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What's the provenance of "one man and one woman" to describe marriage?
October 6, 2010 7:27 PM   Subscribe

Was describing marriage as "one man and one woman" in common use before the rise of same-sex marriage advocacy?

I've been to some religious weddings (i.e. in churches) over the past few years. Some of the sermons were totally explicit - something like "Some people these days *sneer* want to change the definition of marriage, but we know God made marriage between one man and one woman!". But others have been more subtle - "Isn't it great that God made this institution, marriage, so that one man and one woman could be made one together?"

This got me wondering if "one man and one woman" has been used to describe marriage before the rising popularity of supporting marriage rights for same-sex couples. Is it just a standard phrase, or should I interpret its use in this context to be a dog whistle?
posted by 0xFCAF to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I thought the emphasis of "man and woman" was a more modern, less sexist way, instead of saying "man and wife". But I think that's during the vows; are you referring to the vows?
posted by bearette at 7:33 PM on October 6, 2010


There are several passages in the Bible that describe marriage as a man leaving his father & mother to be united to his wife. I've always assumed it came from that.
posted by pecanpies at 7:35 PM on October 6, 2010


In my anecdotal experience, that phrase is new and came in with the gay marriage issue. (Northeast US)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:43 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd think if it were really neutral it would be "a man and a woman" rather than "one man and one woman"...
posted by mdn at 7:47 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Lots of old ceremonies used "Man and Wife".
posted by mmf at 7:58 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


In my anecdotal experience, that phrase is new and came in with the gay marriage issue. (Northeast US)

Agree. It's an attempt to frame their position as supporting a "traditional definition of marriage," rather than just prejudice against gay people. By saying "one man" they are conflating gay marriage with polygamy and other "non-traditional" practices.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:01 PM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


To answer the question, that phrase probably did not see much currency before the gay marriage issue came up. But there is a long religious and political history in America dealing with polygamy, so it was a natural phrase, to cover both gay marriage and multiple marriage
posted by yclipse at 8:02 PM on October 6, 2010


I don't know anything about its use before same-sex marriage became an issue. So I can't answer that part of your question.

But that doesn't seem to be all you're asking. You ask this at the end, in the present tense:

Is it just a standard phrase, or should I interpret its use in this context to be a dog whistle?

There's no question: it is not just a standard phrase. Whether or not it was in the past, it isn't now. It is a dog whistle.

It has become synonymous with "I am opposed to same-sex marriage." That kind of language is used in referenda to amend state constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. It's a pleasant-sounding way of stating one's opposition to same-sex marriage. People are simply emphasizing the positive to imply the negative, rather than being explicitly negative. The actual meaning is still negative. People use pleasant-sounding words to mask discriminatory beliefs.
posted by John Cohen at 8:15 PM on October 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Well, no. Of course not. And that has nothing to do with bigotry or bias. If something is commonly understood to mean one thing, you take it at face value without an explicit definition. Until someone comes along and suggests another interpetation, and then you have to clarify. When we talk about the air we breathe, we don't specify a particular mix of oxygen, nitrogen, CO2, etc, until we're in a context (scuba diving, mountain climbing) where suddenly we have to be specific.

pecanpie's quote comes from Genesis, after God has made Eve to be a companion to Adam, which is about as far back as you can go in Judeo-Christian belief. Whichever side of the same-sex marriage debate you fall on, I don't think you can argue that "one man and one woman" is a recently invented definition born of anti-gay bias. [But you certainly can argue that it's time for the definition to change ...]
posted by zanni at 8:26 PM on October 6, 2010


Do we ever read about Adam and Eve being married? I may be wrong, but I don't believe we do. Put me in the dog whistle camp.
posted by Gilbert at 8:46 PM on October 6, 2010


Well, I'll stick my neck out; yes, it is a dog whistle and it is anti gay marriage political rhetoric in the guise of religion, using a particular couple's wedding ceremony to proselytize and campaign for the political position that gay marriage should be explicitly illegal.

When "man and woman" rather than "husband and wife" has been used in the past in the wedding ceremony, it has often been "this man and this woman" but I never heard the "one man one woman" line until the gay marriage controversy. There has been such not very subtle pressure in many churches for members who would otherwise, left to their own devices, might have been entirely sympathetic with gay marriage to become aligned with this "official" Christian position. Some churches are even promoted as "gay friendly" because there are Christians who will not embrace this kind of judgement and rejection of their friends and neighbors. Those pastors avoid such rhetoric.
posted by Anitanola at 9:01 PM on October 6, 2010


Well, no. Of course not. And that has nothing to do with bigotry or bias. If something is commonly understood to mean one thing, you take it at face value without an explicit definition. Until someone comes along and suggests another interpetation, and then you have to clarify. When we talk about the air we breathe, we don't specify a particular mix of oxygen, nitrogen, CO2, etc, until we're in a context (scuba diving, mountain climbing) where suddenly we have to be specific.

