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Taking Back Marriage

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People are talking about Stephanie Coontz‘s NY Times Opinion column today, in which she advocates that we take back marriage from the control of the states. Here’s the nub of Coontz’s argument:

Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.

I am with her 100%. When I suggested as much in my property class during my first year of law school, during a discussion of marital assets, people were shocked and appalled by the idea that marriage should be a religious institution and the state should be in the business only of civil unions for all couples, gay or straight. I would like to think that Coontz’s piece is a sign that notions are changing. But then again, that law school discussion was only two years ago.

I also have to say that as much as I support Coontz’s marriage proposal (pun intended), there is something about her historical framing of it that makes me a little uncomfortable. Yes, one strong thing going for the so-called privatization of marriage is the practice’s historical roots. That said, I think we need to be careful not to idealize the marriage of the past, in which women were property and a marriage was a business arrangement. Coontz is completely right to suggest that the state is not the appropriate purveyor of “marriage”; the state should recognize civil not religious unions. But I think we can advocate for this shift without recalling the marriage misogyny of days gone by. It continues strongly enough today as it is.

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