Can marriage be feminist?

495C1E7F-77E7-4386-B8B6-E1FC58E934B3This has long been a question of interest for me and probably the reason that I am pushing mid-thirties as a happily unmarried, independent woman. Naturally, this is not without societal judgment or questions from relatives, but I certainly advocate for women of any age to consider this question more. In this three-part series, femails.org will dig into this question from the perspectives of three different women (myself included) in how they chose to answer it. If you have an answer, we would love to hear it and include you in this conversation…

To: Johanna Gusman and Marie Cole

Re: If I wrote the subject of this email here you wouldn’t open it

On Sat, Feb 17, 2018 at 12:50 PM, Julia L. Gonski <jXXX@g.harvard.edu> wrote:

SO. Marriage.

Somehow this week this has been my recreational sociological subject of interest and I’ve developed a lot of feelings about it. As always when I write you guys, I feel like there’s some deeper thing to be synthesized with all this that I haven’t gotten yet. So I need your help fam.
I’ll take you chronologically through my research thus far. This whole thing started on Valentine’s Day because obvs. I was at the gym looking for a good podcast and found an episode of the Hidden Brain (one of my regular favs) called “When Did Marriage Become So Hard?” The episode consists of a couple psychologists giving a brief history of the institution of marriage, and how it started as a purely economically beneficial agreement (think Cleopatra marrying Caesar and then Marc Anthony for power in the Roman Empire. Except for that in 99.9% of real life cases it only ever economically benefits fathers and husbands because free labor and dowries.)
But that as time went on, we shifted our expectations from marriage as a survival strategy to having a partner that we loved, that made us feel special, someone that makes us the best version of ourselves. A social psychologist called Eli Finkel makes the analogy to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We started off doing this whole song and dance just to give yourself and your family a better chance of survival. Now that survival is a bit easier, we want more. We’re up to the self-actualization stage of the hierarchy, the most difficult step. We expect that in our romantic partnerships. And that is, in fact, insane. The episode closes with Finkel giving suggestions to expect less of your partner, to consider sexually open relationships and to find peace in getting different things from different people. He says that a marriage is like having an investment portfolio full of stocks. If it goes well, it goes really well. If it crashes, you’re miserable. And with or without a marriage, it’s best to diversify your social portfolio.
I left this episode feeling pretty good. These all seemed like reasonable, emotion-free points about why some people choose to participate in this weird little thing and how to make an antiquated idea work for yourself in a modern age. So the next day I’m back at the gym, and one of my new fav feminist podcasts called Stuff Your Mom Never Told You had an episode called “Can A Marriage Be Feminist?” I dive right in, expecting a nice verbal eye roll at the idea of white dresses and legal name changes, but to have a few comforting stories of strong women that didn’t fold and made it their own. I was entirely let down. Two of the three women in the conversation have plans to get married this year. What brave, stubborn, tortured soul searching led them to complicity in the most farcical of gender equal institutions? Well, they feel that they found someone “special”. They felt like family with their boyfriends and wanted to make that legal. I was very agitated by this. It felt like this unpleasant realization started dawning on me that however full of rage a self-proclaimed feminist woman is at 25, after 10 years of social pressure and snarky Christmas dinner comments and awkward reassurances at dinner parties, she’s just going to fucking get married so everyone will get off her back.
While walking home after this second podcast, I had an abrupt thought that I think sums up my own current feels on the matter. The biggest thing that makes me personally nervous about marriage is that men are up for it. Is that not historically the biggest red flag imaginable when it comes to women? This is working for dudes, which generally means it subjugates or takes advantage of women. So should we not be wary? It seems like a woman hits let’s say 40, there’s a fork in the road, and she’s got nothing but bad options. Path A is marriage. Economically terrifying, physically dangerous (because being involved with men is the most likely way to get murdered), societally numbing. Maybe you want to avoid all that and take Path B, spinsterhood? Still runs its economic risks if you want to have a child and expect any amount of financial help from the child’s other parent. Still have to deal with the awkward apologies at parties from coworkers. And, regular old romantic partners are just as murder-y as their official husband counterparts. So you can’t even live in goddamn peace.
I don’t know right now what it would mean to have a feminist marriage. It feels like the institution as we know it today is so far gone down the misogyny rabbit hole that it would be impossible. But I haven’t decided yet if I believe the idea to be inherently anti-feminist. The stripped-down idea of being a woman and having a permanent legal partnership with a man, one that requires love (aka unpaid emotional labor) but also delivers that love back to you in equal quantity. Is there any way to do that outside of the claws of sexism? Should we all just go get civil unions or common law setups and call it a day?
I am sure you guys have some good sociological shit that ya dweeby scientist friend never heard about. So definitely send me whatever you got, I’m digging into this one. In particular I feel like I’m still searching for an opinion from a woman that is intelligently pro marriage and has also figured out a way to not make it suck. If you’re feeling like I did this morning and need to read a savage take down of the whole charade, I found this incredible article in Psychology Today called “A Feminist Critique of Marriage” (which is written by a MAN and that alone gives me some faith in the world.)
Bisous, miss you both the absolute most 😘
Jules

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