I should have seen it coming. I should have known it would happen — the media hype, the rush to be the first to get a license, the bridal industry all aglow, the chain of emails with one question: When are you getting married? Like a weather emergency the questions came in fast and furious and we were ill-prepared: “No, we have no plans,” “No, we will not wear dresses,” “No, absolutely no diamond rings.” Presents? Well … maybe.
My partner and I have been together for 24 years and we never felt unmarried. We own our house together, our car, some land and we share the complications and joys of our dog and our families — summer vacations with the family, building tree houses for Generation Y, cooking together in the backyard quarry, hitting ledges in the boat and fighting over whose fault it was, sending Christmas presents and, like all loving couples, turning to each other in grief and joy and with awe and wonder at our great luck in finding each other. Still, I was not prepared for a win on Question 1. Thrilled, but not prepared.
In a small way, I even helped. There is a lonely stretch of a road between Gardiner and Belfast that curls through the Bible-belted forests of Chelsea and China, then shoots east past dozens of church kiosks warning drivers against same-sex marriage. I traveled this road all fall, back and forth, its banks thick with political signage: “Don’t Redefine Marriage,” “Save Traditional Marriage,” “Save Traditional America,” “Keep God’s Traditions.”
There was some solace in the tiny print since no one traveling 50 miles an hour could actually read anything after “Don’t.” Still, it was depressing to see these gloomy, deep blue messages from the regime of No and not one snappy, bright, orange sign with its hopeful, “YES!” So, a week before the election I loaded the car with a dozen Yeses, took to the road, and tucked them alongside the blues, one “Yes” for about every 50 “Don’t” signs. So much fear, I thought.
Yet what is traditional marriage? When the Yeses won in Maine, Maryland and Washington, Dennis Miller of Fox News declared, “traditional America has been vaporized.” Bill O’Reilly mourned the end of a “thousand-year tradition.” Images of women in white dresses and veils, diamond engagement rings, fathers marching up church aisles and friends throwing rice filled the airwaves.
Despite the jeremiads, same-sex marriage is not redefining marriage. In fact, it’s reclaiming what many of our ancestors understood to be the core of marriage. If we take New England in the 17th and 18th centuries as a starting point (and who does not conjure up old New England when searching for “traditional” America?), marriage was a fairly simple affair, almost a non-event.
Consider the marriage of Hannah Ballard, daughter of Maine’s famous midwife, Martha. A few lines after recording the weather — “cloudy, a little rain & Thunder” — Martha quietly adds, “Matrimonial writes (sic) were celebrated between Mr. Moses Pollard off this town and my daughter Hannah this Evening.” No fuss, no white dress, no diamond rings, and heavens above, no church, no clergy. “Esquire Cony,” Ballard tells us, “performed the ceremony.” As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wryly remarks, “the wedding appears almost as an afterthought to the young men’s presence at dinner.”
In Puritan New England, only magistrates performed marriage celebrations. Colonial legislatures continued to regulate marriage and judges like Daniel Cony typically performed the in-house ceremony, a tradition that continued well into the 19th century. Even if Hannah and Moses bucked tradition and used a minister, they still needed to present a certificate signed by the town clerk.
It is the lavish wedding of modern times that actually constitutes a radical break with tradition. The white dress and veil, expensive gifts, elaborate flowers and diamond rings are recent inventions fueled in the 1920s by an emerging consumer society and buttressed in the 1950s by an aspiring middle class that made the lavish wedding a rite of passage. Even the seemingly timeless diamond engagement ring, symbol for millions of eternal love, is an invention of 1930s and ’40s mad men.
An extremely common stone, not at all rare (merely monopolized) the diamond shot to popularity thanks in large part to the N.W. Ayer advertising agency. In a series of dazzling campaigns, Ayer used images of famous cathedrals, world-renowned art museums and highly romanticized paintings of and by famous artists to link diamonds with the sacred and priceless. Sales of diamonds jumped 25 percent in the first six months of the campaign and by the 1950s diamonds were not just forever, they represented the first step in the highly choreographed march to the lavish church wedding. According to historian Elizabeth Pleck, consumers spend approximately $74 billion a year on diamonds while the average wedding costs more than $22,000.
If the New York Times “Style” section is any indication, same-sex marriage will not likely alter those numbers; the lavish wedding is an equal opportunity business. But same-sex marriage makes visible what the lavish wedding obscured: marriage as a legal act. No matter what the rites of organized religion, it is the state that legitimizes marriage, turning a private affair into a secular act of citizenship — a contract with certain legal benefits, obligations and responsibilities. This, in a nutshell, is why same-sex marriage matters. “Yes on One” redefines the legal status of the couple, not the marriage contract they enter into.
For better or for worse, “traditional” marriage will always be subject to fashionable reinventions, but in a democracy like ours, marriage is a matter of laws historically shaped by the secular traditions that make our legal system meaningful and hopefully, in the near future, available to all United States citizens.
Ardis Cameron is a professor of American and New England studies at the University of Southern Maine.