Marriage, Part One

Full disclosure: I’m writing an anti-marriage essay. I’ve been happily, sappily married for 10 years. Hey, we all have demons.

Feminism has achieved significant improvements for women in marriage*. It’s no longer legal to batter your wife, and in many places, it’s illegal to rape her. Women have property rights and can get divorced. Despite these important gains, marriage has not changed in its destructive impact on women.

What is the purpose of marriage? In spite of advertising’s message, it isn’t romantic love. The purpose of marriage is to raise children. The state and society believe this goal is reached best by maintaining traditional gender roles. That is, men are human and do things, women are caretakers of their husbands and children. Sure, women can work, have friends, and even have (suitably feminine) hobbies, but their true function is serving others. Gender roles are enforced from birth (prenatally if the sex of the baby is known), and marriage is the formal implementation of those roles. In other words, a woman cannot escape her assigned function.

Let’s look at a really basic example. The huge wedding industry targets women, not men. As if it was still 1950, marriage is considered a prize for a woman and a trap for a man. Therefore, women have to cajole/lure/trap men into marriage. Women are willing to do this because marriage is their ultimate reward in life. Well, babies are their ultimate reward, but there’s still strong societal pressure to be married when having children.** Given the facts of marriage-what women and men gain and lose from marriage-it seems clear that men are the winners. After marriage, both women and men give up variety in their sex partners, women get financial help from their spouse, men get financial help their spouse, and someone to look after their every need, as well as raise their children. But society, reflected in advertisers, sees women as the big winners:

The fact that marriage, as a smaller model of society, offers nothing but a trap for women is demonstrated by the bride-to-be’s choice in names. Before getting married, women must choose whether to keep their last name, take their husband’s name, or hyphenate the names. Many women think taking your husband’s last name is decidedly anti-feminist. Now, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, but I’m afraid I’m going to. The choice available to women over names is a false choice.

Taking your husband’s name is seen by many feminists as losing your identity and becoming an appendage of your husband. Fair enough. But keeping your “maiden” name is not maintaining your individual identity, it’s retaining the name you inherited from your father only, remember? It’s a typical patriarchal issue: you can’t win either way. One might argue that a man could change his last name to his wife’s last name as a gesture to marital equality. Silly one, the state is far ahead of you in keeping control.

The enforcement of gender roles is one of marriage’s most harmful consequences. The same problems-living mindlessly according to assigned gender roles-can and do occur in couples who are living together, but at least cohabiting involves some flexible thinking: “I’m not going to get married just because everyone expects me to.” Getting married means, on many levels, buying into sex roles established long ago: boys do things, and girls take care of everyone. Marriage is an antiquated institution that promotes, supports, and enforces gender roles. As such, it must die a terrible death.

Coming soon: Part 2 The larger implications of marriage

* My focus is on heterosexual marriage in the U.S.
** Ask any single mother how she’s treated if you need proof.


24 responses to “Marriage, Part One

  1. Okay, playing devil’s advocate here:

    “The purpose of marriage is to raise children. “

    Are you taking a historical approach in your analysis?

    I take it you are, because the ways that people are reshaping marriage counter the established (conservative) marriage model.

    Also: re: the false choice. Yes, it may be a false choice, however, there is a significant difference from the point of view of the woman getting married: she has a history with her surname. Presumeably it means something to her because it’s always been a part of her identity.

    Theoretically, while her name supports a patriarchal custom, not giving it up upon marriage subverts this custom. It’s a significant and (sadly) radical step.

    I’m seeing a theme here — the gap between theory and practice. My other question to you would be: how far do you think women can go undermining and subverting the institution of marriage? I think there are a number of ways women can resist and redefine it, but I’d like to hear your ideas.

    I relished this essay, btw. Look forward to the second one.

  2. Melinda-I actually believe that as a society, we view the major purpose of marriage is childrearing. The way most people live, marriage and childbearing are the default for people, rather than being a carefully-chosen option.

    You’re right to consider a woman’s life spent with her family name. I was trying to get at how the bigger picture (patriarchy) is so invisible, and feels so normal that we don’t realize how it affects us. Keeping one’s maiden name can be a feminist gesture, but in the larger context (imo), it isn’t.

