“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”
—from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges
When in June the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage the law of the land in Obergefell v. Hodges, on the one hand I, along with millions of others, cheered; on the other, I was reminded of that long ago time when I, and everyone I knew then, thought long and hard and almost daily about how good it would be if loneliness and marriage were no longer linked together; if it were free and independent persons who got married for any reason other than the fear of living alone.
Forty years ago, when the liberationist movements were young, the cast of mind among a multitude of activists and theorists working on behalf of women, blacks, and gays was visionary. The struggle for equal rights seemed existential, as though it was calling into philosophical question the very idea of politics. In a sense, we were like babes in the woods in a state of original wonderment. How had these hierarchies of power and powerlessness come about? we asked ourselves, as though this question had never been asked before. Why do the laws and customs of society invariably benefit this group and disenfranchise that one? What underlying purpose do these decisions serve? What is actually going on here? Because these questions filled the air many of us breathed, the conviction that ours was a revolutionary time carried genuine weight. We assumed that should they now be answered honestly and thoughtfully, we’d be bringing about a new social order.
One of the institutions that feminists certainly thought could be altered radically was marriage. For women and men alike, the tie that legally binds had often proved equally problematic, but for women it had been historically oppressive. For centuries, once married they had ceased to exist in the eyes of the law. And in our time, the situation was not all that much better; the law still allowed married men many rights and privileges denied women.
When the universal suffrage movement was in full swing some 160 years ago, many in that movement also thought they were making a revolution; and the question of marriage nagged at them too. Among the major players was the great suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose philosophical mind had moved swiftly to encompass a variety of issues related to suffrage—education, divorce, organized religion—and as each had taken hold of her, her attention had turned ever more inward, until women’s rights had become an instrument of illumination that made her understand something profound about the human condition.