Portman's supporters hail his change of heart as a victory for gay rights. His detractors claim that he's made an emotional decision to support his gay son while abandoning conservative principles.
On both sides of the debate over gay marriage the term 'traditional marriage' is invoked. Those who seek legal guarantees of marriage equality say that they want to have the right to a traditional marriage. Those who are against gay marriage cast themselves as defenders of traditional marriage. There is an assumption on both sides about what traditional marriage means. Both marriage equality supporters and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) supporters speak of traditional marriage as a positive value. There is little to no discussion about whether or not this is actually true.
|Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi|
on their wedding day
But on the whole, women are not driving the debate over traditional marriage. Part of the reason is that men who engage in this debate are often in positions of political or religious power - careers often closed to women. Another reason might be that though women are more likely to accept a gay child/friend/co-worker than men, they are far less likely to be gay themselves. According to the Kinsey Institute, 75% of homosexuals are male while only 25% are female.
Traditional marriage is a vague term. It can mean whatever people want it to mean: a man and a woman, two people who make a loving commitment to each other, two people legally bound to each other, one man and several women, equal partners, strict gender roles, a sacred bond, a ball and chain, a master and servant, etc. Whose traditions are we invoking when we use the term traditional marriage and, more importantly, who benefits from the tradition invoked?
Is traditional marriage good for women?
|Photo of child brides and their husbands from|
Cynthia Gorney's piece for National Geographic
"Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides"
In the United States, traditional marriage means divorce for 53% of couples. Studies show that divorced women are far less financially stable than married women or divorced men. A recent Pew study asked Americans what was better for children, a working mother, a stay-at-home mother, or a mother who worked part time. When Pew was justifiably criticized for not asking the same question about fathers, they answered, "next time." Pew is a progressive institution and even its researchers assumed that it was mothers who determined the well-being of children by their career choices. By framing the question this way, Pew is confirming what many in the U.S. believe to be true: men should pursue their careers with autonomy and a father's career choices do not have any bearing on the well-being of children. Pew's survey completely ignored how a woman's career choices impact the well-being of women. It's as if the mother's well-being is completely irrelevant in a traditional marriage.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count program, as of 2011, 35% of American children are being raised in single-parent households and 75% of those households are father-less. In the African-American community, the number of children being raised by mothers alone is a staggering 72%. For various reasons, an increasing number of women with children are not in traditional marriages.
Studies show that married men live longer and report higher overall happiness than single men. However, married women are much more likely to be killed by their husband than a stranger. Is this the model for traditional marriage that is so valued by advocates of marriage equality and male/female only marriage?
What about the Biblical definition of marriage?
Traditional marriage as a justification for abusing and exploiting women
Even the most ardent Christians in the U.S. tend not to subscribe to the Bible's examples of marriage. They take away the male/female bit and ignore the rest. The marriages of Evangelical Christians are no more Biblical than the marriages of their atheist neighbors. Evangelical wives are high school educated, they work, they vote, they initiate divorce, they use birth control, and they exercise legal and financial autonomy. But they, like their husbands, speak of their marriage as Biblically-based and 'traditional'. Why?
A historical view shows us that traditional marriage is a term used to justify the abuse and exploitation of women all the while couching that abuse and exploitation as God's will.
Years ago in the U.S. traditional marriage was the reason it took women suffragists so long to get Congress to legalize voting rights for women. Anti-suffragists argued that married men would have a political advantage over single men because the married men could simply tell their wives how to vote. Traditional marriage is the reason why women in the U.S. don't earn equal pay to men. It is the reason American women, though increasingly better educated than their male counterparts, do not achieve the same levels of career success. Traditional marriage is why we don't have many women CEOs and why their are so few women in Congress. Traditional marriage is why we have not been able to elect a woman president in the U.S.
Because of traditional marriage, I didn't have a credit history until I bought a car in my own name six years ago even though together with my husband I'd already bought a car and two houses. Traditional marriage meant that until 1993 in the U.S., when a husband forced his wife to have sex against her will that was not considered rape. In many nations today, wives have no recourse to the law when their husbands force them to have sex. Traditional marriage means that men will often earn more money than their wives and leave the care of children and ageing parents to their wives because they are taught via biology, theology, and history that women are "natural caregivers".
Traditional marriage is the justification for denying women birth control and abortions. It discourages women from filing charges against their abusive husbands. It shames sexually active girls while secretly high-fiving sexually active boys. "At least he's not gay," one conservative mother told me when she learned her teenage son was sexually active with his teenage girlfriend.
Why are we defending traditional marriage as a good thing? Because those most vocal in this debate on both sides are men. Traditional marriage, however you define it, offers tremendous benefits for men, far more than it does for women. In addition, traditional marriage frequently assumes a compromised autonomy for women, particularly in regards to their career choices.
How gay marriage can help straight women achieve marriage equality
Women are always at the forefront of helping society's 'others' achieve dignity and equality, yet are too often left in the dust afterwards. Traditional marriage, whether it be Biblical, historical, or modern does not offer women the same benefits as it does men. Until women are truly equal partners in marriage both in the U.S. and around the world, I cannot support the notion of traditional marriage and I cannot imagine why gay couples would either.
Perhaps gay marriage will offer straights a chance to finally get it right when it comes to marriage. Same-sex couples may provide straight couples the role models they need to finally break away from marriage traditions that denigrate women and create barriers between men and their children. I'm all for marriage, but I'd like to see a new configuration of it. I challenge gay marriage proponents to come up with a new model of marriage and a new name for it. Let's stop holding up traditional marriage as a good thing and see it for what it has been and, for most women, what it still is: gender bondage. And let's promote gay marriage, not as a continuation of traditional marriage, but a rethinking of commitment, family, and equality.