The Meaning Of Marriage: A History Of Partnerships And Unions From The Ancient World To The Present Day
By: Jennifer Conerly
Updated March 26, 2021
Merriam-Webster describes marriage as "the state of being united as spouses in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law. "This definition takes an even greater significance today. In 2015, the United States joined several other nations around in legalizing same-sex marriage, creating a more inclusive meaning of marriage. Today, marriage symbolizes love and eternal devotion. These romantic ties didn't appear too long ago.
Unions based on romantic love only appeared a little over a century ago! Before that, they were economical and business arrangements - the furthest thing from romance you can get. Before you get angry with your spouse for forgetting to take out the trash, take a look at the evolution of marriage from the ancient period to the present day. You'll be surprised to see how much it has changed! Married life is not the same as it used to be.
Marriage History: Changing Attitudes From The Ancient Period To The Present Day
There is nothing more powerful than choosing your mate and saying, "I want to share my life with you, so let's bind ourselves together legally." (Although, for your sake, we hope your partner comes up with a more romantic proposal than that!) Unfortunately, choosing your mate is a modern concept, a luxury that we often take for granted.
Rituals and ceremonies uniting two people together date back to prehistoric cultures. Considered the very first diplomatic alliance, marriages had political and economic benefits. Whether it was to unite against common enemies, form lasting connections for trade, or establish clear ownership and inheritance of property, marriage was a business arrangement between families - nothing more.
Banns: Marriage Goes Public
The first marriages of the world were private arrangements between families, but the rise of the Church made them public events. As the early religious leaders were writing Christian doctrine and considered the Bible the marriage book, they established marriage as the center of the family and the community. The Church largely remained silent over private unions at first, as long as both partners agreed to the match and their families offered their blessing. Over time, the Church became more involved in marital unions; it created the "official" wedding ceremony, which took place outside among your family, friends, and neighbors.
By the Middle Ages, you had to announce your marriage publicly. Starting in the 13th century, any couple that wanted to get married had to publish banns, or public notices, stating the date of their impending wedding and the names of the bride and groom. Similar to the wedding announcements of the present day, banns alerted the public of the marriage and allowed anyone to come forward and challenge the union. These notices eliminated the chances of any wedding taking place that would be considered improper or invalid. Any member of the community could challenge a marriage for reasons outlined by the Church, such as if the bride and groom were too closely related or if one of them had a prior engagement that hadn't been properly dissolved.
Common-Law Marriages In Colonial America
Marriage banns became a tradition, and they eventually moved to the New World. By the late 17th century, the English settled the Atlantic coast of what would become the United States, bringing their practices with them. The British colonies followed common law - which followed precedent, not written laws. Generally, the marriage traditions followed in Europe made their way to the New World, where they adapted and evolved into the new environment.
The British government started taxing marriages and married couples in the home country and the colonies by the end of the 1600s. This explains why marriage was somewhat done away with. Instead, many couples entered into common-law marriages, which were unions that were not officiated by a judge or a religious official in order to avoid paying the fee. All the law required for a binding common-law marriage was for the bride and groom to agree to live as husband and wife (with their families' blessings).
Common-law marriages in the colonies were mostly economic arrangements, but opinions on marriage were shifting during this period. Unions between men and women became just as much about companionship as they did about financial security. Unfortunately, for women, making a good marriage to a man who could financially support her was the key to her survival and although she had a successful marriage, it didn’t mean she had a happy one. Common law didn't give women any legal rights, and there were no occupations in which a woman could completely support herself. The best chance she had to support herself financially was through marriage. Married life became the only way she could have a purpose in the world. Although the Church and the State recognized these unions, they were not legally protected. If a common-law husband died, and he wanted to leave any money or property to his wife, she could not inherit it.
The Nineteenth Century: The Victorian Period Sets The Standard For Marriage
After the American Revolution and the formation of the United States, the Founding Fathers put marriage under state jurisdiction, changing the meaning of marriage once again. Marriage laws varied from state to state, but they were similar in many ways. British common law influenced the American legal system, and the Victorian values of the 19th century affected the way Americans approached sex and marriage. Instead of the Bible, the laws of the state became the new marriage book.