    I’m conflicted about how far women can go in undermining and subverting marriage. It’s something I try to do in my own marriage. I only got married based on the commitment that it would be a very “different” marriage. Certainly there are lots of women who are trying to do the same thing, and women who are avoiding marriage altogether. But considering how mainstream society operates, and the pressures on women to conform, I wonder how much of an impact individuals can have. That is-can individual women fight the trends and re-make marriage? As long as radical women operate on the fringe, I don’t see how that will happen-unless you’re willing to wait several generations. 😉 That’s why I was advocating killing marriage dead!

  3. wow. we must have been drinking the same koolaid today coz i’ve been working on a marriage post too. mine is a bit less “tempered” lets say, but much in line with what you’ve said.

    basically i’m all agged out about how people MINDFULLY resist and resist and resist marriage and then turn around and get married because “their clock is ticking” and then everyone turns around and congratulates them on how great and selfless and brave they are. i’m sorry, but how is conforming to societal expectations “brave” or “selfless”. i’m speaking of people i’ve known in my life, nit you, when i say that i think it’s neither brave nor selfless, but chickenshit and hypocritical.

    EVERYBODY does it! that means it’s NOT a bold or rebellious move. and from what i’ve seen from my friends and aquaintances, gender roles are STRICTLY enforced and adhered to once the ring goes on, even when the women previously claimed to be feminist. as soon as the wedding bells ring they’re all down with the patriarchy and it burns me up!

    can you see i’m a little worked up about it? 🙂 i’m glad you’re around to keep things calm while i get all red in the face and hoarse from shouting. hee hee.

    xoxo, jared

  4. Hmm. I’m with Melinda about subversion.

    Personally, I do think there is or may be something useful in having certain legal protection for those people who wish to be a family (perhaps this should be expanded outside coupledom, I don’t know).

    However, I think it is a really important point worth making that it takes both men and women to subvert what this contract means.,

    You’re really in this together and especially given that the men are the big winners, women just aren’t in the position to do the subverting by themselves – not without destroying the very thing they are trying to change.

    If that makes any sense. I guess I’m saying that on the one hand, I like to believe subversion is possible – I like to believe I am doing it myself, with my own beloved oddball. But at the same time, I acknowledge that my beloved is an oddball and most men, even men who loved me very much, would not join me in this particular mission. They’d have too much to lose.

  5. ms. jared-I’m looking forward to your post! And what gets me about gender roles and marriage is, just as you said, that women go along with those strict gender roles even though they fought hard against them before marriage.

    The Goldfish-
    Personally, I do think there is or may be something useful in having certain legal protection for those people who wish to be a family (perhaps this should be expanded outside coupledom, I don’t know).

    I’m working on a post, it might end up being in part 2 on marriage, but I think we need complete legal protections as individuals. Things that flow from relationships, say-who gets to make medical decisions for you, beneficiaries, etc. are thing I think that should be available to everyone, not based in marriage. For religious purposes-that’s a whole different ball of worms, and would be determined by each religion. I wonder if you’re thinking of things that would be specific to marriage?

    It sure would be easier and go a lot faster if men were as invested in fighting sexism as women were. Your last paragraph rings completely true to me, and I’m going to borrow your phrase and refer to “my beloved oddball”! 😀

  6. Oh, great! The suspense is over, at least partially! And what a reward! You are hard-core, girlfriend.

    I think you are so right about the marriage and kids thing. As one piece of evidence, I think of how many married women I know who got pregnant unexpectedly, when they were involved in some completely other life endeavor–in school, or what have you. And the response is kind of to shrug and say, oh well, bye bye my life goals, I guess I have to have the kid because I’m MARRIED. It’s like that much-vaunted “reproductive choice” flies out the window because they ate some cake.

    This isn’t exactly hard evidence, because perhaps there are married women who have abortions to finish their PhDs or whatever (or just because they don’t want kids–SHOCKING!), and they just don’t tell anyone–but again, that’s relevant, because, you know, they don’t tell because it would be SHAMEFUL, because they’re MARRIED. How SELFISH.


  7. I agree about legal protection; the ability to determine one’s own next of kin, whether they are an unmarried lover or your best friend or a family member who is not automatically considered (a sibling, aunt or uncle as opposed to a parent). I know some single people who are entirely estranged from their families, and yet it is their families who get automatic rights in the event of decisions having to be made, and in the absence of a written will stating otherwise, they inherit everything.

