Love Conquers Marriage

How Evergreen historian Stephanie Coontz influenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision.

by Nikki McCoy

Photo of Stephanie Coontz.

Stephanie Coontz is a key historian and scholar of the evolution of marriage and family in the U.S. Photo by Shauna Bittle ‘98.

On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across all of the continental states. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy twice cited Evergreen’s faculty emerita Stephanie Coontz on her work showing how marriage has changed over the centuries. 

Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Coontz’s book that explores obedience versus intimacy, family dynamics in other cultures, and the relatively new concept of marrying for love, was one of the sources Kennedy cited. 

“It’s just a tremendous honor,” said Coontz. “Standing out in the decision that will change history, and will actually reflect history and respect history, is very gratifying.

“It’s very important for civil rights and very important—given how much Americans treasure marriage—that Kennedy looked at my research and other people’s research to show the tremendous variety of marriage through the ages.”

Coontz noted a dramatic shift in public sentiment toward gay marriage in just a few years. In 2003, homosexuality was decriminalized in the U.S., but in 2004, 31 states still opposed gay marriage. Now just over a decade later, the majority of those states have changed their minds. 

In an interview on the television show New Day Northwest, Coontz stated the decision to legalize gay marriage is “the fastest turnover on a social issue in American history.”

She also acknowledged the benefits same-sex partners have in terms of homemaking and labor division due to their open discussions around perceived gender roles in marriage. She says heterosexual couples could also benefit from those discussions. 

“We’re in uncharted territory,” she said. “Never before have we tried to build relationships that are built so much on free choice and individualism and yet commitment and equality at the same time, so it’s a tremendous challenge. We’re all searching for better ways to organize our relationships and the more models we have, the more we can see what works and what doesn’t.”

Coontz, who also serves as co-chair and director of Research and Public Education of the Council on Contemporary Families, continues to spread her well-respected message. At the end of September, she spoke at Pope Francis’ World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia, and she travels the globe regularly for seminars and interviews. When home, she is rewriting the introduction and epilogue for The Way We Never Were, and in spring 2016 will be back at Evergreen, teaching American Families: Historical and Sociological Perspectives.