There was a slow evolution in what men and women looked for in a partner, changing the meaning of marriage somewhat. Building upon the companionship that had been important in previous centuries, love, friendship, and companionship all factor into choosing a spouse. A period of religious and moral reform, the 19th century also brought significant changes in gender roles. At its height, the Industrial Revolution created more economic prosperity for married life, rapidly expanding the middle class. Industrialization created more jobs in the cities. It explains why marriage had men spent more time working outside of the home, while women were increasingly confined to it.
Unlike previous centuries, where women made financial contributions to the household, wives became the sole caretakers of their husbands and children. Men and women, as a married couple, each dominated their own spaces of influence: the public sphere and the private sphere. It was what kept a successful marriage. Victorian men occupied public areas, while women created a domestic haven for their husbands when they returned home. This "separation of spheres" would dominate the Victorian period and dictate the ins and outs of married life. Although the Victorians believed that men were the superior sex, women reigned supreme inside of the home, keeping a clean, orderly household and raising well-behaved, morally-upright children. These codes of behavior encouraged women to seek fulfillment in their roles as wives and mothers, becoming the model for 19th-century women to follow, as well as becoming the basis for the institution of marriage.
Seduction Laws And Marriage In The U.S.
This cultural focus on marriage and family filtered throughout society changing the meaning of marriage for everyone. The legal system found ways to prosecute anyone who deviated from it. In the U.S., about 75% of states had laws to prosecute "seduction" by the 19th century. Many men would convince women to have premarital sex with them by promising marriage; if the man didn't marry her, the woman's male relatives could charge the man with seduction. While this charge wasn't rape, there were consequences for having sex before marriage, and that consequence was the marriage that was promised. When appearing in court for the charge of seduction, the man could either plead not guilty, or he could marry the woman he seduced. If the man chose to avoid prosecution, the judge married the former lovers right there in the courtroom. This probably explains why marriage was more common than usual for people who didn’t really know each other. Married life became about not going to prison instead of marrying for love.
In an age of common-law marriages, promising someone that you would marry them was a binding contract, just as legal as if a religious or civil official had officiated it. The charge of seduction was technically a farce: it was a way to force men to follow through with the marriage or fulfill his contract. If the man refused to be a faithful husband and financially support his new wife, her relatives could still prosecute him for seduction.
Marriage played such a dominant economic role in women's lives, so they didn't fight the unions. In fact, they welcomed them since they would be unlikely to find another husband. Men placed a high value on a woman's virginity when looking for a wife during this period. If she was hauled into court on a seduction charge, this meant she wasn't a virgin - and her value as a bride decreased. Not the best start to a successful marriage.
The Twentieth Century: A Time Of Social Change
The meaning of marriage would undergo the most extreme changes during the 20th century. Rejecting the gender roles of the Victorian period, 20th-century brides and grooms moved away from the separation of spheres. Loosening attitudes about premarital sex made physical attraction another requirement in choosing a spouse. Couples now consider physical intimacy just as important as emotional intimacy.
World War I and World War II altered marriage rates throughout the world, making married life more precious. Both wars saw an increase in marriages, with couples getting married younger. World War I, a defining moment in modern history, changed the nature of marriage and society as a whole, which would have repercussions throughout the rest of the twentieth century.
Although love becomes the primary factor in choosing a partner, state laws continue to intrude on personal freedoms within marriage. Women struggled for more equality within their relationships with their husbands, as interracial couples and same-sex couples fight for their unions to be legally recognized. It explains why marriage became such a central focus during this time, since there were plenty of people who weren’t allowed to do so.
World War I, Marriage, And Social Change
During World War I, more women joined the workforce and contributed to the war effort. Replacing men during their military service, women felt more self-sufficient. With more control over their lives, women campaigned for more rights. Although obtaining the right to vote had been on the suffragists' radar since the late nineteenth century, women's wartime experience further fueled the campaign; women achieved the right to vote in the United States in 1920 with the passage of the nineteenth Amendment.
The 1920s were also a time of recovery and reaction from the "Great War"; World War I killed more soldiers than all of the military conflicts of the nineteenth century combined. With the disastrous war over, the 1920s became a time of thriving material and consumer culture. Most importantly, it reflected changing attitudes on sex and gender. Having survived such a devastating war, people just wanted to have fun. The Roaring 20s were the times of flappers, jazz music, and relaxing attitudes towards sex. The courtship between men and women is no longer supervised, and couples start getting to know each other better before they get married.
