Weddings are on my mind. Last month, my husband and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. Like most couples, we’ve had our share of good and bad times, but fortunately more good than bad! Weddings, of course, are merely the start of a marriage. They’re like the first stage-setting paragraph of what one hopes will be a long, enthralling novel—the type that has you turning pages as fast as you can, even while you savor each word and hope it never ends. The wedding is the preface to the book, the overture to the opera.
During our very own opera semiseria, we’ve raised two wonderful, talented, kind daughters, one of whom is getting married (wearing my gown!) next month—hence my focus on weddings. She is marrying a wonderful woman, and they are deeply in love. Over the weekend, I attended a shower for the two brides, organized by our younger daughter for her adored older sister. Both brides were indeed showered in love and affection.
Throughout much of history, and among many people of many different cultures, marriage was based not on love or even companionship, but instead on economics and politics.
“Your daughter should marry my son so we can join our two clans—or nations.” “What dowry does she bring?”
Or as the song, “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof explains:
Hodel, oh Hodel,
Have I made a match for you!
He’s handsome, he’s young!
Alright, he’s 62.
But he’s a nice man, a good catch, true?
True. . . . . .
Did you think you’d get a prince?
Well I do the best I can.
With no dowry, no money, no family background
Be glad you got a man!
For those who don’t know the show or movie, Fiddle on the Roof is based on Sholem Aleichem’s tales of Tevye the dairyman in the small shtetl of Anatevka. The three oldest of Teyve and his wife Golde’s five daughters marry for love—unheard of! This prompts a song between the Teyve and Golde who wonder if they love each other? “It’s a new world,” Tevye says.
Around the mid-eighteenth-century, Anglo-Americans began to place more emphasis on “companionate” marriages—and to expect more love and companionship from their partners. This is not to say that loving marriages did not exist before this time.
For example, Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) wrote the following poem to her husband, Simon:
“To My Dear and Loving Husband”
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cAnneot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.
The rise of a companionate ideal does not mean that all marriages were based on these ideals. Many marriages took place for economic practicality—farms benefit from having men to do heavy agricultural work and women to do the preserving of food, the cooking, laundry, and childbearing. Even urban households needed someone to raise and care for children.
Regardless of love or economic necessity, enslaved people were not permitted to marry legally. Slaves were not citizens and had no rights. Some masters permitted their slaves to “marry,” but it was not legal, and all slave relationships were transient because families could be broken up at any time. Race remained a factor in marriage after the Thirteenth Amendment officially prohibited slavery in 1865 because interracial unions were not permitted in many states. Finally, well into the twentieth century, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit interracial marriages. Mildred Jeter, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white, married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but they were arrested after they returned to and lived in Virginia, where they were arrested. The court gave the couple a suspended sentence under the condition that they leave Virginia. “Under our Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”
My younger sister is getting married in October to her long-time partner. They love each other, but now that Pennsylvania has permitted same-sex weddings, they also want the legal protection that goes with marriage. Love and the practicalities of life.
So I will be attending two “gay weddings” within a few months. In my mind, however, they are simply weddings—a celebration of and for two people who are deeply in love choosing to publicly declare their love for each other—and wanting to have the same legal safeguards that other wedded couples have. Two couples who are choosing to begin a new chapter in the book of their lives. I am fortunate to be able to share their joy.