I don't understand this explanation. I don't mean I disagree with it; I literally don't understand what you're trying to say.
posted by John Cohen at 9:06 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Google Books has less than ten instances of the phrase being used this way in the 19th century, and not many more from 1900 to 1950.
posted by LarryC at 9:15 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Was describing marriage as "one man and one woman" in common use before the rise of same-sex marriage advocacy?

It wasn't described that way because no one felt the need to describe it at all. No one thought of it as anything else.

Except for the last time the concept was challenged, by polygamists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The response then was to make polygamy illegal, and it remains illegal to this day. (In the US.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:20 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


"One Man, One Woman" was an ABBA song in 1977. Of course, that's probably not much evidence for anything, considering who most ABBA fans are. Besides me, of course.
posted by norm at 9:33 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


As it was explained to me, the phrase change from 'man and wife' to 'husband and wife' or 'one man and one woman' as a part of the wedding ceremony in my particular variant (catholicism) was actually a response to the feminist movement, acknowledging some form of equality between partners in a marriage. I believe one of the modernisations of the phrasing was used at my parents' wedding (circa 1976), and was mildly scandalous because of it being so feminist. Anecdata, but there you are.
posted by ysabet at 10:18 PM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yes, it is a quotation from the headnote of a famous lawsuit in England in 1866, Hyde v Hyde and Woodmansee. The headnote of the official report says "Marriage as understood in Christendom is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others."

I've written about this before in a comment, but I can't find it so I'll summarise it again: the plaintiff ("petitioner") wanted a divorce from his wife, which had been conducted by the Mormon church in Utah. His wife had since left him and was cohabiting with a Mr Woodmansee. The court ruled that the original marriage had never taken place, because Mormon marriages (then) allowed men to take more than one wife and therefore were not "real" marriages in the eyes of the law.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:59 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


If something is commonly understood to mean one thing, you take it at face value without an explicit definition. Until someone comes along and suggests another interpetation, and then you have to clarify.
I don't understand this explanation. I don't mean I disagree with it; I literally don't understand what you're trying to say.
In the past people may not have explicitly used "marriage between one man and one woman" because the "between one man and one woman" was implicit. People could just say "marriage".

If "marriage between one man and one woman" seems specific, you'll note it doesn't specify that the couple has to be alive and human. People don't say "marriage between one live human man and one live human woman" because you and I share an understanding of marriage that includes the fact both participants are live and human.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:36 AM on October 7, 2010


0xFCAF: "we know God made marriage"

So did marriage or the idea of marriage originate in the Bible or in the Biblical age or was it around before then?
posted by IndigoRain at 12:43 AM on October 7, 2010


When we got married in Scotland, there was a noxious phrase in the Registrar's preamble that was something like 'Under the law of Scotland, marriage is defined as between one man and one woman', which I believe may have been added when civil partnerships were introduced here, basically to distinguish the two and twist the knife a bit.

Of course, the nice thing is that there's no law that says that needs to be read out - we asked for that phrase and anything like it to be struck from the script for the day and any record of our marriage.

So yeah, unfortunately I think that particular phrasing is basically dog whistling.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:15 AM on October 7, 2010


I am not religious and haven't been to many weddings lately. But in my head, a Church of England wedding should include a line about being here to witness the marriage of 'this man and this woman'. So I looked up what they actually say....

They're still allowed to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer version: Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate,, and a whole lot of other stuff including an explanation that marriage is ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication. Haven't heard this one, don't think I'm likely to.

The one I seem to recognise more is the one modified from the Book of Common Prayer service 1966 [link]: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony, and the sin and fornication are reworded, blah blah, Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.

And then there is the new one, The Marriage Service from Common Worship (2000) [link]– in modern language, and reflecting the current Christian understanding of marriage1: In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have come together to witness the marriage of N and N, ... Marriage is a gift of God in creation
through which husband and wife may know the grace of God ... as man and woman grow together ... The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
... blah blah.

So yeah, in conclusion, new thing for the Church of England, too.
posted by Lebannen at 2:26 AM on October 7, 2010


Not a particularly new phrase, but the wink and sneer is new.
posted by gjc at 5:01 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


0xFCAF: "we know God made marriage"

So did marriage or the idea of marriage originate in the Bible or in the Biblical age or was it around before then?


IndigoRain: OxFCAF was quoting someone else there. He/she isn't stating that "we know God made marriage," rather, quoting someone who said that.
posted by pecanpies at 7:30 AM on October 7, 2010


As the idea of monogamy predates the written word, I'm betting marriage predates Christianity by a long shot.
posted by domo at 11:46 AM on October 7, 2010


I'm not saying it's incorrect, because I don't know, but statements like I never heard the "one man one woman" line until the gay marriage controversy (to pick one example, sorry) seem inherently suspect to me. You know how when you hear a new word for the first time, and then that word seems to be everywhere? This phrase is a prime example: Now that the "one man one woman" phrase has taken on political significance, one is far more likely to notice it than one would have been a decade ago. Anecdotes along those lines do not seem to be particularly good evidence.