The WWII Years
The Interwar Years (the two decades between World War I and World War II)follow a global trend in marriage. More couples get married when the economy is thriving. The stock market crash of 1929 shattered the economy, and more people waited to get married; massive unemployment rates meant that couples couldn't afford weddings or financially support their families. However, the beginning of World War II brought the economic boom that encouraged more frequent marriages.
In the 1940s, the U.S. joined World War II; the boost in defensive production, such as weapons, ammunition, and vehicles, allowed the country to pull itself out of the Great Depression.
The improved economy - as well as the nation at war - created marriage fever. In the U.S., the marriage rates rose 80% between 1941 and 1942. Both religious and civil officials conducted these marriages; some judges and officiants married hundreds of couples within a single day! A significant amount of these hasty unions didn't last. About 25% of them ended in divorce after the war ended in 1945.
At the end of the war, society wanted a return to the domestic bliss last seen during the Victorian period. The appearance of the "nuclear family" - a husband, a wife, and their children - becomes the ideal. The separation of spheres returns, with women becoming wives and mothers, while their husbands were the breadwinners. However, many women started to question society's willingness to corner them into roles as wives and mothers only.
Marriage Discrimination: Women's Rights, Anti-Miscegenation Laws, And The Fight For Same-Sex Marriage
Although Victorian society cherished the honorable, chaste wife, women challenged their husbands' control over their lives by the late nineteenth century. Beginning the women's rights movement, the "first wave" of feminism pushed for more equality both inside and outside of marriage throughout the twentieth century. While their predecessors wanted more freedom, the "second wave" of feminists in the 20th century wanted more: they wanted equality.
The "First Wave": Women Achieve More Control Over Their Property
Although women earned the right to vote by 1920, their husbands still controlled their daily lives, which had an impact on married life. A wife couldn't even open a credit card without her husband's consent, nor did she have any say in what happened to the couple's community property. When a woman married, her husband confiscated all of her wealth and property, keeping it or selling it without his wife's input. In the United States, women had varying degrees of control over their property, dating back to the Victorian period. Most women didn't have control over their property at all. Other states made certain exceptions for women who owned businesses or property, granting them "femme sole" status. These women continued to control their affairs without interference, even after marriage. Responding to social and political pressure, governments started passing resolutions to give women more economic freedoms. Even with these limited allowances, women who owned property had certain leverage when choosing a husband because she could support herself.
The "Second Wave": Feminists Address Social Ills Of The Age
By the late 1960s, there was a significant population of self-sufficient women that no longer considered marriage to be their only option, which diminished married life as being their sole purpose. Adopting the methods of the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, second-wave feminists pushed for more personal and professional opportunities. Initially addressing politicians for their support, the first second-wave feminists were disappointed when no one would take up their cause. They developed the first feminist "pressure group," the National Organization for Women (NOW). Inspired by the gains the NAACP made for the civil rights movement, second-wave feminists used NOW to push for more gender equality in the workplace.
Pursuing an agenda to convince employers to end discrimination practices against working wives and mothers, NOW's leadership suffered from internal divisions. While some moderate feminists wanted to keep pushing for better conditions for working women, more radical feminists wanted to address more social and political issues that affected them, such as the Vietnam War, abortion, as well as sexual assault and domestic violence both within and outside of marriage.
As a result, radical feminism brought about real change for married women: marital rape was outlawed in the 1970s, and the first domestic violence shelters opened. In 1972, part of the Higher Education Act - known as Title IX - provided more opportunities for women in higher education. Most importantly, radical feminism pushed for a change in divorce laws. Women unhappy in their marriages could get a divorce more easily, allowing them to leave unfulfilling or abusive relationships.
Anti-Miscegenation Laws: Bans On Interracial Marriage
In the United States, white supremacy dominated as a result of the era of slavery. Since the 17th century, anti-miscegenation laws prevented relationships and marriages between whites and African slaves to solidify slavery as an institution. Although the randy slaveowner always ignored them, these regulations were generally accepted. Even abolitionists didn't make any movements to abolish these laws. Pro-slavery factions used anti-miscegenation laws to discredit the abolitionist movement, accusing activists of secretly supporting racial equality.
