US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

"Love is love."

The rallying cry of marriage equality proponents has, unsurprisingly, come under fire from same-sex marriage opponents in the days since the Obergefell decision, which recognized same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Mike Huckabee, the avuncular avatar of the religious right in the 2016 race, appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday to contend that love was not, in fact, love. He argued instead that a "redefinition of love" had been destroying marriage for the last several decades.

"The whole point of marriage is to create a relationship where two people are committed as life partners," said Huckabee on Sunday. He argued that love — squishy, selfish, sentimental love — had replaced commitment as the cornerstone of marriage.

Huckabee is right about one thing: Marriage has been significantly redefined over the past half-century. Yet while love has become more central to marriage, it replaced not commitment but coercion.

For Huckabee and others on the religious right, same-sex marriage represents the end point of a long attack on the traditional family, dating back to the struggle for women's rights in the 1960s. Love had already wormed its way into the definition of marriage well before then. The concept of companionate marriage, which placed mutual affection, rather than property or reproduction, at the center of marriage, had arisen in the late 19th century. By 1924 the idea had become so prevalent that one biologist declared, "We cannot reestablish the old family, founded on involuntary parenthood, any more than we can set the years back or turn bullfrogs into tadpoles."

Even as the meaning of marriage was evolving (check out the American Historical Association's amicus brief on the history of marriage for more), the legal structures and cultural norms of marriage still relied on the subordination of women. Marriage was predicated on the economic dependence of women; they ceded their property rights and legal identities to their husbands upon marriage. Women were paid less, fired first and denied credit because their economic dependence was seen as both natural and necessary. These legal structures did not rule out love as a foundation of marriage, but they did mean that commitment was reinforced by dependency, not love.

In the 1960s and 1970s, this began to change, thanks to a slew of judicial and legislative developments. Access to birth control gave women greater control over reproduction and thus greater choice in education, careers and marriage. Credit reforms and pay-discrimination laws worked to erode women's economic dependence; divorce reforms meant that commitment had to be a matter of choice rather than compulsion.

These developments led fewer people to marry and more people to divorce. Concern over the state of the American family led, in the 1990s, to a marriage movement, a push to promote "marriage culture." The marriage movement evolved from the antifeminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when activists like Phyllis Schlafly argued that women's dependence and inequality before the law was the benefit of marriage.

The unraveling of the cords of dependency has indeed redefined the foundation of marital commitment. By making marriage a union of equals, choice has become central to the relationship. The new definition of marriage centers more on emotion, but it also centers more on equality.

Promoting marriage may be a good idea. But in order to sell a generation on marriage, activists must reckon not only with what was lost, but what was gained in a changed meaning of marriage. What has happened to marriage in the last half-century is not a redefinition of love but a rejection of inequality, not only between straight couples and gay couples, but between men and women. To argue for a return to traditional marriage is to argue for a return to inequality. Huckabee may be okay with that, but it's unlikely he'll find many Americans willing to join his fight.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report