    Frankly, that was my chief reason for marrying; so that it is his finger on the button, that he is my next of kin. Not that I don’t get on with my folks, they’re just not nearly so close as he is.

    However, it gets far more complicated when you bring serious property and children (who historically, have had a status not far removed from property) into the equation.

    Marriage is a legal contract, which legally obliges both parties to behave in a certain way. There are sexual things; adultery is a breech of contract, for which one may be sued for divorce. But in the event of divorce, the law says, “We’ll help you to sort this out so that it is fair.”

    If you live together with an unmarried partner, then you both have the potential to screw one another over pretty badly without legal recourse. For example, one partner can support the other through education or some other enterprise which creates a massive income, only for the wealthy partner to walk away and reap all the benefits for themselves. A married couple are legally regarded as a team, as partners in a contract – which does have real effects.

    UK law is also deeply unfair to men when it comes to children, as (last time I looked) a father unmarried to a mother has no automatic rights to have any access to those children – and yet does have financial obligations of support. I have known unmarried parents where fathers have had to legally adopt their own children. Mind you, that’s not an argument for marriage, rather an argument against ridiculous laws…

    Looking forward to the next installment. 🙂

  8. I know the name-changing is not really a choice in the grand scheme of things (that grand scheme being patriarchy – and what a scheme it is!), but what bugs me most is when a woman keeps her (father’s) name when she marries, only for the children to take her husband’s. What’s the point of that? I say give your children a brand new surname all of their own. Cos you can you know.

  9. Yeah, jo22, or the whole family can pick a new name together. I have heard of couples doing that. I changed my surname legally when I was 21, without any reference to marriage–because I wanted my OWN name. Of course all names probably originated with men, somewhere sometime, but there is something powerful about choosing how you want to be known to others in that way. It made me consider myself and what I wanted for my life in a way I wouldn’t have if I had just carried on with my dad’s name without thinking about it.

    Goldfish, no offense, but I think your view of the legal system is fairly rose-colored! Feminists have well documented in the US that divorce leaves women, and children, MUCH poorer than men. The INTENT of legal protections may be to make things fair, but that has not been the effect. I would hazard a guess that a woman who cohabits, remains unmarried and keeps her assets separate (which is extremely difficult to do in a culture where most of us have been brainwashed on “’til death do us part” and not to be “selfish” etc. etc. , myself included in the past) will survive the end of a relationship better financially than a woman who has merged her income with her husband’s, stayed home to raise their kids, etc. etc. and trusts the court to give her a fair settlement. Sexism, you know.

  10. Amy-Oh, I can hardly talk about that-a woman becomes pregnant and instantly everything she’s worked for and wants is irrelevant. ???

    Goldfish-Hmm, we had similar motivations for getting married. Amy said what I would have said-in the US at least, the law is horrible for women. I think Melinda mentioned the difference between theory and practice-and that’s definitely true in marital law here. Maybe it’s different in the UK-it’s like we’re 2 separate countries! 🙂

    Jo22-Exactly! There needs to be a smiley for “hit it right on the nose” (maybe there is). But why do that-have all your children take their father’s name? It negates everything. I’ve heard explanations for doing that which include wanting the kids to know who their father is. Aren’t there more important ways to do that?

    Amy-I didn’t know you’d picked a new surname-that’s so great! I just thought you’d lucked into a neat name. Choosing a name would be empowering, and now I’m wishing I’d done that.

  11. Ideally, marriage is a partnership, 2 people sharing the responsibilities of a household, and (possibly) of raising children. It’s not one person over another, or one person with all the responsibility and another with all the fun.
    Romantic love lasts…what…3 years? Then the work begins, and the people in the marriage can either chose to do the work of the relationship, or stay pissed with each other all the time.

    “Marriage is an antiquated institution that promotes, supports, and enforces gender roles.”
    It’s only that if both people allow it to be.
    I am, as a housewife, in a very decisive gender role, but I’m here because I want to be. My husband provides so I can be what I chose. If I chose to be the income earner, he’d take over as the househusband. He’s done it before, I have no doubt he’d do it again.
    It’s a partnership, each of us with our defined (by our choosing) roles, and getting married has just made that partnership official in the eyes of the government and the church. I don’t want it any other way.