The United States kept anti-miscegenation laws on the books to clearly define how it dealt with race in a post-slavery world. Attempting to preserve white supremacy, the government restricted the fundamental civil rights of newly-freed slaves. This included the anti-miscegenation laws against interracial marriages. After the passage of the 13th Amendment, whites supported their opposition to interracial marriage through terror, which explains why marriage for people of colour were rare or kept secret. Whites lynched African-Americans for having relationships - or even mild flirtations - with white women, even when they were consensual. This system of white supremacy remained in full effect well into the twentieth century.
The U.S. anti-miscegenation laws also extended to Asian immigrants who arrived in mass numbers in the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. As Chinese immigrants came to the United States as laborers during the Gold Rush, they were isolated into their communities. The government didn't want these workers to settle in the United States, so it kept them from marrying and starting their own families. First, the U.S. banned Chinese women from migrating to America. Then, it applied the anti-miscegenation laws that were effective against interracial marriage to unions between whites and Chinese migrants.
Eventually, gains made by the first civil rights advocates and the overturning of legal precedent turned the tide against the anti-miscegenation laws. Starting in 1948, states began to repeal their laws, but the regulations in the South remained in force. A Virginia couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, were convicted under the state's laws; after several years of appeals, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. The federal ruling of Loving v. Virginia wiped out the remaining legislation still in effect in the United States.
The Final Push: Same-Sex Couples Fight For Marriage EqualityIn The United States
The legal regulation of homosexuality stems from hundreds of years of religious and secular policing of same-sex relationships. The Church condemned homosexuality, and governments from the local to federal level passed regulations banning same-sex relationships and social behavior. By the nineteenth century, new conversations focused on equality, and freedom influenced the liberation movement. Slowly, activist groups organized to pressure church and state officials into removing legal restrictions against gays and lesbians.
As the social movements of the twentieth century tackled tough questions surrounding gender and race discrimination within marriage, gay rights activists organized under the LGBT banner. Calling attention to all people who do not identify as straight, the LGBT movement used examples of consciousness-raising from the feminist and civil rights movement. Activists used demonstrations to publicize the gay rights movement, taking on state laws - known as sodomy laws - that criminalized same-sex relationships. The U.S. sodomy laws made same-sex relationships a felony offense, even in the privacy of your own home.
In response to LGBT activism, government officials responded with even more restrictions and violence. In New York, the state-authorized bullying tactics, with police harassing patrons of local LGBT-friendly establishments. After the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, in which members of the LGBT community resisted police brutality, the gay rights movement splintered into specific groups that tackled issues that impacted their lives. Offshoots of the first activist groups devoted to lesbians and gay people of color organized, while the first ally groups, such as PFLAG, joined the fight for equal rights.
One of the many issues addressed by the end of the twentieth century was the status of marriage. The government didn't recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and gay and lesbian parents had no rights over their children in custody battles. President Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, signed in 1996, exempted same-sex couples from claiming federal benefits.LGBT activists spent the last years of the twentieth century pushing for their marriages to have equal legal rights and protections as straight couples.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the tide was changing. Several European nations, beginning with the Netherlands in 2000, started to legalize same-sex unions. In the meantime, the U.S. struggled over whether or not it was a state or a federal issue. In 2000, as some states started to strike down their sodomy laws, Vermont legalized civil unions of same-sex couples. Finally, in 2003, the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional. Several states replaced their sodomy laws with provisions criminalizing same-sex marriage, while other states legally protected these unions.
In 2012, the movement for marriage equality gained an ally in U.S. President Barack Obama, who refused to support the Defense of Marriage Act. The next year, the Supreme Court ruled that Clinton's Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. Throughout the rest of 2013 and 2014, individual states uphold the Supreme Court ruling, legalizing same-sex marriage. One year later, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the remaining 13 bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, legalizing same-sex unions across the country.
With so many changes in what makes a marriage since the ancient world, the legalization of same-sex marriage is one further step that makes the institution a universal civil right for everyone.
The most successful marriages today have become partnerships that depend on regular communication and constant effort. Both you and your partner should decide what your marriage should be; you can create your ideal relationship or redefine it according to your values. Honesty and openness with your partner about what you want is the key to any successful relationship. Professional counseling services can help you, and your spouse learns how to communicate better or help you fine-tune your relationship. Click here to speak with our licensed couples counselors.
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