How has our world got to the point where it is even necessary to argue that marriage can only be between a man and a woman? For millennia of human history, the institution of marriage has always been understood as being between a man and a woman. Even in cultures where the practice of homosexuality has been widespread, if someone had suggested widening the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, no one would have taken you seriously. So why now, all of a sudden, are so many states and nations jumping on the bandwagon to make marriage mean something else?
Clearly, there is no single explanation. However, in an article I recently published with the Colson Center, I suggested that one key factor has been the persistent erosion of the gender polarity that occurred throughout the 20thcentury. Throughout the last century feminist writers kept telling us that gender is irrelevant in man-woman relationships, including the relationship of marriage. What happens if you consider gender to be a functional irrelevancy long enough is that suddenly same-sex marriage, in which gender is a formal irrelevancy, starts to seem a lot more plausible.
In what way did gender become functionally irrelevant within marriage? We can begin to answer this question by comparing how 20th century feminist writers spoke about gender with women writers in past centuries. Many female thinkers in the 18th and 19th century believed they were defending their sex precisely through maintaining gender distinctions. While they would sometimes offer appropriate challenges to our picture of what constituted conventional “feminine” virtues and roles, most took it for granted that there was a significant difference between being masculine and being feminine. Moreover, these differences were seen to be central to the very the glory of being a woman or being a man. For example, the Victorian writer Elizabeth Wordsworth once noted that “In an ideal state of society we never lose sight of the womanliness of women…why should it be considered a compliment to any woman to be told she writes, paints, sings, talks, or even thinks, like a man?”
By contrast, 20th-century feminist writers begin to see themselves as defending women precisely through their attempts to homogenize the gender polarity. No longer is it uplifting to emphasize the womanliness of women, as Elizabeth Wordsworth had done; but neither is it uplifting to explicitly praise women for being like men. Rather, under the feminist androgyny and egalitarianism of the 20th century, the greatest gift we can give to women is to question the very category of womanliness.
This is exactly what writers such as psychologist Sandra Bem tried to do. “When androgyny had been absorbed by the culture”, wrote Melanie Phillips, paraphrasing Bem’s views, “concepts of masculinity and femininity would cease to have distinct content and distinctions would ‘blur into invisibility’”. Family therapist Olga Silverstein expressed a similar sentiment when she urged “the end of the gender split”, since “until we are willing to question the very idea of a male sex role . . . we will be denying both men and women their full humanity.” Susan Moller Okin was equally wistful when contemplating a future without gender. “. . . [A] just future would be one without gender. In its social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.”
This is a far-cry from Elizabeth Wordsworth encouraging women to glory in their womanliness. For 20th century feminists, the womanliness of women is at best a social construction and at worst a moral crime.
Emptying gender from marriage
Some feminist writers who tried to be consistent with this went so far as to argue that because romantic love between the sexes helps to solidify entrenched gender roles, it too must be eradicated along with its correlate, marital intercourse. For example, Catharine MacKinnon, like other second-wave feminists, has compared sex within marriage to rape, saying, “What in the liberal view looks like love and romance looks a lot like hatred and torture to the feminist. Pleasure and eroticism become violation.” Elsewhere the Harvard Press author commented, “The major distinction between intercourse (normal) and rape (abnormal) is that normal happens so often that one cannot get anyone to see anything wrong with it.”
Feminist author and journalist Jill Johnson was equally unbending in her antipathy to man-woman sex. Writing in 1973, she commented that “Until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution.”
Attacks like this on man-woman love were never mainstream. But what did become mainstream in the 20th century were pressures from feminists to remove all vestiges of differentiation between the sexes from as many political and social areas as possible. At the most basic level, this has involved attacks against women who feel it is honoring to God to look after their children instead of putting their careers first, or tirades against women like Zooey Deschanel who are perceived to be too feminine. (See Chuck Colson’s article “Barbie vs. Godzilla.”) But it has also involved an attack on Biblical ideas such as headship and submission. Thus, even those who acknowledge that there is a necessary connection between marriage and gender, will often deny that men and women have distinct roles or positions within the marriage relationship. Gender distinctions then function rather like the great Watchmaker of the deists: a necessity for getting the process of marriage going but pretty much irrelevant after that.
Coming full circle
Now here’s my point: as feminists continually downplayed the significance that gender had within society, reducing it to an irrelevancy like the color of a person’s eyes, it was inevitable that we would reach a point where gender is seen to be irrelevant in marriage too.
As the significance of gender was gradually evaporated from the outworking of marriage, it was inevitable that we would reach a point where it no longer seemed so strange for it to also be evaporated from the definition of marriage itself.
What started with feminism attempting to empty marriage of all gender roles, ends up with the homosexual community attempting to empty marriage of any necessary relation to gender whatsoever.
These prior ideas about gender created plausibility structures in which the notion of gay “marriage” no longer seems so strange.
To read more about this, visit the Colson Center and read my article ‘How Gay ‘Marriage’ Became Plausible.’