Friday, August 25, 2006

Damned if you "I do," Damned if you Don't

The subject of feminists and weddings has come up again recently at Pandagon and the Happy Feminist, specifically the ways in which bridehood is riddled with emotional booby traps.

I can be fairly confident that we avoided the major pitfalls of the whole engagement and wedding process, but there were still a lot of frustrating things that were imposed on me over the course of our engagement. Worst, I think, was the number of comments I got from friends about how I was trapping Andy into a sexless, mirthless union so that I could vampirically harness his reproductive capabilities and suck the life out of him by popping out one baby after another.

Another frustrating attitude was the expectation of my metamorphosis into bridezilla. Me, the kid who would rather sit in the back seat than fight for riding shotgun. Me, the one who wears the same pair of jeans every day until the holes in them become too unsightly and I have to get another pair.

And then there was the talk about divorce, the apparently inevitable infidelity of my partner, and that it really was a lifelong committment.


This, coming from people who have known me for a very long time. This, coming from people who have seen Andy and I together over the entire course of our relationship. I was really shocked - where could it possibly come from? Why would a ring on a finger change me into a manipulative harpy? The weird thing was that I got this you don't know what you're getting yourself into attitude from absolutley everyone. My young, single, cynical friends, and my happily married parents alike. I've never been a dumb person. I've never been a naive optimist. I kept telling people, "You know, I'm doing this on purpose." It's frustrating to see people so deeply programmed with sexist cultural norms that they'll ignore all evidence they've gathered about you over years of friendship in favor of a cliche script they've been subjected to in movies more often than in real life.

It is enough to make you see that no matter your intentions, people are going to interpret your actions with the knowledge they have, which is probably not especially well-schooled with feminist thought. There are those who just won't absorb the information that I kept my own last name, and there are those who are just waiting for the day that I betray my entire personality and do all the things everyone expects married women to do.

Still, I knew that to a certain extent, I should expect this, and I went ahead and got married anyway. As I said before, I did it on purpose. In both the links above, Happy Feminist and Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon discuss the ways in which your square self is going to be jammed into a round hole no matter whether you marry or not.

Why Marcotte takes this to mean that opting out of marriage is the most favorable way of wriggling out of the grip of patriarchal norms, I am not sure. As far as I can tell, it's a wash. And, like Linda Hirshman says in regard to female advancement in the workplace, there's no glass ceiling to hack away at in the laws regarding marriage that are keeping women down. In fact, regarding the true worst-case scenarios of abusive and controlling husbands, there is a definite advantage for a woman who is married to her partner. Short of mandating a 50-50 sharing of housework, there's not a lot that can be done to make marriage more equitable.

The real problem here is our culture. There is nothing inherent in the legal structure of marriage that disadvantages women, and in the cultural context of a couple, there needn't be either. Or, to refer to Hirshman again, "Never Marry A Jerk."

Saying that the culture at large is the problem is usually a cop-out, but fortunately, I think that in the case of modifying marriage, we have a built-in advantage. Marriage, after all, is not simply about two people loving each other. There are lots and lots (and lots) of people who love each other who are not married, and two people who do not love each other do not start to simply because they've signed the right papers. Rather than it being a personal institution, I think of marriage as a public institution. You delare your fidelity and love for your partner not only to that particular person, but you must also have a witness. Your families are legally joined, and your relationship becomes a matter of public record. You wear a wedding band to declare to any viewer that you are married.

Due to this communicative nature of marriage, I think it's an ideal way of making clear to society at large that they can take their prehistoric, misogynistic concept of marriage and shove it. My equitable marriage is on the books, understood to be fact by everyone around me, and there's really nothing that everyone else can do about this. Considering the drastic changes that marriage has undergone in the last 100 years, I think it's impossible to say that it can't be changed to accomodate the needs of women. Indeed, that's the only kind of change that marriage has seen in the last 100 years.

I might also add that remaining unmarried doesn't shelter a woman from a partner's laziness and sexist assumptions, though it does make her relationship and the assets involved a lot more difficult to regulate. It is concievable that I could be accused of making the classic "choice feminism" mistake, and that my opting-in has no effect on the world at large, no matter my enjoyment of it. The difference here is that Hirshman's example - of staying home with the kids instead of trying to wedge your way into the supreme court - has a very obvious power differential. There is power that one is giving up when they stay home. Being married or unmarried, however, are both bad choices - and equally power-neutral - in the eyes of a culture that simply cannot approve of a woman's choices. If women could demand better working conditions from their positions asstay-at-home moms, they could indeed be forging new feminist paths. Married women, however, are most definitely in a position to change the way that marriage works, the way that marriage is seen, and the way that marriage is lived.
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