Is Marriage Dead?

Is Marriage Dead?

Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History

Marriage, A History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage
by Stephanie Coontz
Viking, 2005, 413 pp., $29.95

Richard Nixon is justly famous for opening up China, covering up Watergate, vetoing a comprehensive child care act, and passing some of the most protective environmental legislation in our nation’s history. But until I read Stephanie Coontz’s engaging and provocative history of marriage, I did not recall that he had predicted—as early as 1970— that we would have to wait until 2000 before gay marriage would be acceptable to the American people.

He wasn’t far off. Even though a majority of Americans still don’t support same-sex marriage, social attitudes have changed dramatically since 1970. Within the last few years, a few courts have declared same-sex marriage constitutional, and several mayors have issued marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. At the same time, George W. Bush has threatened a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, and state initiatives to ban same-sex marriage mobilized many new voters during the presidential campaign of 2004.

Stephanie Coontz, a distinguished historian of the family, who teaches at Evergreen College, did not set out to prove that gay marriage is inevitable. But her fascinating history of heterosexual marriage suggests that same-sex marriage now tops the cultural wars because it symbolizes the end of a mythic “traditional marriage” that has been transformed by irrevocable economic and social changes in our society.


Ruth Rosen, a professor emerita of history at the University of California, Davis and senior fellow at the Longview Institute, is the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2001).