Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Marriage as a Feminist Institution

Feministe's great new blogger piny has a post on marriage, its sexist baggage, and what it should mean to gay marriage advocates. He gives a summary of the argument against gay marriage that lies within a larger argument against marriage itself (also see this conversation at Alas, a blog).
That argument goes like this: Marriage is not an institution worth supporting. It has its roots in a deeply sexist tradition that made women property and men property-holders. Even if marriage has managed, or can manage, to supercede historical and current sexism, privileging marriage and even couplehood over other intimate human relationships is bigotry. When queers opt into marriage, they opt into all the poisonous baggage that goes with it.
I've always had problems with the idea that marriage is not a good institution. Before I go any further, though, I should mention that I am myself married, so I am significantly invested in my pro-marriage sentiments. Some of them are just warm and fuzzy - I like having public recognition of my relationship with my husband, and I like the way being married joins our families - but there are good, logical, and female-friendly reasons to get married, too.

What I am talking about here is the way that legal marriage protects spouses upon the dissolution of the relationship. I'll let Max Lewis explain the advantage to keeping legal tabs on a romantic relationship.
In a stereotypical, old-fashioned relationship where the man has gone to work and put all the money into the mortgage and the woman has looked after the home and the children, she will have no legally binding financial interest in the home and may, sadly, suffer if the relationship ends and she leaves to live elsewhere.
This sounds like a potential problem for any cohabiting couple that shares property, so imagine what the stakes are in a domestically abusive or controlling relationship. Imagine for instance that a woman is kept at home to care for children or the home, while her boyfriend is the only wage-earner in the home. If the relationship is an abusive one and she decides to make a break for it, she has no legal claim to any of the assets that were being shared by the couple. It's hard enough to get out of a controlling or abusive relationship as it is, but it becomes doubly so when you'd be leaving behind all your assets and possessions. Were the couple married, contributions to the household that aren't strictly monetary could be considered and the division of assets would be arbitrated.

Not only is this an argument for marriage, it's also a good argument for common law marriage. Common law marriage would extend these financial protections to a couple whether or not they married. This would be as useful a formality for straight couples as it would be for same-sex ones. And, far from being a tool used to oppress women, marriage is in this instance used to protect both parties.

Further on why it irks me to see people drag out the old "marriage is a tool of the patriarchy" argument is because it isn't, all the time. Marriage can be equitable, as long as the law doesn't consider the wife to be one of the assets possessed by the "union." I know that marriage has for most of history been an excuse to treat women like chattel, but marriage has changed quite a lot over time. There are so many modern, equitable marriages out there that it is absurd to accuse all married couples of perpetuating patriarchy. Marriage may have been a tool of the patriarchy (and may often still be), but it's the way that marriage is used by a patriarchal society that is the problem. The generic form of the institution - the joining of a couple legally and socially - does not require any oppression whatsoever. Patriarchs breathe air, drink water, and drive cars, but that doesn't mean we need to give those things up, either. We just need to stop allowing them to be used to perpetuate patriarchy.

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