Q&A: Evergreen State College historian Stephanie Coontz talks about the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling

In a July 1st Interview at her Olympia-area home retired Evergreen facility member Evergreen State College faculty member Stephanie Coontz shares her observations on the state of marriage in America, and particularly in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
In a July 1st Interview at her Olympia-area home retired Evergreen facility member Evergreen State College faculty member Stephanie Coontz shares her observations on the state of marriage in America, and particularly in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Staff photographer

Nationally renowned author and historian Stephanie Coontz, a retired professor from The Evergreen State College, was cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling on gay marriage.

The decision, that states cannot keep same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions, kept Coontz busy with interviews last week from media outlets all over the country. She’s written extensively on the topic, including the book “Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.”

Coontz spoke with The Olympian last week at her home on Deep Lake in south Thurston County about the court’s ruling and its possible implications for marriage and family in the United States.

Q: First, let’s talk about the Supreme Court’s historic ruling. What was your reaction?

A: Well, I didn’t know they were going to do it so soon, and I just opened up my email in the morning and there were all of these things. ... At first I had no idea that I had been cited, but then the emails started coming in, and then I actually read it and I went, “Oh my goodness, there’s my name, too.”

I guess my reaction is that it’s nice to know that somebody takes account of history.

Q: How do you think June 26, 2015, will go down in American history?

A: Well, I think it will be seen as another of the historic civil rights steps that we’ve taken in the last 50 years.

It’s one that I think no one would have predicted would have moved so quickly — in terms of not just the courts, but the popular opinion.

When the Supreme Court said “you can’t outlaw interracial marriages,” the vast majority of Americans were still opposed to interracial marriage.

As of last year, the majority of Americans were in favor of same-sex marriage. So in this case, you can’t even argue that the court was moving ahead of public opinion. And yet, in 2004, there was overwhelming opposition to it. So it’s one of the fastest changes that we’ve seen as historians.

Q: What’s it like to know your work was cited in the Supreme Court’s ruling? And tell us a little bit about how it was specifically cited.

A: Well, he (Justice Anthony Kennedy) cited me in conjunction with the work I’ve done showing how marriage has changed over the centuries, and that what we think of as traditional marriage is not really traditional at all, so that part of it was very exciting.

But it’s also humbling because historical work is always a joint and collegial kind of thing: You build on what other people have done — you cooperate with others.

My work is informed by my collaboration with other teachers at Evergreen, with my collaboration with the Council on Contemporary Families and the researchers in that. ...

I’m really pleased, I’m really flattered, I’m really happy. But I’m also a little embarrassed because so many people contributed to this.

Q: How has marriage changed in American history or over the years?

A: In early American history, marriage was really more of a business arrangement for the middle classes and a way of expanding your family labor force for the farmers. ...

By the early 19th century we had made it about love. ... Then in the early 20th century, we said it should also be about sexual attraction. And then in the 1930s, we said, “Well, you don’t have to have kids, we’re going to begin legalizing contraception.”

And in the 1950s, and as late as 1954, a lot of people don’t realize this but a court ruled that artificial insemination was adultery and any child born by it was illegitimate. That changed in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So then we said even if you can’t have kids, we’re going to allow you to, and recognize them as legitimate. ...

It’s not until the ‘60s that (the Supreme Court) said yes it (marriage) is a right and you can’t deny it to people you disapprove of — not just interracial couples, but you can’t deny it to prisoners, you can’t deny it to men who owe child support ...

But there was one more obstacle, and that was that marriage remained a very gendered institution right until the 1970s, they had head and master laws, most states, that said the man is in charge. ... Marriage was defined as an association of a husband whose duty it was to support the family, but he could decide at what level he supported them. And the woman, that was not her duty, she didn’t have to go to work even if they needed the money. But she owed services, including sexual services, in and around the home, and a man did not. ...

So, in the ‘70s we repealed those laws, and we said men and women have equal rights in marriage, and they can decide who does what, they have equal obligations. And at that point, we made it a gender-neutral obligation. You put all those things — love, sex, no need for kids, kids even if you can’t have them, you can marry if you disapprove and gender neutral — those six things made, I think, gay and lesbian marriage inevitable.

I think as historians, what we had to contribute was to point out these were changes: Marriage has not always been just the same institution through history. Just as we can change our idea of who could vote in America, we can change our idea of who can marry.

Q: How do you think the Supreme Court’s ruling will affect the concept of family in the United States?

A: Americans are much more clear that family is what you do, not who you’re legally defined as. ... So in that sense, it’s a kind of confirmation that OK, here’s yet another family form.

Q: I have so many friends right now who consider me family — we’re not blood-related, you know, that’s a term we use.

A: That’s right, and I think that’s particularly common now, as the age of marriage rises.

In 1960, the average couple who married knew each only for six months. They moved basically from their parents’ home — or if they went to college, from college — or if they went into the military, from the military — into a marital home.

So they didn’t get to choose their close relationships; they moved from one to another. Now there’s this extended period of time where people live on their own.

Almost 30 percent of American households are solo living, and the average age of marriage is 26 for women, 29 for men. And it’s spread out much more, so that many people are not marrying until their 30s, even their 40s.

We have to come to terms with the fact that you no longer just get moved from one automatic family to another one, and we have to make friends and social networks.

So I think what you just talked about is a sign of how we’re beginning to realize that you have to construct your close social ties, and in the long run, that’s very, very good for us, because when you look at aging and what makes for healthy aging, it’s having six or seven close social ties, it’s not just the one of the marriage.

Q: What's your next book or your major project? What are you working on these days?

A: Well, a lot of the work I do is to help other researchers at the Council on Contemporary Families get their research out to the public. ...

But my own personal project is now to write a new introduction and epilogue to “The Way We Never Were.”

So much has changed since that book came out in 1992, at the height of the family values war and Dan Quayle — you know, that’s when I went on “Oprah” and all of those shows. But one thing has not changed, and that is the tendency to filter our understanding of modern family issues and dilemmas ... through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, and that doesn’t get you very far.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433