproductive rights, women’s rights, and the late 2012–early 2013 furor over renewing the Violence Against Women Act, it’s not hard to see where they stand. However, they dissembled on their real interest in stopping same-sex marriage.
Those of us following the court proceedings around, for example, California’s marriage-equality battle have heard a lot about how marriage is for the begetting and raising of children, and certainly reproduction requires the union of a sperm and an egg—but those unite in many ways nowadays, including in laboratories and surrogate mothers. And