More on Gay Rights, The Decline In Separate Spheres, Feminism, And How They've Made Same-Sex Marriage Possible

[Another guest post from Family Scholars Blog, also available on Alas and on TADA.]

I fear that David, in his response to my first post on Family Scholars, has gotten a bit ahead of me. In my first post, my purpose wasn’t to engage David or other opponents of SSM in debate, or to engage the arguments of SSM opponents. I just wanted to present my view of how two sweeping historic changes have made SSM possible in Western culture.

First of all, we’ve moved, as a culture, very far towards acceptance of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men (“lesbigays” for short). This doesn’t mean that anti-gay bigotry has been eliminated (far from it, alas). It does mean that open expressions of disgust or moral condemnation of homosexuality are increasingly unacceptable in mainstream discourse.

Hence Rick Santorum, famous for anti-gay rhetoric, is mouthing live-and-let-live rhetoric (“I have no problem from a public policy point of view with homosexuality… There are things that people do that I think are good, there are things that are bad, that really doesn’t matter much.”) now that he’s preparing to run for President.

There was little disagreement with me about this point.

Secondly, we’ve moved away from separate spheres ideology — the belief that women and men are so vastly different we could almost be two different species. Doctors no longer argue that too much intellectual stimulation will make women infertile; laws no longer make wives subservient to husbands.

At the height of separate sphere ideology, no respectable person could have argued that a same-sex could raise a family as well as an opposite-sex couple; it would have been like arguing that a carriage and carriage could travel as far and fast as a horse and carriage.

There was a lot of argument about “separate spheres” ideology, but little or none of it actually disagreed with my point (a sign, no doubt, that I did a poor job presenting my point).

David misunderstood me to be suggesting that he or other present-day SSM opponents argue that women belong in the home and men in the public sphere; once I assured him this was not the case, and I was only talking about historic trends leading to SSM, he replied:

…if we are in fact searching for those recent historical changes in the marriage institution that make it today more possible to consider SSM, I don’t think that “the decline of separate spheres ideology” would even makes the top ten.

In fact, David’s own account contradicts this. David makes it clear that he’s run into the argument that the decline of separate spheres matters again and again: he refers to “all this talk from SSM advocates regarding the decline of separate spheres” and says “I keep hearing so much historical esoterica about ‘the decline of separate spheres ideology.'”

Obviously, if David has heard separate spheres discussed in the context of SSM so much, then there must be a significant number of people who do find it relevant.

David continues:

I think nearly everyone’s top ten list, for example, would include: the divorce revolution; the out-of-wedlock childbearing revolution; and the general shift in society’s understanding of marriage, from a structured institution with defined public purposes to the name that we give to privately ordered love relationships.

David, with all due respect, that looks more like the top ten list according to those intellectuals who oppose SSM. That’s not “nearly everyone” by any reasonable measure. (Although if it were, so what? Appealing to the majority is a logical fallacy.)

I promise, Barry, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but honestly, wouldn’t it be better just to cut through all the thick sociologese

“Thick sociologese”? Oy vey, David. May I gently suggest that residents of glass towers shouldn’t chuck bricks? A phrase like “a structured institution with defined public purposes” ain’t exactly jargon-free.

and say: “Gay marriage makes sense today because men and women are less different than they used to be”? For it seems to me that that’s really the point that you and others are making. And it’s a true enough point, in as far as it goes.

Well, I agree with you. But in my post, I wanted to talk not just about what is different today, but also the larger historic trends behind those differences.

And there’s where you’re right, David; I screwed up by using the term “separate spheres” so much. The end of separate spheres was a change, but it wasn’t the larger historic trend. What I should have talked about, instead, is feminism.

Feminism completely changed our understanding of sex roles. Starting from a “separate spheres” conception of sex roles — in which men and women were incapable of performing each other’s roles, and so marriage only made sense between a woman and a man — feminism brought us a modern understanding of sex roles. In that understanding, many or most people agree that women can earn a living, and men can nurture children. It thus makes much less sense to say that a marriage must consist of a woman and a man.

So here’s the rephrasing: “Same-sex marriage is possible today because feminism changed the way we think of men, women, and sex roles.”

I hope you like that better.

