Historically, the respective roles of a man and a woman in marriage are different across religious, cultures, and political borders. Even today, different sectors of society have distinctly different guidelines and expectations for the husband-wife relationship. Often what sets apart some societies from others when it comes to marriage is the role that women are allowed to have in the relationship. For centuries, and even in parts of the world today, marriage was treated as a sacred bond, but one in which the woman must honor and serve the man.
This was clear in early Eurasia, where society viewed marriage as a way to enforce women’s subordination. Although they spoke different languages, honored separate gods, and fought over land and power, the major establishments of early Eurasia almost always viewed marriage in a similar way. Marriage in early Eurasia was rarely a true celebration of love, but instead a forced act that seemed pretty on the outside, but unequal and unfair at its roots. From Mesopotamia to China, the role of marriage in society was to supply a man with housekeeping, and a woman with protection and guidance.
These cruel ideals were shared and accepted by even the most elite intellects and empires. In Document 3, the Greek philosopher Aristotle praises wives who stay in the shadows of their homes and let their husbands appear to the public. For many wealthy people like Aristotle, it was likely necessary for the husband to be the only face of the family, therefore making it appealing to promote containment for women. Similar to Aristotle’s beliefs, the Romans had a history of encouraging chastity and complete devotion to a husband from a wife.
In a story written by the Roman historian Livy, a woman is honored by a group of men for remaining chaste and busying herself with work within the house (Document 4). To convince his audience that his view of the ideal woman’s role is right, Livy cites the woman’s “exemplary value” as the cause of her label “attractive”. Livy also explains the role of chastity in marriage, by first praising the woman for her chastity, then having her die for losing it, the act of being raped having “taken away her honor.
On the extreme side, marriage in early Eurasia was sometimes literally forced upon a woman, and the Greek historian Herodotus applauds the Babylonians for doing such in Document 2. Herodotus wishes to inform Greeks about the customs of the foreigners, and he obviously views this custom (auctioning off marriage) as one that Greeks would view as “wise. ” Herodotus, Livy and Aristotle clearly all see a marriage’s value in the wife’s ability to be faithful, controllable, and seemingly invisible to the world.
Many societies, especially religious ones, viewed the unfair balance in marriage as justified by law or doctrine. Even those who were seemingly more protective of women still believed that marriage required an imbalance in order to be prosperous. The Assyrians (Document 1) implemented laws which protected married women from other men, but still gave husbands the ability to divorce and take everything with them (wives could not divorce). In Catholicism, husbands were required to love their wives, as the central rule of the religion stipulated.
However, as St. Paul wrote, husbands loved their wives as Christ loved the Church (Document 5). Just as the Church needs Christ for guidance, a woman needs a husband in order to be holy and clean. For a religion that, today, claims that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, it is astonishing that St. Paul taught that husbands had a role similar to Christ in marriage. Aristotle shared a similar belief that husbands, were in some way holy. He claims a married woman is fortunate, and that a husband’s wishes “are as laws appointed for [a wife] by divine will” (Document 3).
Finally, in Confucianism, marriage was thought of to be sacred and vital, but must be imbalanced. Husband and wife is one of the five “key relationships” of Confucianism, relationships that Confucius viewed as the building blocks of society. These relationships were examined and widely celebrated, but each consisted of a clear superior and subordinate. In Confucianism, as Ban Zhou wrote, the husband was required to “control his wife, and the wife was required to “serve” her husband (Document 6).
These groups, among many others, resisted the notion that men and women were equal and laid the groundwork for current day gender inequality. By using marriage as a tool to guarantee women’s subordination to men, the early civilizations and empires permanently set the role that men and women have in marriage today. While society has generally moved away from laws that favor one gender in marriage, there are certainly still unwritten expectations for both men and women. Over time, marriage has become more of a choice than a requirement, but society must still work to simplify marriage to the positivity at its core.