Dear 2011: The Nineteenth Century Called, And It Wants Its Marriage Narrative Back

It seems like we’ve been reading a lot about marriage these days. The royal wedding swallowed every women’s website (ours included) for what seemed like a hundred days on end. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie recently made headlines for saying they might finally cave in and marry, despite the fact that marriage is still a tool of discrimination against LGBT folk (their original reason for waiting), because their kids are asking them to. (Children! Making decisions for adults!) And now that George Clooney has split with girlfriend Elisabetta Canalis, press outlets have immediately jumped on the totally unconfirmed theory that her desire to marry was the ultimate “deal breaker” for the couple’s continued happiness. Not that they grew apart, began to get on each other’s nerves, didn’t love each other anymore, or any of the gazillion reasons couples break up all the time. She said she wanted to get married in an interview once, and Clooney said he didn’t in a separate interview he did a while back, so it must have been that!

“It looked like she was going to succeed where so many others had failed,” began the Daily Mail article on the breakup. “Succeed.” Like she’s playing a game of Super Mario Brothers II and Clooney is King Koopa, and she must defeat/castrate him in order to win the prize (Princess Peach=marriage, ‘natch). Because marriage=trapping a man against his will with your vagina=a woman’s only mode of success. How very adversarial! Even if that was the reason they broke up, it’s horribly depressing that this is the narrative the media decides to pounce on time and again. It’s the new millennium, people. Let’s try to be a little less medieval in our obsessions.

It’s not that I’m against marriage. My best friend since childhood married her boyfriend of eight years recently, and when I saw them expressing how much they mean to each other, I got downright misty eyed. I get it: weddings are nice, and some people like to have them. Personally, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like getting married, but I certainly haven’t ruled it out. It’s a social act that works for many. But it also has a really dark history. Marriage used to be inextricably linked with the idea of women as property. A woman was her father’s property until she got married, at which point she would switch out her father’s last name for her husband’s, indicating that she had changed hands. “Giving her away” was not just a sweet tradition; her father was literally giving her to her husband, like he would give him a farm animal or a houseplant. And then there is the issue of discrimination. With the exception of a few states, marriage in the U.S. is a legal right that’s still withheld from a large portion of the population. I respect anyone who wants to reinvent this institution in modern terms and make it work for them, but it’s also not hard to see why some people would want to avoid it altogether.

Maybe this marriage obsession is a reaction to all the brazen harlotry that currently exists in our culture. The ol’ virgin-whore dichotomy. Sometimes, we even combine them into one persona (see: ’90s Britney Spears, child bride Courtney Stodden). If so, that’s another reason it bothers me. You see, women are neither “virgins” nor “whores” (even the ones who are literally virgins or whores), but nuanced human beings, just like men. This probably seems obvious to you, but it’s still tricky for some people to grasp.

I realize I don’t have to read about marriage if I don’t want to, but it’s just fucking everywhere these days, and it’s almost always reported on in a boring, gender essentialist way. Maybe we, the media, just need to pull back a little bit and try out some new narratives for a change. Maybe then, we can come back around to marriage not as the single culminating event of a woman’s life, but as something two people who love each other might decide to do together if it’s right for them. But I’m afraid that wouldn’t sell very many magazines.

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    • Eileen

      Marriage used to be inextricably linked with the idea of women as property. A woman was her father’s property until she got married, at which point she would switch out her father’s last name for her husband’s, indicating that she had changed hands.

      This isn’t really true.

      The tradition of changing your surname upon marriage dates back to ancient Rome (marriage cum manu), true, but so does the tradition of keeping your surname (marriage sine manu). Each came with different property rights for the woman. In the first case, she became a member of her husband’s family and entitled to their property and legal stuff; in the second, she remained a member of her father’s family and entitled to their property. These traditions continued in different areas; most of Europe stuck with the sine manu tradition. In fact, only English women took their husbands’ names, which was a marker of their membership in their husbands’ families and their rights to their husbands’ property (they even worked it into the marriage vows: “with all my worldly goods I thee endow”).

      In early modern Paris, for example, women could absolutely own property all through their lives. They could easily inherit property from their parents (and in Paris in particular, the default was that each child, male or female, received the same inheritance, except for titles and crap that went to the eldest son), and single women who were of legal age were expected to manage their own property. Widows also had tremendous power over their own property and also that left to their children by their fathers (as his wife was not a member of his family, a man usually could not leave her more than one-third of his ‘lineage,’ or family property). Wives continued to own their own property but gave it to their husbands to manage not because the law thought that women couldn’t take care of their own stuff but because the French were hung up on the idea that a household should have a head.

      Moreover, a woman whose husband was bad with money could sue for a separation of goods (without suing for a separation of both goods and persons, meaning they’d still live together in the same household), which gave her the right to manage her own property without his creditors getting at any of it. Or the couple could simply put in the marriage contract that they would retain separate property identities (there was a particular wording for the wife – “independent craftsmaker” or something – but I forget and I don’t feel like digging out my notes), and in that case the wife would take care of all her own property throughout the duration of the marriage, much like couples with separate jobs and bank accounts would today.

