This is an op-ed I wrote for a class on public theology, taught by Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite. It is the culmination of much thinking about marriage, specifically with regards to my personal experience and also in broader terms relating to greater society as well.
What does marriage really mean?
I waited patiently behind the counter as the DMV clerk asked his supervisor for advice. The supervisor needed to call the state office to be sure proper procedure was followed. I glanced over at my wife, whose own application for an Illinois driver’s license had already been accepted, despite both of us being helped at the same time. You see, it comes as no surprise when a woman changes her name following marriage. For the husband to do the same however, is so odd as to arouse suspicion.
In combining our last names, we had confronted one of the many vestiges of ancient sexism in contemporary America: when a man and a woman get married, it is the woman – not the man – who changes her name. Somebody long ago decided that patriarchal lines must be maintained, at the expense of matriarchal names, which are in turn all but forgotten. Even what we tend to think of as “matriarchal names” – a woman’s “maiden name,” for example – are simply the names of men in her family.
It seems odd, when you stop to think about it, that a union of two people from two different families is so often symbolized by one seemingly joining the other’s family – at least, as far as her name is concerned. Today, we tend to be believe that marriage is supposed to be a mutual joining, yet we overwhelmingly cling to symbols, such as the woman’s name change, that evoke archaic applications of marriage.
For thousands of years, the historical understanding of marriage has been that of a property transfer. The property (the bride) goes from one man (her father) to another (the would-be groom). When she is born, the daughter is given her father’s name, as he is the head of the household. When she is married, she is placed under the authority of another man and joins his household, and she now takes his last name. The children will too. That is because both wife and children are members of the man’s household, and they derive both their name and social status from their association with him.
The Bible, particularly Old Testament law, was written from the perspective of marriage as a property arrangement. For example, according to Leveticus, adultery was not defined in terms of marital unfaithfulness, but as a man having sexual relations with the wife or daughter of another man. The problem with adultery in this case is the grave insult to the other man, by wrongfully using his property – perhaps akin to stealing someone’s car – not unfaithfulness, which would be considered the major sin by today’s standards. Though we have clearly evolved from these assumptions of 2,500 years ago, some of the remnants of these ideas remain. Consider the wedding tradition of the father of the bride who “gives away” his daughter to the groom, and the groom symbolically assimilates her into his household, with the changing of her name (and identity).
It is true that in this day and age, a simple name change upon marriage does not necessarily amount to a couple’s endorsement of the historical implications thereof. It is also true that there are many reasons that newly married people may decide to change, merge, hyphenate, keep their original names, or none of the above. I do not mean to suggest that one can or should make assumptions about the relationships of married couples based upon how they handled the question of what to do with their last names.
Nonetheless, it is clear that marriage, at least as far as it is understood by greater society, is about more than a simple commitment between a woman and a man. Conservatives who oppose same sex marriage, claim that marriage has been a cornerstone institution of our society. To a certain degree, they are right, though not only for the commonly-cited reasons of supporting and promoting families. Rather, it is clear that the institution of marriage has allowed men to retain economic dominance throughout the centuries, by maintaining the position of men as heads of their households. Models of marriage that subvert this paradigm threaten this power structure from which men have historically benefited. This offers at least a partial explanation for the reluctance of some to endorse an understanding of marriage that is less concerned with maintaining a power structure, than about supporting the love between two people.
It is clear that in the ongoing debate about marriage in our society, we must be honest when we consider what marriage has meant throughout time, and what it means today. Going into the future, will our institution of marriage continue to be defined by power and control, or about the public recognition and support of love between two people?