Which is not to say the line isn't included today for its political significance, nor that it wasn't a recent addition. Just that we need better data.
posted by SuperNova at 12:40 PM on October 7, 2010


The reason I said "this is a new phrase" is that I remember my thoughts about it in 1996 when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed in the US. DOMA includes the phrase "one man and one woman", and I remember thinking at that time this was a novel phrase I hadn't heard before in conjunction with marriage, and how awkward a phrase it was, and thinking about the other conditions we presume to be related to marriage that are not included in the phrase (as someone mentioned above). Joe in Australia is the only person in this thread who's provided a good answer as to historical antecedents for that phrase. The historical stuff from Book of Common Prayer involving phrases "man and wife", "husband and wife", "this man and this woman" are all fine as far as they go, but none of those is evidence for an early dating of the specific phrase the OP is asking about; if anything they are evidence that the standard phrasings were not "one man and one woman" but other phrases that also referred to one man and one woman but less clunkily.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:35 PM on October 7, 2010


LobsterMitten: As I recall, when gay marriage started becoming a "thing" there was a scramble to form a legislative response. The legislators in Australia and the UK picked up on Hyde v Hyde and Woodmansee which had the fateful words "one man and one woman" in its headnote, even though the case itself was actually about polygamy and did not address homosexual relationships. So the phrase entered discussion papers and so forth, and I presume editorials picked up the phrase from there and it entered the public consciousness.

Incidentally, the headnotes of a case are not part of the judge's decision; they're written by whoever is preparing the case for publication. So this case is really only precedent for ignoring marriages that take place in polygamous societies. This would have meant that nobody married in, say, Thailand would be married in the eyes of English law. The whole thing was fixed up legislatively to solve this problem and you might therefore think that the case is obsolete. But no, an excerpt from the headnotes is used as if (a) it were a precedent; and (b) it actually had been addressed by the judge. Which goes to show that a handy turn of phrase has a lot more power than the usual mechanisms of the law.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:49 PM on October 7, 2010


pecanpies: "0xFCAF: "we know God made marriage"

So did marriage or the idea of marriage originate in the Bible or in the Biblical age or was it around before then?


IndigoRain: OxFCAF was quoting someone else there. He/she isn't stating that "we know God made marriage," rather, quoting someone who said that.
"

I know that. But since many people believe God made marriage, I'm asking: Did the idea of marriage predate Biblical times? How did the idea of a man and woman (or 2 people) joining together for life get started?
posted by IndigoRain at 6:53 PM on October 7, 2010


In the past people may not have explicitly used "marriage between one man and one woman" because the "between one man and one woman" was implicit. People could just say "marriage".

If "marriage between one man and one woman" seems specific, you'll note it doesn't specify that the couple has to be alive and human. People don't say "marriage between one live human man and one live human woman" because you and I share an understanding of marriage that includes the fact both participants are live and human.


I do see what you mean about that, but I was asking what zanni meant. It's not clear to me that what you're saying is what zanni meant. Your explanation would seem to suggest that the current use of "one man and one woman" is meant to imply that the speaker is opposed to same-sex marriage. But zanni went on to say the opposite:

Whichever side of the same-sex marriage debate you fall on, I don't think you can argue that "one man and one woman" is a recently invented definition born of anti-gay bias.
posted by John Cohen at 7:56 PM on October 7, 2010


My interpretation of zanni's comment was: If something [the word marriage] is commonly understood to mean one thing [marriage of one live human man and one live human woman], you take it at face value without an explicit definition. Until someone comes along and suggests another interpetation [such as a marriage between two men or two women] [...] I don't think you can argue [claim] that "one man and one woman" [the definition of marriage as heterosexual] is a recently invented definition born of anti-gay bias.

In other words, I interpreted the sentence you quoted last as "I think we can all agree that in recent history marriage was a heterosexual-only institution" - and so it's not all that far-fetched to think people at those times, when speaking of marriage, didn't feel the need to specify it was of the heterosexual variety.

Your explanation would seem to suggest that the current use of "one man and one woman" is meant to imply that the speaker is opposed to same-sex marriage.

What I intended to say was: Currently the expression "one man and one woman" is often used to indicate opposition to same-sex marriage. The expression may have been used less in the past; for example, in the 1950s when homosexuality was a crime in many western countries, gay marriage wasn't "on the cards". However, at those times there was a great deal of political opposition to homosexuality, for example it was illegal. In other words, though people may not have used the expression "one man and one woman" often, there was still political opposition to gay rights, and though the use of the expression may have risen, I think overall political opposition to gay rights has fallen.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:14 PM on October 8, 2010


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