  12. Rootie-Agreed that the couple can work to make things very, very different in their marriage from what I’ve described. It’s what we work at in my marriage, too. But society still grooms little girls (but not boys) to be the carer, and little boys (but not girls) to be the doer.

    So I’m not arguing that marriage *must* be like this, only that it usually is. With pressure from society, pressure from constant bombardment of advertising, and pressure from family and friends, I think the majority of couples just slide into those roles, and once you’re in that role, it’s easy not to question it.

    Since you and your husband have swapped places, you’ve doubtless discussed all of this. My problem is that so many people don’t discuss it, they just conform.

  13. Didn’t mean to suggest that divorce is great for women – exactly the same applies over here. However, women – especially mothers with young children – are, on average, far better off if they had their children, or let their career take a backseat to support a partner, within marriage. In the event of break-up, the law then considers the contribution a woman has made to the team when dividing assets. Whether or not it does that fairly, is kind of another issue.

    Of course, we have to look at why this is the case and the role women play in partnerships generally rather than simply concluding that women ought to marry. But the protection is real; it is certainly not some Grand Prize, but it is better than no legal recognition whatsoever.

    Melinda suggests remaining financially indepedant, but there are practical issues about that as well as emotional ones. People wish to support one another, to help and protect one another, far beyond tacky sentamentalism and wife-as-mother-substitute gender roles. But when it comes to raising children particular, it is still often the case that it is exponentially easier for one party to stay home while the other brings in the money.

    Again, I’m not arguing for marriage as an institution with all it’s baggage, but I do think that two people who decide to live their lives as a team and make such a great investment in one another, should have legal protection just like a partnership in business.

    As I wrote about my own marriage, I’d be quite happy for it not to be called marriage at all.

  14. SE- We haven’t swapped places- I’m the housewife, he’s the provider, but it’s by choice, not by conformity. I wasn’t raised to be June Cleaver, nor was he raised to be Ward. I understand your point about gender roles and such, but I don’t the the abolition of marriage is the cure.

  15. Thought provoking post SE. I have a few notions born out of my own personal experiences and there are a couple of things that stick in my craw. Firstly – the terms ‘man and wife’ I mean what does that terminology reflect? the innate inequality of the marriage situation, for the wife has lost her identity as a woman. Or something? In addition, the ‘broken family’ that was coined to describe the family structure that resulted from divorce irritates the shit out of me. However, I would argue that this term is inappropriate as divorce does not break a family, but simply changes its form.
    To suggest that belonging to a nuclear family is the only real way in which human beings can find fulfilment, and then to compare every other kind of family with that, seems to us to be unhelpful.
    Yes lots of couples can and do make it work, it’s just not for me again.

    Not much more to say except my divorce should be through soon YAY!

  16. I’ve been thinking about this too, for a long time. It seems to me that the function of marriage (for society) is to bind a woman and a man together as an “economic unit”, then, if children come into the picture it will usually be the person who makes less money who takes on the unpaid work in the relationship. Since women generally make less money than men, women get stuck with the drudge work. This setup nicely reinforces the idea that what is traditionally considered “women’s work” shouldn’t command a decent salary, because, after all, it’s what we just do “naturally.” Bah!

    Another reason my partner and I haven’t gotten married is that I think it’s crap that the government allows this contract to be only between one man/one woman. Heterosexual privilege? Seems like special rights to me. Like Mr. Beansa says: “I’m not joining the all-straight country club.”

    On the positive side, I’ve noticed quite a lot of my “married” friends are not really married at all. They had a ceremony, maybe a party, perhaps exchanged some jewelry but never filed any paperwork. These seem to be the happiest and strongest relationships. Go figure.

  17. Hmmm, I may be naive but I really believe you can make a marriage what you want it to be, reject all the stereoytpes and pressures, and just have it as a statement of your love, commitment and equality. The roots of marriage are horrible : women as property etc etc, but I think the basic idea of uniting two people is a good thing, as long as – as you point out, SE – they don’t fall into or are pressurized into restrictive gender roles. Having said that, it makes me shudder to think of being referred to as someone’s ‘wife’. Yuck. Partner, please.