      I agree that women got screwed over in the nineteenth century (in Paris, the Napoleonic code wiped out all of this customary marriage laws and made it way worse to be a woman who wanted to own property), but don’t let nineteenth-century teleological historiography convince you that marriage has always been a bad thing for women. Medieval and early modern women were a lot better off than a lot of people realize.

    • Eileen
      • Eileen

        (success! Maybe comments over a certain word count aren’t allowed? Also, wow, I must be the stubbornest person alive to go and create a blog post solely for the purpose of making this comment)

    • Jamie Peck

      That’s all really interesting! It’s true I wasn’t very precise with my language in terms of what historical era I was referring to.

      • Eileen

        Yeah, I’m not trying to be unfair (although I probably was…sorry). It’s kind of a personal mission of mine, though, to incorporate more women’s history into third-wave feminism, because I think it really helps to show that the idea of the housewife who stays at home and sits around, cooking and cleaning, is a very modern and short-lived one.

    • Eileen

      (okay, now there are a couple of copies of my comment that are appearing out of the vortex. I am super-confused and obviously not well suited for a career in technology)

    • Jo

      Jamie, I really appreciate what you’ve added to the gloss. I think that a lot of the issues you talk about are interesting, important, and indeed “women’s” issues (of course, they are humanity’s issues more broadly). Although i recognize that a lot of the other writers don’t want to focus solely on “heavy” issues, I do sometimes long for more thought provoking posts.

      I have a similar feeling about marriage as you do. I am not necessarily for/against marriage for myself (or others), I go back and forth on whether i can see myself getting married (and of course, only time will tell!). In general, I find the bind of marriage to be unnecessary, a big part of me feels that if I care about someone deeply enough that marriage comes into question, I won’t need the validation of the label. I am also heterosexual and really dig monogamy, so I am also in a pretty privileged in even having this as a viable option. Society has made me think that a wedding at the plaza would be kind of fabulous, but more so as a spectacle than as a defining moment, really. The recent Racked(ny) series on city hall weddings is just wonderful—i think it really conveys that marriage-as-bond-not-show sentiment. But i digress.

      I think another important, related note is that marriage does privilege heterosexuals and monogamists (as opposed to polyamory, polygamy, etc…). So I guess, in theory, I don’t have a problem with marriage, but I also have this belief that people should have all the information before they get married. I don’t mean just the “50% of marriages end in divorce” stuff, but the immense privilege and history that does come with the title. Because I think that ultimately marriage can mean love and support and companionship, etc… but it also has an established presence in society as something that gives certain people more social clout than others, and I dislike the idea of people everywhere being unaware of this privilege. I also know that the world is full of varying ideas and opinions, and while people don’t necessarily have to agree, I think they should be aware.

      In my last year of college I had so much anti-marriage anti-monogamy stuff shoved down my throat during some of my classes, it was kind of annoying—it felt like I was being prosecuted and caricatured for being a naive monogamist. Yet, I understand that part of the reason people are so aggressive about these views is that they are in the minority, and while I am not the enemy, the overall heteronormative system is, and in some ways, I can pass there (I don’t want to say I fit in, because I am not down with heteronormativity).

      ANYWAY, what I’m trying to get at is that despite the, perhaps excessive, focus on non-monogamies I experienced in college, I am still grateful for being put in a situation where I had to critically assess my own values, and I wish more people were forced to question how much of their choices are for themselves and how much of them are to fit into “the system” (and now I sound super duper cliché!).

      Sorry that was kind of all over the place, perhaps not phrased in a most coherent fashion, but I had to get that shiz off my chest!

      • jo

        holy crap that was long

    • Adrienne

      Wow, this is my first time ever coming to this site (and the first article I have read here), and I am hooked. Jamie, I agree whole-heartedly with what you wrote and appreciate so much to see that I am not alone in how I feel. Great post!

    • Amber

      Excellent post. Like many of yall (I’m from Louisiana), I’m on the fence about marriage. If I do, it will be on my own terms and I won’t subscribe to the marriage complex cash cow. I really hate how SOME women regard their marriage as though they’ve won a race. I remember how Star Jones acted before her marriage – as though she was the first person in the world to have ever been married – and being turned off. Getting married is a great thing, but it’s not something to lord over society (non-married friends) with.

    • Natalie

      Amen. I’ve been thinking about the difference between the actual institution of marriage and the marriage as a symbol of two peoples’ commitment and dedication to each other. Under today’s system where not everyone can marry their significant other because of their gender (although, yay NY!), the institution of marriage itself really means nothing to me. I mean, why can’t my best friend, who’s gay, marry his boyfriend when I can marry mine? Although I can see myself someday having the “marriage” type of committed, dedicated relationship with a man, I probably won’t actually get into the union because at this point in time, I would feel like I’m almost reaffirming the grounds for discrimination.