How Obergefell v Hodges is Linked to Gender Equality

The 2015 supreme court ruling Obergefell v Hodges, which legalized gay marriage nationwide, is rightly viewed as a hard-fought victory for the LGBT community. However, it is also closely linked to the gender equality movement in both its legal foundation and the progressive social attitudes which were critical to its success. The modernization of marriage laws is one way we can see that linkage. Let’s take a closer look.

Marriage is constantly evolving, both legally and in how we society conceptualizes it. It was once seen as a legal contract based on economic and property rights, closely linked to religious beliefs. As recently as the 19th century, when women married, they became the property of their husband. They were legally forbidden from holding property of their own, and from exercising their own political rights. In fact, one of the early arguments against women’s suffrage was that they would simply vote the same as their husbands, so there was no reason for them to hold a vote of their own.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, women’s legal rights changed dramatically–including rights related to marriage. For example, beginning in the 1830s, a series of laws known as the “Married Women’s Property Acts” slowly began to give married women some rights of their own, such as the right to own property, to write their own will, or earn a salary. With the right to vote earned in 1920, women became politically independent as individuals, rather than seen as replicas of their husband’s point of view.

50 years later, in 1970, California became the first state to enact no-fault divorce, meaning an individual did not need to prove that a spouse broke the contract of marriage in order to divorce. Instead, one party simply had to claim that the couple could no longer get along. Even if the other spouse did not agree, they could not stop the divorce. This was particularly important for women, because it allowed easier exits from malfunctioning or abusive marriages. Beyond the immediate implications, it also impacted how we think about marriage. Instead of convincing a judge that one party has done something wrong, no-fault divorce puts the power to determine the value of a relationship in the hands of individuals.

These legal changes in both women’s rights and marriage legislation were small bricks evolving the legal foundation of marriage from one centered on economics and ownership to one based on individual freedoms. Also, rather than a hierarchical and gendered contract, it has evolved to be seen as a partnership between consenting, and equal, adults based on love, companionship and mutual respect. These changes made room for what would become the successful movement for marriage equality, resulting in the 2015 Obergefell v Hodges ruling that legalized gay marriage nationwide.

While this is only a brief introduction, it is clear that the legal foundation, as well as the logic of the LGBT equality movement aligns quite well with the gender equality movement. Recognizing those shared connections, and this natural allyship, gives us an understanding of our potential future work together. After all, though we’ve come a long way, we still have a ways to go until we’ve reached true lived equality for all.

The Gay Family Law Center is a dedicated ally to the LGBT community. We specialize in LGBT family law, including adoption, surrogacy, divorce, wills and trusts, and more. Contact us any time to schedule a free consultation for your family law needs.

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