Episode 4: To Marry Whom We Love or Not at All

From Loving v. Virginia to Obergefell v. Hodges

From Colonial times to the mid-20th century, American marital law and custom constrained a woman’s life – her economic security and social respectability depended on being married. A single woman was viewed as promiscuous if she socialized with men, pitied if she didn’t. Many women were married off to men chosen by their fathers, losing what little autonomy they had. Marrying across ethnic or religious lines was frowned upon, and inter-racial or same-sex marriages were illegal.

Women of color had it worse. Enslaved women were routinely separated from their chosen partners and forced to live with men selected by slaveowners. Native American women were prevented from maintaining their traditional matrilineal cultures in which they chose their partners, led their households, and could divorce and keep their children. Mexican-American women lost ownership of their inherited lands in what used to be Northern Mexico.

For more than 175 years, married women in the US were prohibited by law from keeping their birth names, owning property, opening bank accounts, obtaining credit, initiating divorce, or making decisions for their families. Wives were expected to obey their husbands and devote themselves to home and children, even if they worked outside the home. Divorced women were blamed for destroying their families and punished by losing custody of their children.

While social mores around marriage began to change in the early 20th century, women who came of age in the 1960s-70s were the first generation with the right to make essential decisions about their lives: to marry or not; to choose the person they wanted to marry; to pursue a career along with marriage; to marry someone of a different race, ethnicity, or religion; and eventually, to marry someone of the same gender.

Over the past 50 years, American women gained new rights beyond marriage – to divorce without stigma or losing their children; to live in a committed partnership without marrying; or to enjoy single life with or without partners or children. It took decades of activism to achieve the legal and social changes that enable Americans of all genders today to be in charge of their personal relationships. Yet today, our rights are once again at risk.

In Stand UP, Speak OUT – Episode 4, we’ll hear from women who lived through those changes, and learn what led to the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, United States v. Windsor in 2013, and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

Underwritten by:

Craig Newmark Philanthropies

The Drake Bettner Foundation