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The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 50-56

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The Place of Marriage in Democracy's Formative Project*

Linda C. McClain

Shoring up the institution of marriage is a theme in the "marriage movement" and in recent legislative debates over welfare reform and family policy. One common premise is that strengthening marriage and renewing a "marriage culture" is vital to national health and that the best way for government, at all levels, to strengthen and support families and to foster the well-being of children is to promote and support marriage (Marriage Movement; Bush, 2002) Calls to renew civil society identify marital, two-parent families as foremost among the seedbeds of civic virtue upon which our Nation depends for the successful task of social reproduction (A Call to Civil Society, 1999; McClain and Fleming, 2000).

Why should government, particularly the federal government, take such a keen interest in the fate of the institution of marriage? What place does marriage occupy in our Nation's system of democratic self-government? Is marriage, as a system of personal self-government, a model for democratic self-government? Does marriage have a role to play in a governmental formative project of constituting persons as responsible, self-governing citizens? Or is marriage really a "private" choice with which government has no business interfering?

Despite the intense focus on marriage in contemporary public discourse, these fundamental questions receive scant attention. Nancy Cott's splendid book, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, illuminates these, and other pressing matters concerning government's proper interest in marriage. Cott develops the perceived role of marriage in constituting its participants—men and women—as responsible citizens and as gendered citizens with distinctive roles to play in the family as well as the polity. As Cott elaborates, marriage, by imbuing husbands with the role of head of household and (until the Nineteenth Amendment) the political representative of the family, expanded men's capacity for citizenship, even as it constrained the scope of women's citizenship (Cott, 2000, 12).

In this essay, I will situate the contemporary calls to shore up marriage as a manifestation of this historical view that the fate of marriage is bound up with the fate of the Nation. I will elaborate the justifications offered today, suggesting the fundamental continuity as well as discontinuity with older themes about marriage and citizenship. Today, calls to promote marriage recognize the vital role of the institution of marriage in shaping responsible citizens in gendered ways. Strikingly, it is men who are perceived as most in need of such cultural regulation, and thus the target of the most urgent concern. I will conclude by calling for a closer examination of the gender ideology underlying these calls to save marriage. Neither the marriage movement nor policy proposals to strengthen marriage reckon adequately with how a commitment to a public value of sex equality should inform their agenda of promoting "healthy marriage." The aim should be reconstruction of marriage in light of present day commitments to the equal citizenship of women and men.

Linking Democratic and Personal Self-Government

Cott's thesis is that, from the Founding onward, American political theory and practice have harbored the assumption that the health of the Nation depended upon the successful establishment of marriage in a particular form: monogamous, Christian, heterosexual marriage (2000, 9-23). It is useful to situate Cott's book with some other recent histories of marriage that note the gender differential in how marriage constructed male and female citizenship. For example, Hendrik Hartog observes, in his book Man and Wife in America: "Being a householder, being someone who cared for and controlled a family, gave a man political significance. It was a foundation for republican political virtue. As the caretaker of a wife, children, and servants, a man became the sovereign of a domain, able to meet with other rulers and to participate with them in government." (Hartog 2000, 101) Linda Kerber has written that, in the political theory of the Founders, [End Page 50] married women fulfilled their civic obligations—and...


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