Priscilla Yamin Asks: What Role Should Marriage Play in Defining the Rights of Citizens?

North Carolina's recent constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and the White House's response to that measure continue to reverberate through personal and public conversations across the nation. In this post, political scientist Priscilla Yamin, author of American Marriage: A Political Institution, puts today's rhetoric on the definition of marriage in perspective.

American MarriageNow is by no means the first time that Americans have used marriage to either broaden civic inclusion or to prevent certain groups from gaining full citizenship rights. Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage is not the end of a conversation but the beginning. It is a prime moment to ask what role should marriage play in defining the rights of citizens.

Marriage has never been a static institution. It is constantly shifting in relation to current political questions. The fight over same-sex marriage is only the most recent public debate that links marriage to national identity and citizenship. For example, marriage was crucial to defining freedom for slaves at the end of the Civil War. When slaves were emancipated the federal government was nearly obsessive about making sure ex-slaves exercised the right to marry as key to full black citizenship. At the turn of the twentieth century, marriage became important in defining national loyalty for women when in 1907 a law was passed that stripped American-born women of their American nationality if they married a foreign-born male. In 1965, marriage was linked to debates about social equality when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as Lyndon Johnson’s assistant labor secretary, argued controversially that marital practices in black communities were essential in the establishment of true equality for African Americans. During the 1990s, marriage formed the basis of economic uplift when President Bill Clinton famously “ended welfare as we know it” and replaced it with workfare and marriage promotion policies. Since 1996, marriage promotion in welfare policy has grown as funding shifted from bonus to allocation through a $150 million per year program funded by Congress under George W. Bush. If ever there was a moment to ask what role should marriage play in the rights of citizens, it was then. We now have another opportunity to ask this question.

The public debate about same-sex marriage should not be about whether the institution will change if women marry women, nor even whether same-sex marriage will ensure that gays and lesbians relationships are now considered acceptable and normal by a larger public. The important question is whether marriage is the right place to decide and determine rights at all. Is that what we want marriage to be about? Is that what we imagine it to be on our wedding day? In the end, to those of us who can marry freely, easily and without question of access or legitimacy, these questions are crucial because they force us as a community to think clearly about what we are accepting when we exercise our rights and walk down the aisle.  

Priscilla Yamin teaches political science at the University of Oregon.

Forthcoming Events