The Golden Age of "Traditional Marriage" Never WasRoundup
tags: conservatism, family history, marriage, LGBTQ history, history of sexuality
Lauren Gutterman is co-host of the "Sexing History" podcast, associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Her Neighbor's Wife: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage.
Conservatives seem willing to engage in ever more extreme actions to win the culture wars that permeate American life in 2021.
From sweeping attacks on the rights of trans kids to Texas’s new almost total ban on abortion, enforced through private action, Republican legislators aim to restore “family values” from an idealized post-World War II era. Picture the life depicted on family sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet”: a heteronormative, White suburban family that seemingly flourished before the “revolution” in American attitudes regarding sexual matters including pornography, birth control and premarital sex, and before the emergence of the feminist and gay liberation movements in the 1960s.
Yet the reality of this world was more complicated than modern conservatives imagine it to have been. Nowhere is this contrast clearer than in the misconceptions that have emerged about marriage during this period. Yes, the national marriage rate reached an all-time high of 16.4 per 1,000 people in 1946 — just short of three times as high as it was in 2018 — while the divorce rate tumbled between 1946 and 1963.
But high marriage rates and low divorce rates did not mean that the traditional nuclear family — with a male breadwinner and household head, and the woman taking charge of the house and children — was always as it appeared. Instead, within the institution of marriage, many Americans found opportunities to act on same-sex desires and to engage in broader queer communities. For married women, in particular, who were less likely to be harassed by police for engaging in public sex or criminalized under state sodomy laws, balancing marriage and same-sex relationships was far more common than we might expect.
During the post-war period, federal policies, medical practices and cultural norms all worked to push Americans — regardless of their sexual histories, intimate desires and romantic attachments — into seemingly heterosexual unions while severely stigmatizing those who refused to conform. Yet marriage did not stop many wives from acting on their feelings for other women.
These wives could be found across the nation in suburban enclaves, small rural towns and large urban centers alike. While some felt guilty about their relationships or feared the repercussions they might have, others were surprisingly content to balance marriage and sexual relationships with women. As one wife and mother of two from New Orleans wrote to the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s first lesbian rights organization founded in San Francisco in 1955, “Let us not deny ourselves the right to seek happiness where we may — so long as we can strive to be discreet and cautious in our actions.”
While this writer took pains to hide her lesbian relationships from her husband, other men knew full well what their wives were doing. In 1945, after 15 years of marriage and the births of their two children, noted novelist Dorothy Baker informed her husband Howard about her persistent same-sex desires and the true nature of her relationship with a close female friend. Rather than divorcing her, Howard consented to what they called “the Arrangement,” granting Dorothy four full weeks of “vacation” alone with her lover each year. This arrangement lasted until Dorothy’s death in 1968.