11/20/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Marriage And The Politics Of America

A recent New York Times editorial on the four statewide same-sex marriage ballot initiatives Nov. 6 began with the sentence, "The freedom to marry is a fundamental right that should not have to be won or defended at the ballot box." Yet if there is any lesson to come out of those initiative battles in the states of Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington it is that marriage is more than just private right. It is also a political institution through which we determine the boundaries of civic inclusion, and define the norms of citizenship.

While marriage is, of course, a personal, private right, it has been an essential site of political struggle over the political rights and obligations of citizens throughout US history. At the end of the Civil War the problem of black citizenship was central both for Union officials and former Confederates, and each turned to marriage to solve that problem. Freedmen's Bureau agents, working on behalf of the Union, compelled ex-slaves into marital arrangements, which they saw as fundamental to patriarchal practices of freedom and independence. Defeated southern elites meanwhile used every channel available to them to make sure that newly-freed blacks did not cross the color line socially or economically. One of the main ways they did so was to fan fears of interracial marriage and energetically enforce anti-miscegenation laws to keep whites and blacks apart. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when questions of immigration were politically central, marriage was used as a way to regulate, restrict or extend it. Immigrant women who married American-born men were automatically granted American citizenship, while American women who married foreign nationals lost theirs. And eugenic marriage laws aimed at new immigrants were passed in 38 states in attempt to protect "native stock" from southern and eastern European blood.

In the mid 1960s, marriage became an object of both racial and economic policy when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor to Lyndon Johnson, argued that black poverty was caused by "a tangle of pathology" at the center of which was low marriage rates. This framing was later made into policy with the reauthorization of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. And, it was the obligation to marry that defined in large measure feminist politics in the 1970s.

Indeed, battles over marriage are political phenomena that shape and are shaped by the larger contexts in which they take place. Activists, lawyers, politicians and legislators have consistently turned to marriage to define and shape their political views. Since the early 1990s, the prohibition of same-sex marriage was a wedge issue for the conservatives, galvanizing their constituents and bolstering the religious base of the Republican Party. After these most recent voter decisions, the establishment of same-sex marriage may become a rallying cry for liberals.

The question of same-sex marriage rights is about the inclusion of gays and lesbians not only concerning their private rights of citizens to marry but also their public rights of belonging. But just as in prior moments current fights over marriage speak to the instability of the political moment. With continuing economic disparities, national fiscal instability, changing demographics, and political polarization, marriage is one important way we attempt to define who we are as a nation.