Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Is coverture part of Santorum's traditional marriage/family plan?

Stephanie Coontz, the director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, wrote an interesting OP/ED piece about the destruction of the "Traditional Marriage" by heterosexuals, and how gay marriage poses no threat to what has already been destroyed. According to Coontz

Heterosexuals were the upstarts who turned marriage into a voluntary love relationship rather than a mandatory economic and political institution. Heterosexuals were the ones who made procreation voluntary, so that some couples could choose childlessness, and who adopted assisted reproduction so that even couples who could not conceive could become parents. And heterosexuals subverted the long-standing rule that every marriage had to have a husband who played one role in the family and a wife who played a completely different one. Gays and lesbians simply looked at the revolution heterosexuals had wrought and noticed that with its new norms, marriage could work for them, too.

The first step down the road to gay and lesbian marriage took place 200 years ago, when Enlightenment thinkers raised the radical idea that parents and the state should not dictate who married whom, and when the American Revolution encouraged people to engage in "the pursuit of happiness," including marrying for love. Almost immediately, some thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and the Marquis de Condorcet, began to argue that same-sex love should not be a crime.

In his book, "It Takes a Family", Senator Rick Santorum (R-VA) derides liberal policies that he claims have devastated the poor, destroyed the traditional family and brought about a sexual freedom that has resulted in "the debasement of women, mental illness, and an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, causing infertility cancer, even death." Santorum makes the case that today's modern problems can be solved through initiatives that encourage traditional marriage, including

fatherhood training programs, more tax relief for families raising children, changes that make divorce more difficult -- and even training professionals from hospital workers to welfare case workers to public educators on how to help couples see the benefits of marriage.
Per Coontz, the standard "benefits" of traditional marriage include the principle of coverture based on Scripture with mandated gender division of labor and subordination of women to their husbands
"Husband and wife are one," said the law in both England and America, from early medieval days until the late 19th century, "and that one is the husband."

This law of "coverture" was supposed to reflect the command of God and the essential nature of humans. It stipulated that a wife could not enter into legal contracts or own property on her own. In 1863, a New York court warned that giving wives independent property rights would "sow the seeds of perpetual discord," potentially dooming marriage.

Even after coverture had lost its legal force, courts, legislators and the public still cleaved to the belief that marriage required husbands and wives to play totally different domestic roles. In 1958, the New York Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the traditional legal view that wives (unlike husbands) couldn't sue for loss of the personal services, including housekeeping and the sexual attentions, of their spouses. The judges reasoned that only wives were expected to provide such personal services anyway.
Ironically, Santorum the traditionalist allowed his wife write two books (under a name other than Mrs. Rick Santorum, no less) which seems to fly in direct contrast to his role as champion of traditional marriage. Can it be that Santorum is picking out which aspects of traditional marriage/family that suit his purposes instead of being the literalist/traditionalist he claims he is (which means his determination of what is an acceptable "Traditional Marriage" is an arbitrary point in the breakdown of traditional marriage) or is he actually suggesting a return to coverture with females as chattle, best left uneducated and reliant on/obligated to their fathers and husbands (it's important to note that in his book, Santorum who'd previously indicated that privacy is not a Constitutional right, also notes that schools are not mentioned in the Constitution either)? Either way, Santorum's charge (supported by leaders in the Fundamentalist-Evangelical movement) hearkens back to the days of Dickens which was not a good time to be a woman (or child).

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