Can marriage really be feminist?


To: Julia & Marie
From: Jo
Tuesday, 20 March, 17:43

Ugh. So what does it say about Marie and me that it has taken over a month for us to respond to this message? Hahaha. You are so right that we would NOT have even opened the email if you wrote the theme in the subject line. And boy did you hit a bruise with this one. Like when you stub your toe and then an hour later hit in the same spot with the same intensity. And then do that again only a week later just as it was about to fully heal. And then a month later when you should have learned your damn lesson. THAT’S the type of bruise you hit, haha.

Can a marriage be feminist? In my heart of hearts, I simply have to say no. It’s an institution upon which women have historically been viewed as chattel—property moved from one male lineage to the another—and in many ways still are. There’s nothing feminist in that at all. And even within the ‘modern’ women’s rights movement in the West regarding this subject—speaking from a strictly legal standpoint where we have been given more rights in this context like, you know, recognizing marital rape asa thing and allowing for women to maintain property after divorce—there is still this insidious belief that men are the heads of the households and women must cater to their needs. That Cleaver ideal is still very much alive and well. I remember being incredibly disheartened by this article in the NYT entitled ‘Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?‘ In it they graphed the percentage of young men disagreeing with the statement, ‘It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.’ In 1994, 83% of men aged 18-25 disagreed. Twenty years later, that number dropped to 55%. This is the kind of thing we want to see PROGRESSING over time—aka how the HELL has that number not reached 100%?

Well, each one of us could answer that in a dissertation-length response with in-depth personal anecdotes and multilayered reasons as to why. But I simply want to speak to the anger that I feel towards outcomes in studies like that (far too many of them exist). I think this anger trend is especially seen in my demographic—mid thirties, not of ideal child bearing age (ugh)—where that emotion tends to cause women to bend over backwards to accommodate a man in their life willing to entertain the idea of marriage with them despite their feminist ideals/career goals. I believe we are in a sort of tipping point on this issue upon which our generation is (unfortunately) baring the brunt of that fulcrum’s jut. You can see it in the massively statistically significant rise in the average age of women getting married and having children. While much of that wait can be attributed to the precarious economic climate we have had the joys of living in post-college (esp Marie and me), I think there is also a deeply entrenched view on gender roles that has yet to be reconciled.

So much of women’s rise in the 1970s was connected to meeting the needs of time economically, aka the advent of the duel-income household as women entered the workforce made it so that much of the economic hardship was absorbed and eclipsed in the fight for workplace equity. In other words, where the economy would have collapsed further had men remained the sole breadwinner, women workers helped to stabilize the situation. And we often see this around the world: expanding the workforce by letting the other 50% of the population fucking work does wonders for a country’s economy—China being the best example of this. And I’m not being trite about this trend. It’s not as complicated as many wish it to be. An increase in women’s rights—most notably attached to their right to education—is almost always attributed to the economic growth of a nation—Saudi Arabia being the best non-example of this (aka currently oil does the most wonders for a country’s economy, period).

I say all of this background (much of which the two of you know well), simply to illustrate the outstanding thing about all of this to me: women still chose to marry despite the economic freedom we have found. Seriously, just over fifty years ago, our meal tickets were our husbands. Period. Of course you were going to get fucking married. There was a complete lack of choice in the matter. Today, that is not the case, but women still do it because, exactly like you said Jules, the narrative around marriage changed. How the hell do you compete with the ideal of love? For so much of human history marriage was about economic gains (NOT romantic ones)—with our gender seen as a commodity in that marriage market. I finally listened to that Hidden Brain podcastall. Per usual, it was brilliantly done. But shifting from the emotional toughness of marriage because, duh, finding total personal fulfillment in another human is unattainable because such fulfillment requires finding it IN YOUR OWN PERSON, but I digress. Honestly, I think without this shift in the narrative, the very idea of marriage would have died along with the basic belief that women’s rights are actually human rights because, you know, the idea that we are, in fact, human.

And if we are getting into the psychology and sociology of it all, it’s also got a hell of a lot to do with the fact that it’s hard to break from the gender biases and social pressures around the institution of marriage no matter how illogical it seems. I mean, because it truly is seriously illogical if you identify as a feminist—male OR female, hetero or not. And even still, economic pressures also play into that. Given my recent move, the only times I truly consider pairing off with another human is in those moments when I acutely realize the power of a duel income and the tax benefit that comes with having my life legally attach to another. Aka paying my insane rent and figuring out how the hell I file for taxes (no joke, I would marry an accountant RIGHT NOW to take the stress off of tax season).

In line with this, I think I have simply come to view relationships generally, and marriage specifically, as a simple quid pro quo kind of deal. And I truly wish more people, but women especially, would do the same. What do you actually get in return for this slip of paper? I am not talking about the intangible (love, squishy feelings, etc). I am talking about actual, measurable things. Money in your bank account. A physical shelter you actually want. A mode of transportation you enjoy (I would also marry for a sailboat, no joke). If this is how men viewed us for the large majority of our existence, then why is it such an atrocity for us to view it in the same way? To me, THAT is a feminist marriage.

And for god’s sake women, if you do enter marriage, keep your own damn bank account. Because the next logical step in this debate is the social critique around divorce, haha. I swear I am not as cynical as this (f)email makes me sound—I’m just being exceptionally rational.

This was hellishly long and convoluted, but that’s how my brain works. Thank you, Jules, for making me solidify these feelings in writing. Marie, I cannot wait to read your take on all of this 😉 Next time, let’s have this convo in person over many, many bottles of wine. I think we could author a best-selling book if we did so…

All the love (because I do believe in it, promise),

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