Historians played a role in the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Organizations of academic and public historians intervened directly in U.S. v. Windsor as it reached the Supreme Court. Steven Mintz points out that: “Briefs filed with the Supreme Court by the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians demonstrated that far from being a static institution, marriage has profoundly changed its definition, roles, and functions, and that today’s dominant marital ideal, emphasizing emotional intimacy, has nothing to do with gender.”
Over the past generation, historians of marriage, the family, and gender have investigated the long history of marriage as a social institution and a cultural practice. Early modern European historians developed some of the pioneering techniques of studying the history of marriage, in part because of the sweeping changes in marriage laws and practices during the Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth century. American historians have investigated the changes in marriage from the colonial period through today, often using these research methods to analyze archival records of marriage in the American colonies and the United States.
Based on this research, historical organizations were able to marshal massive evidence of the changing patterns of marriage in the United States. In the briefs, “the historians showed that two broad themes characterize the shifting law of marriage in the United States. The first is the decline of coverture, the notion that a married woman’s identity is subsumed in her husband’s. A second theme is the overturning of earlier restrictions about who can marry whom.”
Mintz concludes that “Change, not continuity, has been the hallmark of the history of marriage. Even before the 20th century, marriage underwent certain profound transformations.”
This Supreme Court case demonstrates one of the ways in which historical research influences current issues and contributes to modern societies. This case also suggests that humanities educators and students can become more aware of intersections between “pure” research and “applied” research in their fields.
Steven Mintz is a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of several works on the history of marriage and of children in the United States. Inside Higher Ed published Mintz’s essay.