American Marriage: A Political Institution

American Marriage: A Political Institution

American Marriage: A Political Institution

American Marriage: A Political Institution

Synopsis

As states across the country battle internally over same-sex marriage in the courts, in legislatures, and at the ballot box, activists and scholars grapple with its implications for the status of gays and lesbians and for the institution of marriage itself. Yet, the struggle over same-sex marriage is only the most recent political and public debate over marriage in the United States. What is at stake for those who want to restrict marriage and for those who seek to extend it? Why has the issue become such a national debate? These questions can be answered only by viewing marriage as a political institution as well as a religious and cultural one.

In its political dimension, marriage circumscribes both the meaning and the concrete terms of citizenship. Marriage represents communal duty, moral education, and social and civic status. Yet, at the same time, it represents individual choice, contract, liberty, and independence from the state. According to Priscilla Yamin, these opposing but interrelated sets of characteristics generate a tension between a politics of obligations on the one hand and a politics of rights on the other. To analyze this interplay, American Marriage examines the status of ex-slaves at the close of the Civil War, immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, civil rights and women's rights in the 1960s, and welfare recipients and gays and lesbians in the contemporary period. Yamin argues that at moments when extant political and social hierarchies become unstable, political actors turn to marriage either to stave off or to promote political and social changes. Some marriages are pushed as obligatory and necessary for the good of society, while others are contested or presented as dangerous and harmful. Thus political struggles over race, gender, economic inequality, and sexuality have been articulated at key moments through the language of marital obligations and rights. Seen this way, marriage is not outside the political realm but interlocked with it in mutual evolution.

Excerpt

For weeks during the summer of 2010, activists, pundits, and legal scholars paid close attention as the California Supreme Court heard testimony for and against the right to same-sex marriage in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger. When the decision to overturn the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage came down, one of the plaintiffs, Kristin M. Perry, said, “This decision says that we are Americans, too. We too should be treated equally. Our family is just as loving, just as real and just as valid as anyone else’s.” Theodore Olson, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, called the decision a “victory for the American people” and for those who had been denied rights “because they are unpopular, because they are a minority, because they are viewed differently.” Olson, who had worked in Ronald Reagan’s Office of Legal Counsel, had represented George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore, and had served as Bush’s solicitor general, surprised many observers who thought it incongruous that a veteran conservative would take up the cause of gay rights. While profoundly political, marriage does not so easily yield to ideological categorization. This is because marriage represents both the obligations and rights of citizens, which are elemental but disparate aspects of American politics. When we broaden our field of vision from the question of who should have the right to marry and look at marriage itself as a political institution, different questions come into view. Why and under what conditions does marriage come to matter politically? Why is it a site of such passionate political struggle? What kinds of political work do marriage do?

The institution of marriage is fundamental to American political development because it acts as a fulcrum between obligations and rights. Marriage represents communal duty, loyalty, moral education, inherited property relations, and social and civic status. Yet at the same time, marriage represents consent, contract, individual liberties, and independence from the state.

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