So a lot has been written on this here website about marriage: imaginary weddings, real weddings, marriage equality for gay people, desire to marry, pressure for to marry, etc. I have even puzzled out my own unexpected case of wedding fever. Hell, Ashley and Jennifer take a moment out of each week to decide which fictional character/animal/wheat product they would marry, given the opportunity.
But one position that’s been underrepresented is that oft-caricatured hallmark of second-wave feminism: skepticism. Believe it or not, there are plenty of reasons for a person, male or female, to be reluctant to participate in this storied institution, and they don’t all have to do with hating men or burning our bras.
Let’s start out with reasons I don’t hate marriage. I do not hate love, or even monogamy. (Although just because someone is married does not necessarily mean they’re monogamous.) I love love! I am in it! And if I knew the secret to finding love, you can bet I would tell everyone immediately. Nor do I hate the idea of involving one’s friends and family in a commitment ceremony where you stand up and profess your love for one another. I think that can be really meaningful. (Unfortunately, commitment ceremonies have been robbed of some of their cultural heft due to competition from the ever-appealing MARRIAGE. “Aren’t those for gay people who aren’t allowed to get married for real?” etc.) And anyone who knows me knows that I do not hate parties. In fact, throwing parties is one of my top five reasons for existing. A great big party about love with your friends and family sounds mega-appealing to me.
But “marriage” is not just what happens when you have a party about love. It’s a state-sanctioned institution that the government has a vested interest in upholding. And it’s when the power of the state (and its various related apparatuses) comes in that I get wary.
As a means of controlling society–and particularly managing women’s role in it–marriage has an unpleasant history. Once upon a time, women were property to be passed from father to husband. From ancient India to Elizabethan England, marriages were arranged for people, not for romantic love, but as a maintenance of conservative religious values. One need only to look at a European history book to see that, for many years, marriage was a tactical tool to form alliances and grab at power. In 18th century England, married women were not allowed to make financial transactions or own property. It took until 1993 for marital rape to become a crime in every US state. My mom remembers a time when you had to be married in order to obtain birth control. Female sexual pleasure outside of marriage has long been demonized as an abomination, a perversion, a sign you don’t respect yourself, etc.
Some people argue that marriage was actually a means of protecting women and keeping them safe, to which I ask: from what? From a patriarchal society where unmarried women were seen as ugly, pitiable, or morally depraved, and where women trying to survive on their own were forced into low-paying “pink collar” jobs or prostitution? That’s like someone punching you in the arm a whole bunch, then giving you the chance to stop the punching in exchange for your legal autonomy, then acting like they just did you a huge favor. You cannot be grateful to the patriarchy for protecting you from the patriarchy.
Then there’s the role marriage plays in naturalizing all the unacknowledged, unpaid labor women do in reproducing society. You see, up until recently, men’s and women’s labor was clearly divided up into “public” and “private.” (This division remains, it’s just not as gendered as it used to be.) But this was not an equal division. In public, men were acknowledged as workers, and as such, could struggle for higher wages, better conditions, more free time… all the things humans need in order to live moderately well. Best case scenario, they could save up for retirement and/or plan for the future, should they want to leave their jobs at some point. Their security was not tied to their personal relationships.
Women, on the other hand, did just as much work keeping society going as men: having and caring for children who would grow up to be workers, providing for their men’s domestic needs, cooking, cleaning, having sex when asked, and tending to their men’s spiritual wounds so that they could go back and work some more the next day. But unlike men’s work, these essential functions were not seen as “work.” They were naturalized as just part of what it means to be female, and/or the natural result of “love” (as expressed via marriage) and as such, women were not fairly compensated for this work, nor could it become a site of struggle. I guess “room and board” (and, for a lucky few, shopping money) could be counted as compensation, but what would you think if you applied to a job where that was the only compensation, where you could never save up for the future, and where, if you wanted to leave your job, or your boss fired you, you were pretty much shit out of luck? That’s why many radical feminists of the ’70s advocated for things like free public childcare and wages for housework. (For more on this topic, see Silvia Federici‘s influential text Wages Against Housework.)
Why else does the state want us to get married? Well, there are a whole lot of reasons! Conservative politicians’ emphasis on the nuclear family as the only desirable type of family is not just rooted in their interpretation of Christian scripture (although that’s definitely part of it, and dovetails conveniently). In the modern developed world, the nuclear family (and its attendant aspiration of home ownership) has been shown to be the most efficient arrangement for consumption patterns (buy shit for your kids or you’re a shitty parent!), conservative voting (Margaret Thatcher‘s plan to make England more conservative with home ownership incentives was largely successful), and all other manners of preserving the status quo. Much of the debate surrounding gay marriage has to do with whether allowing gay people to participate in this institution would upend society… I wish. This machine will still run regardless of the genders of the people you put into it, and may even help neutralize the “threat” posed by the alternative sexual and family culture(s) developed by LGBT people as a result of being historically marginalized.
“So what,” you might say. “It’s a free country. If you don’t want to get married, you don’t have to.” That’s the thing about coercive state power: it’s coercive. The social and financial penalties for not getting married are set up in such as way as to push you inexorably in that direction. Having a commitment ceremony isn’t going to get me onto my partner’s health plan. And that might be what I resent most: that something as cold and impersonal as state power could intrude on something as sacred to me as my romantic relationship. To set up the false dichotomy of public and private spheres to begin with, then stick its hands all up in the private sphere, just seems like adding insult to injury.
I know radical anarcha-feminists who’ve gotten married for practical reasons, and I might yet do so, too. Who knows what the future will bring? I also believe that you shouldn’t beat yourself up for going with the flow if it makes life easier for you. (Systemic problems are to be attacked on a systemic level. You’re just one person. The personal doesn’t have to be political.) And of course, you can try to re-make marriage in your own enlightened image, as some people I know have done. But whether we like it or not, marriage is always going to be a conservative, state sponsored institution with an anti-feminist history, and that’s why I’m not clamoring unreservedly to join it, despite the powerful cultural brainwashing that constantly tugs at my womanly, hysterical soul.
Still: E! News