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.