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Some historians say marriage traditions have been fluid

SHARE Some historians say marriage traditions have been fluid

What is traditional marriage?

That question lies beneath the surface of the Proposition 8 debate. The

measure that bans same-sex marriage in California, which is now being challenged

in court, defines the union as between a man and a woman. This, supporters

argue, is as religious precepts and social customs demand. It is


"The proposition is about restoring the traditional definition of marriage,"

Bishop Jaime Soto, of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, Calif. has said.

But opponents aren't so wedded to that idea. They argue that marriage has

been defined in a surprising number of ways by different cultures and historical


"Traditional marriage has varied immensely from society to society and time

period," said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history at The Evergreen State

College in Olympia, Wash., and is the author of "Marriage, A History."

Prior to the 18th century, the form of marriage most common wasn't between

one man and one woman, Coontz said.

"It's one man, many women," said Coontz, citing examples from the Old


From polygamy to interracial marriage, the notion of what marriage means —

and who can get married — has gone through many permutations, say scholars who

have studied the institution.

Consolidating property, building political and military alliances, and

bolstering social status were all acceptable reasons for marriage for hundreds

of years among the upper classes. Poor people married to expand their labor

pool, Coontz said.

Marrying for love became widely practiced in the 18th century.

"There are probably a dozen patterns of marriage," said Glenn Olsen, who

teaches history at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He said that as

Christianity spread, what was then considered the radical notion of monogamy did

as well. "The Christians carried their ideas of marriage — monogamy with no

divorce — as their religion spread," Olsen said.

What about same-sex marriage?

Coontz said same-sex marriage has been accepted in some cultures. "But those

have always been a small minority," said Coontz.

Historians say both sides of the Prop. 8 debate have "overstated" their

claims about marriage, said Coontz. "You can't rewrite history to support your

moral positions, whatever they are," she said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its past views on

marriage have come under fire since the passage of Prop. 8. Church members

reportedly contributed nearly half of the $40 million raised to pass the


Critics at rallies and in blogs have pointed to the church's past polygamous

practices. The church originally practiced polygamy because it wanted to restore

biblical ways. The church banned polygamy more than 115 years ago.

"It's behind us. The church is moving on, " said Dennis Holland, LDS

spokesman for the Sacramento, Calif. region.

Mormons believe marriage between a man and a woman is

central to the plan of salvation, said Holland. "The traditional unit of man,

woman and children is the basic unit for eternity," Holland said. "That's why

everything we do in the church is centered around strengthening and building

family relationships."

What is unprecedented is that roles in a marriage are now negotiated by the

couple, Coontz said. In the 1970s and '80s, states began repealing laws that

defined marriage with one set of laws that said spouses had certain


"There were laws that said a man's job was to support the family and the

woman's job was to take care of the home," Coontz said. All this means, say

historians, is that marriage will continue to change.