An historian’s view of an historian’s view of marriage

by on January 18, 2010  •  In Marriage

One of the more interesting takes on last week's testimony in Perry v. Schwarzenegger was this commentary by Wesleyan history professor Claire Potter on the testimony by Harvard professor Nancy Cott, probably the leading American historian of marriage:

…Yesterday, [George] Chauncey [a history professor at Yale] historicized the ways in which the law has persistently demonized queer people, while Cott gave the complex rendition of the history of marriage that one might expect and hope for from her. Perhaps because the right has finally ceded gay people's right to exist outside a prison cell but a smart woman is always annoying, several accounts of yesterday's proceedings suggest that Chauncey's testimony went relatively unchallenged and Cott bore the brunt of the defense's attack.

Fortunately Cott is one of the toughest cookies I know, and I know a lot of tough cookies forged in those early days of what we used to call women's history. Counsel for the defense pushed Cott on whether, if her analysis of marriage as primarily a political and economic institution were correct, there would be no reason not to legalize polygamy as well. She was also repeatedly asked to listen to long, boring passages from her own and other people's scholarship that were designed to introduce inconsistencies in her testimony; and to answer complex historical questions with the words "yes" or "no."

New York Times Bay area blogger Gerry Shih, reporting on yesterday's action, noted that "after Professor Cott had left the stand, defense lawyers lashed out at her performance, calling it a 'disaster' and part of a strategy that backfired on the plaintiffs." Yes, telling the historical truth can really backfire, particularly in the debate over gay marriage, where politics are far more important than the truth. Anti-gay marriage initiatives timed to coordinate with national elections were part of the dirty tricks package originally brought to the table by Bush strategist Lee Atwater in the rollicking 1980s. The point of such initiatives was, and still is, not to perfect society but to win elections by manipulating the electorate with lies such as: gay marriage will destroy your family; voting day has been changed to Wednesday; John McCain has a black love-child; Barack Obama wants you to vote for Prop 8/is a practicing Muslim/a terrorist/isn't a citizen; sex education curricula in Illinois instruct first graders on how to sodomize each other.

But back to the court room, where the truth (theoretically) prevails. What were Cott's errors, if indeed she made any? Shih writes that "Andrew Pugno, one member of the defense team, said the historian had made a series of tactical mistakes, including her statement that “the consequences of same sex marriage are impossible to know.” Interrupting the true-false choices momentarily, Thompson also asked Cott "if there exists 'a social institution as important to children as marriage.' She paused, then replied: 'I think families are important to children.'" In right-wing speak, this would be an error because families are the exact opposite of gay.

Continuing, "Mr. Thompson then asked: 'the biological connection is irrelevant?' Yes, Professor Cott answered." Wait! We know from the abortion debate that the most sacred and natural bonds are biological, right?

Well, except that biology's only relevance to adoption and marriage, two major ways in which the law constructs natural "family," is its explicit prohibition. You can't adopt someone who is already your biological child and you can't marry a person within two degrees of biological relation in most states: thus, the lack of a biological relation is foundational to the construction of "natural" families. So it is relevant, but not in the way Thompson means it. I understand that it is the job of each legal team to discredit witnesses everywhere they can, but this may be shaping up to be another Scopes v. Tennessee (1926), in which the incoherence of the anti-gay marriage position may become more obvious to a larger audience, particularly those people who think that the chief concern at stake in marriage is the happiness and security of children, not adults. It is, I am afraid, what most people do think, which is a sad commentary on the state of modern marriage.

The way Cott was treated on the witness stand also reminds one that, to paraphrase Dickens' Mr. Bumble, the law is an ass, which is why many of us are not particularly interested in having it sanction and regulate our partnerships. But to close with a final reflection on the practical uses of history: challenges to the nuances of our intellectual practice by attorneys cannot help but raise unpleasant memories of EEOC v. Sears (1986). People of my age will recall that expert, different, but not necessarily opposite, testimony by two feminist colleagues became divisive within the profession when Sears prevailed over women workers. In retrospect, Sears was also an early indicator of where the fault lines in feminism would be being exploited by conservatives, in the Reagan administration and subsequently.

Fortunately, although queer history and the history of sexuality are not well supported by many departments, and some colleagues are openly hostile to it, there does not seem to be a cadre of prestigious historians out there who can be called to dispute Cott and Chauncey. And that may also signal an important shift towards a more broadly accepted view of marriage itself as a secular institution that is best comprehended in through secular forms of thought. We'll see.


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