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When I heard Jeb Bush say he was “for traditional marriage,” I thought one of us must be terribly confused.  I know, everyone else at the CPAC conference was saying the same thing.  But, that’s because most of them like sounding crazy.  Jeb’s supposed to be the smart brother.  

Jeb Bush at CPAC '15 Should I have known what he meant? I don’t think so, this isn’t just code for opposing marriage equality.  That position needs no code. If Marco Rubio could say he believes marriage is between a man and a woman so could Jeb if that’s what he wanted to say. But, it’s still more difficult for me to believe Jeb Bush supports traditional marriage than to believe he’s a complete idiot.  On the surface, both seem like reasonable conclusions, but still premature and not entirely fair. 

Across the conservative press and with remarkable consistency, “traditional marriage” refers to marriage based on thousands of years of scripture, custom and law.  Browse the back issues of any conservative journal: the deeper you go the clearer it gets. Vested in religious, Roman and common law, culturally transcendent, timeless and immutable. It is above the vagaries of social change. Or, at least until now, anyway.

The problem this argument just can’t get around is the last century.

Not to sound pedantic, but it’s hard not to state the obvious when being told the world is flat. But what had seemed so irrefutable, the fact that “traditional marriage” never really made it through the last century, has somehow reentered  political discourse among people who should know better.   The fact that traditional marriage, in both form and substance, proved incompatible with twentieth century sensibilities isn’t threatened by ignorance, but by revisionism.   

How does anyone not notice that married women are not compelled to automatic dispossession or “domestic chastisement,.” The legacy of these concepts, excluding women from  signing contracts, establishing credit, incurring liabilities or the right to know if their husbands remortgaged or sold marital property remained in practice through the 1970’s (The Fair Credit Access Act was introduced in 1984; after Congresswomen Geraldine Ferraro discovered that credit established in marriage only applied to her husband).

Lest anyone think this is merely about the form and not the substance of marriage,  consider the how dramatically the role and responsibilities of men has changed. No longer responsible the actions of their wives, men are not entitled, certainly not expected to discipline their wives. The collapse of  the “domestic curtain” that kept marriage beyond the reach of the state, meant that husbands be charged  with assault, rape or attempted murder (since the 1970’s in criminal, not family courts).

This, my traditional friends, the dignity and equality of women, is what altered the meaning of the meaning of marriage. Marriage, which defined gender roles as much as it was defined by them, would have a radically different purpose in world where women defined their own roles. The rejection of immutable gender roles, universally codified, violently enforced, crucial to the institution and beyond the reach of the state is what changed the definition of marriage.  In fact, every  single advancement women have ever won was the result of hard fought battles against “thousands of years of scripture, law and custom.”

Marriage equality will not result in the redefinition of marriage, it is the result of the redefinition of marriage.  

Yet, the argument for traditional marriage persists, not because it works, but because is fits the classic conservative defense of exclusivity.  It won’t impact marriage equality, but won’t go away either.  It will just be another valiant loss to modernity, another piece of the essential folklore, another legend form a bucolic past, another reason to limit the franchise.