Back to the Future: Uses of History in Newspapers and Judicial Records on Marriage Equality
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marriage, but also family, with procreation.
The Reporter quoted an attorney arguing for Proposition 8,
who called marriage a “pro-child institution”
designed specifically to foster procreation. Cott’s
testimony to the contrary was reported in the Reporter
and Los Angeles Times.
procreation as a definitive characteristic of marriage, and both newspapers quoted her testimony that,
“There has never been a requirement that a couple produce children” to legitimate a marriage.
The discussion of marriage and family was not limited to the nuclear family unit, however. The
New York Times summarized the personal history of Helen Zia, a lay witness in the Proposition 8 trial,
and Lia Shigemura, who were domestic partners before marrying: “Marriage united the families of both
women… . After marrying, [Zia] recalled, her teenage niece told Shigemura, ‘Auntie Lia, now you’re my
Here, the significance of legal marriage is extended to affect not only the marital partners
and their potential offspring, but the extended families of both partners as well. In Zia’s personal history,
then, marriage is about the union of two families, not just two partners. The niece’s use of the descriptor
“real” reaffirms the social symbolism of legal marriage and is consistent with Powell’s findings that
Americans define family status, in part, by legal marital status.
A Civil Right and Mark of Citizenship. Marriage was also historically contextualized by
newspapers during the trial as a civil right indicating equal citizenship. The New York Times quoted one
of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who explained that holding a trial in the Perry case was “precisely the process
that has been used time and time again throughout American history to decide landmark civil rights
By placing Perry in the same category as civil rights cases on segregation and sex
discrimination, the newspaper affirmed a narrative of progress in breaking through marriage restrictions,
thus casting a positive light the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples. Indeed, a Los Angeles
Times editorial drew on the positive rhetoric of rights and liberty, asserting, “The right to marriage has
always been based on the constitutional liberty to select the partner of one’s choice—not on the partner
Interestingly, however, few authors drew an explicit distinction between marriage as a civil right
and marriage as a religious rite. In one of just two instances in which history was used to make this