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Ask an opponent of same-sex marriage why the issue is so important to them, and you’re likely to hear a pretty general definition of what marriage should be: one man, one woman. Dig a bit deeper, though, and there’s often more to it than that. There’s the notion that the central purpose of matrimony is raising kids, and the idea that every child needs a mother and a father, with clearly defined roles.

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That view of “traditional marriage” has been under attack since long before anyone imagined state-sanctioned gay and lesbian unions. In a 2008 paper for the Journal of American History, Rebecca L. Davis looked back on a fight over the nature of marriage back in the 1920s that involved two very different views of heterosexual relationships.

Davis writes that women’s roles in white, middle-class America were in flux in those years. Women had just won the right to vote, and white-collar jobs were increasingly open to them. Meanwhile, birth control was becoming available, and the public was beginning to abandon the 19th century notion that respectable (white) women were naturally disinterested in sex.

In this context, sociologists identified a new sort of union: the “companionate marriage,” characterized by smaller numbers of children, democratic rather than patriarchal organization, and a focus on the emotional and sexual needs of both husband and wife.

Davis writes that one progressive reformer, Colorado Judge Ben B. Lindsey, ran an all-out publicity campaign for companionate marriage. He advocated giving couples birth control and letting them have easy access to divorce if necessary.

Lindsey envisioned a “radically egalitarian marital relationships,” Davis writes. That was part of what bothered his opponents, who insisted that traditional marriage was the foundation of a capitalist, democratic, Judeo-Christian society. To some, a marriage focused on mutual sexual satisfaction and not on producing children was barely distinguishable from prostitution. Others warned that wider access to divorce would erase men’s roles as family providers, letting their sexual impulses run wild instead of being harnessed for the good of civilization.

Opposition to the rise of companionate marriage actually produced some of the first U.S. marriage counseling clinics. The idea was that counselors could change men and (especially) women to fit the institution of marriage rather than the other way around. This dovetailed with a Depression-era movement to affirm the importance of the male breadwinner. Davis writes that Lindsey’s ideas largely fell by the wayside until the 1960s.

Today, contraception, acceptance of no-fault divorce, and egalitarian relations between husbands and wives are all widespread, though not universal. The fact that we’ve largely redefined marriage in line with Lindsey’s ideals is part of what makes same-sex marriage seem reasonable to many Americans. Meanwhile, a lot of the continued opposition to these unions comes from people who continue to support the traditional view of marriage that he railed against.



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The Journal of American History, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Mar., 2008), pp. 1137-1163
Organization of American Historians