And that’s enough history for me. My forthcoming posts on SSM will address the current debate over same-sex marriage. Up next: The much-maligned “B” word.

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5 Responses to More on Gay Rights, The Decline In Separate Spheres, Feminism, And How They've Made Same-Sex Marriage Possible

  1. 1
    steve duncan says:

    ‘If the current society wants to outlaw sex discrimination, hey, we have legislatures,’ Scalia says
    In comments foreshadowing how he might rule on the issue of gay marriage, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said he believes the US Constitution doesn’t provide protection from discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.
    Scalia, a Reagan appointee considered to be a conservative stalwart on the bench, told an audience at UC Hastings Law School in San Francisco that the court’s recognition of a constitutional right to privacy — the basis of Roe v. Wade — is a “total absurdity,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
    Courtesy: Raw Story
    The above sentiments are likely shared by many more millions than you’d be comfortable with. If the a#* whipping we’re all primed to expect in the midterms occurs it’ll give voice to the homophobic & misogynistic fringe seeking to more fully take over the Republican Party. And don’t be deceived by legions of Republican women on the rise (Palin, O’Donnell, et al). Republican women don’t like women’s rights any more than do Republican men. An expensive wardrobe and good dental work can mask a lot of self loathing. The battle for gay & women’s rights is far from over and preparations for setbacks should be made. Should The Right take over both houses of Congress the appointment of sympathetic judges, dependable regulatory agency staff and passage of progressive legislation will be severely stymied.

  2. 2
    james says:

    I think the problem is that you’re taking a descriptive historic term and using it as if it was some sort of active movement. No-one has ever actively believed in the ‘ideology of separate spheres’.

    If we talk about proper ideologies like Marxism, or Feminism, or Liberalism, or Utilitarianism: these are actual historic political viewpoints that people have actively identified with and campaigned for. You could go back in time and find a Fascist: but seperate spheres isn’t like this. It’s a phrase invented, quite recently, by feminist historians and used to describe a range of Victorian views on gender roles. I’m sure it’s very useful in the context; but can we say it was one of the ‘strongest arguments against legal equality for same-sex couples’? Well, (unlike the idea that homosexuality is sinful) no-one actively thought of themselves as believing it the time, it was invented and applied post hoc to descripe a range of viewpoints – by people who disagreed with them. Can we say ‘women’s rights movement (later called feminism) gradually destroyed separate spheres ideology’? Well, in another sense they invented separate spheres ideology, because that wasn’t a banner people we marching under at the time – it’s a name that feminism decided to use to describe its enemies once it had been successful.

    I think that’s where a lot of the tension is coming from.

  3. 3
    Thene says:

    I can’t help but suspect that separate spheres as applied to parenting is purely a nostalgic fantasy anyway. Screw the ‘divorce revolution’ – historically, human life expectancies are not that great and therefore large numbers of children have had one or both parents die before they grew up, and yet somehow, our cultures coped with this. Then you can consider all the many other means of parental separation which were not invented by modern divorce laws – military service, prison, plain old walking away. There has never been a time when all children were consistently raised by both their biological parents. Even if you think there should have been, there wasn’t, it doesn’t happen now, and whether SSM is legal or not has a negligible effect on this equation (and what is anti-SSM going to do for all the people who grew up without one mother and one father anyway?, because even if you believe there’s something wrong with us this line of argument sure isn’t doing anything to affect us other than by making life harder for our queer contingent.)

    So on the one side you have a negligible effect on an ahistorical ideal; on the other side you have what (so help us) Tony Blair called the “correcting [of] an obvious injustice”. I’m going with SSM.

  4. 4
    Elliott Mason says:

    I don’t think separate spheres is nearly as dead as David wants us to believe — especially among the anti-SSM advocates.

    My father, for one, has one-and-a-half (not quite two; the second is intertwined with the first) arguments against SSM, and I think it boils down to separate spheres: he believes (a) that the [in his view] God-given obvious physical dualities between men and women mean we are meant to pair up heterogenously to make ‘a whole person’ who is ‘in God’s image,’ and that, additionally, The Gays are “waging a war to be viewed as normal, when they’re not — they’re abnormal, and we shouldn’t forget that.”

  5. 5
    Peter Hoh says:

    Not entirely related, but what the hay, this is beautiful.