  18. Thanks for a very interesting and thought provoking post. I think you are quite right in general, but if marriages work out the ways described in your post, I think something has already gone wrong with both partners’ education earlier on. There is a growing number of couples, which do not fit into that idea of marriage any more. I got married at the age of 33, when most couples already have got children. We still do not have any. My husband was willing to take over my name as well, so it wasn’t just me to take that decision. We ended up writing both our names on little papers, put them into a mug and threw a dice in order to decide who was the one to pick our name. It was me and I picked his name. I think the advantage of getting married is that splitting up isn’t that easy any more. I feel that both of us are more committed to put some work into our relationship. That does not mean, however I am totally against getting divorced. In Germany, by the way, a man getting divorced is usually left with money slightly above the minimum to exist, especially if the couple has children staying with their mum. But as not every man is rich that does not mean every divorced women with kids is well off.

  19. Great post. Economic unit, yes, but children are a key part of that. Looking forward to the next installment, too!

  20. “I changed my surname legally when I was 21, without any reference to marriage–because I wanted my OWN name. ”

    I really want to change my name, for the reason you state, but I can’t for the life of me think of a good name to go with…. any suggestions of where to look for meaningful feminist surnames?

  21. I’m sorry-didn’t mean to disappear.

    Goldfish-If you mean protections for each person within the marriage, then I agree with you. But I hate protections available to marrieds that aren’t available to a single person (health insurance, for instance.)

    Rootie-We’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Sparkle-That “man and wife” thing has always chapped my fanny. At least it’s honest in the inequality. I think we’re on the same wavelength, in the next post, I’m going to talk about how the nuclear family ruins everything. (gulp)

    Congratulations on the divorce! 😀

    beansa-I really like that-a couple as an “economic unit”, especially when you add kids in. It gets at how families are viewed on a really basic level.

    Laura-I agree that you can make marriage what you want it to be, and that’s a lot healthier. But when you look on a societal level, it’s still very depressing.

    bloggingmone-I really like how you and your husband decided the name thing. And I absolutely agree with the fact that if people slip into gender roles in marriage, then something went wrong long before for them!

    You know, marriage, in a different form than what’s currently practice by most, could have a place in a free and equal society. But then, once society changed that much, you’d hope that marriage would too.

    profacero-Welcome! Funny you mentioned kids, did you notice I very carefully stayed away from that subject? 🙂

    Dodo-I don’t know if Amy will see your comment or not. If you wanted a feminist surname, looking up the history of feminism would be good. Otherwise, it seems anything under (and including) the sun would be fair game.

  22. Wow, great post! I agree really, I have actually discussed the name thing with my partner because if he should ever ask me to get married, I would actually like to keep my name because like Melinda says, my name does still belong to me despite being my father’s surname.

    He doesn’t agree – thinks we should be double barrelled, but I kind of think…why should I give up part of MY identity just for the sake of a piece of paper? It’s not like he will – he has the most to gain really. Men have the most to gain from marriage, not women.

    I really kind of feel that marriage is outdated and you don’t need marriage to life together and share your lives. I much prefer the idea of cohabiting rather than sounds formal and I can’t be arsed to wear a white dress or entertain people I only know vaguely, because I HATE white and only have one white thing in my wardrobe, and get very nervous and shy around people, even extended family.

    Which is not really the point but does kind of add to why I don’t like the idea of marriage! It harks back to the old days when men owned women and women were passed from father to husband. I loathe the idea of being ‘given away’ like I’m a piece of property.

  23. Just a quick point: Not everyone has their father’s surname. Many of my family members (including my maternal grandfather and most of my cousins) inherited their mother’s names at birth ’cause they were born outside marriage. Many times these names carried over for two or more generations.

    In many Native American communities, names are inherited matrilineally within marriage. At least that’s true for Native communities in the Southeastern US.

  24. You’re right that marriage is about creating patriarchal conformist conditions which encourage having children – but a lot of people get married and don’t end up having kids. I think one of marriage’s primary functions is to institutionalize and enforce monogamy as a social norm, sustaining the myth that only monogamous relationships are stable and moral ones, despite the fact that polyamorous relationships are almost always more flexible and compassionate, less patriarchal, as well as non-possessive. I see very little little contemplation and resistance to monogamy among radical activists and I don’t understand that.

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