Two Months Later…Can Marriage Be Feminist?


To: Jules & Jo
From: Marie
19 April 09:35

Alright team. I finally mustered up enough courage to sit with a computer beyond the scope of my work and engage in discussion with some of my fave humans. Sorry it has taken me two whole months. It’s unacceptable. The shade has been felt and you know my blood runs cold, so I want to return to the sunlight.

You both have shared opinions on so many facets of the INSTITUTION (I mean, let’s just start here because commonplace use of this word to describe what is supposedly a most sacred part of human life is so telling in its utter absurdity and a most important clue as to what a joke marriage in its conception and reality is) it’s challenging to jump in with a well-organized response. But given that no civil institutions in the U.S. were designed or are upheld for me and my peeps, that’s also a clue as to how I feel about it.

I do believe marriage is inherently anti-feminist. From its conception as a sociopolitical tool to its modern significance, it has never been structured to promote gender equity or partner equality, nor is it designed to empower the minority figure in the partnership. Perhaps a relationship within the bounds of marriage can be feminist, but the legal structure that upholds marriage does not allow it to be a feminist construct, particularly in the U.S. Optimism is not in my nature, but I can’t deny the possibility for marriage to become feminist, but as with all such changes, it will be an evolution over who knows how many eons. Personally, I think I desire a long-term partnership (depends on the day and the depth of my feels), but I don’t desire that to exist within a marriage. Basically, give me what Oprah has: a decades-long partnership without the paperwork. And her coins, please!

I think the evolution of what marriage has been and has become for women that you both presented is where we should further dig into our analysis. Marriage is a political tool that is upheld by social and cultural traditions. Jules gave Cleopatra and Marc Antony as an example of the economic benefits of marriage, but it was also a political tool for the Romans. Egyptian money supported the expansion of the Roman empire. And although marriage has evolved into something that we like to think of as largely driven by romance and/or love (not one and the same, and not always correlated in marriage either, as Jules alludes to in her follow up re: platonic marriages), it also remains a political and economic tool that is contracted, and this fact cannot be disentangled from the subordinate status women have in our society. The church and/or government control the terms of these deals, and we know well that neither of those institutions is necessarily for gender equality. And in the US, marriage = family, and the lack of support for working mothers is another affront on equality within marital relationships. The NYT article on millennials wanting stay-at-home wives touched on this briefly with its comparison of child care and paid leave in the US vs. Europe, which have tons of effects on relationships. Contracts are never equal for all parties involved. At least one party is conceding something and often settling for the best they might be able to get given the set of circumstances they’re operating within. In marriage, women often lose more than men, despite the technical benefits of marriage.

But women also lose outside of marriage BECAUSE of marriage. That piece discusses the economic losses of remaining unmarried – institutionalized SINGLISM – and that doesn’t even speak to the psychosocial challenges women bear the brunt of for being unmarried. I remember reading this article when I was living in New York and newly voicing my hatred of men, and I thought we are all damned if we do and even more so damned if we don’t. Our best bets are connection to men, ownership by man. Marriage was originally a private contract between families – in which the woman was given to the man’s family in exchange for whatever perceived and real benefits, “chattel” as Johanna so perfectly cynically phrased it – and then the church and the state became involved, to the point at which licenses, certificates, and witnesses are required to legitimize the union. But the trade of women is still in effect, even if it is not as overt, and this is definitely reflected in the modern sociocultural significance and traditions of the institution.

Thinking about the socio-cultural traditions around marriages, how well wishes around marriage are conveyed demean women. Older generations congratulate(d) men for getting the girl and saying “best wishes” to women, in hopes they have a happy and fulfilling marriage. People literally expressed hope for women to fare their best in their union with a man. When I think back to engagement announcements among friends, folks say things like “you deserve it!” and “I’m so happy for you,” as if this is the pinnacle of life, which it is for some. Folks joke, and are serious, about women going to college to get their “M.R.S.” degree, but you never hear that a man is in school for his “M.R.” because what if we insinuated men have to work for that – it’s their birthright. Officiants finish their duties by sometimes pronouncing “man and wife,” not even always the dual “husband and wife” combo! And then “You may kiss the bride.” It is done unto the woman. When women are single, people sometimes say “she’s on the market.” You rarely hear that about men, rather you hear they’re “on the prowl,” and if you hear that particular phraseology about women, it’s because they’re cougars or desperate or “whores.”

Globally, child marriage is a huge issue whereby 12 million girls under age 18 are married annually, either to another child or often to adult men. You rarely hear about boys being married off to adult women. There are myriad rights violated by this, and its occurrence is recorded on almost every continent.

I’ve been discussing marriage in a very hetero-normative way, which is also reflective of how more more political than romantic marriage is! Same sex marriage is so new to this country, is still being contested, and it had to be approved by the powers that be because (conservative) politics overrides love, supposedly the thing that marriage protects. It’s nonsensical.

In the last few years, there are more single adult women than married adult women in the U.S. for the first time in recorded history. This is significant for so many reasons. I recommended Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation to you all a couple of new years back and I remember it being dismissed a bit, so I’m going to re-recommend it again, if either of you haven’t yet read it. It’s historically and analytically driven, and it does a genuinely good job of being largely inclusive in its narratives. Traister herself is married, but she spoke in interviews about how she perceived marriage as technically beneficial, but what surprised her about it all was falling in love. And this distinction is one that I make and why I question the necessity of marriage FOR LOVE. Because the contracts don’t protect feelings, they protect wealth. Marriage is not necessary for love.

I haven’t yet listened to the podcast episodes Jules linked to (just set a reminder to myself to download them later, the app store is also blocked at work blergh), but I’m curious about how the women resolve those two things, marriage and love. Do they conflate the two? I think most people do, and I think that’s problematic and works against our self-actualization.

Johanna also talked about the psychology of marriage and breaking biases and gendered stereotypes. The first NYT article she linked to about millennials wanting stay-at-home wives quoted a poli sci guy who said “…increased support for male leadership in home life among 18-25 y.o.s may reflect an attempt to compensate for men’s loss of dominance in the work world.” To me, this says that men need to feel some sort of sovereignty, and if they can’t feel that command in traditionally male spaces because women have taken that from them, they will prevail within the home, within a marriage. There is no space for equality. The update to the article was also bananas because it says that women are more a part of the regression towards traditionalism than the original article stated. The misogyny of marriage is that ingrained into ideals our about what is should be.

All that said, we exist within so many anti-feminist institutions and thrive the best we can, so I don’t denounce marriage at all. In fact, I continue to be excited for and choose to celebrate friends and family who announce their engagements to be married. I love the idea of love and the idea of marriage/what it could be. Even though I don’t think most people I know are in actively feminist marriages, I do think most are in loving, thoughtful partnerships to the extent that they know how to be, and that’s somewhat hopeful. In terms not being in a physically or psychologically violent arrangement. Do I wish more of my female friends thought twice before marriage? Yes, but I also cannot fault them for following their hearts. If only I had a functional one to follow.

In my head, we’re all in a long-term relationship.

Love love,

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