Tuesday, June 01, 2010


It's one of those topics that I have scribbled in the list on my fridge door. You know, the red-flag-in-front-of-a-bull topics of feminism and the topics which lead to arguments going around in a never-ending circle. Topics which I don't exactly avoid but which I only tackle after a good night's sleep, some extra fruit and veggies and lots of rehearsing in front of the mirror.

Heterosexual marriage belongs on that list because it provokes that whole wide range of extremely firmly held views: "Marriage is patriarchy's name for prisons for women." "Marriage is life-long prostitution." "Egalitarian marriage is possible." "Marriage can't be rehabilitated." "My marriage is feminist!" And so on and on and on.

There are good reasons for the debate. Most of them hide behind the traditional facts and traditional myths associated with that bridal veil:

The utter imbalance of the conventional marriage bargain (he's an employer, she an employee) , the Victorian idea of marriage as the way in which otherwise useless women civilize men and stop them from becoming marauding Visigoths, the fact that marriage for a long time was the easiest way for a woman to eat enough and have a roof over her head, whatever it otherwise implied, and of course the old laws of coverture which made a married woman nonexistent in law except when the law wanted to hang her or put her in prison.

The above paragraph isn't even safely inside the covers of history books. Women in many countries still have to rely on marriage for mere survival and laws sometimes fail to give wives and husbands the same rights. For example, when only men have the right to take several spouses, women's rights are limited to one husband or some fraction of one husband.

None of this implies that marriage was a strawberry patch for all men, either. But ultimately the question for young men of the past was whether they could afford a wife and the children that might mean, whereas young women had to decide whether they could afford NOT to get married.

No wonder that feminists debate the whole societal institution of marriage. You have all this to contend with and then the white veil ads run! The bridal showers must be arranged! The tiara must be purchased, bridesmaids must be lined up and dressed (in awful colors) to be the ladies of the court for the Princess Of The Day!

Then the big day arrives and costs the bridal couple more than a house (or costs the bride's father a house if you go the whole patriarchal hog) and it's lovelovelove and the wedding day is the one day in your life when nobody calls you selfish for wanting all the limelight and you will live happily forever after and a day. While bearing his ring and his last name, natch.

But it is love, indeed. It is. That's the hard combination.

If our various and contradictory societal concepts of marriage were all inside the head of only one person we'd all agree on that person's severe mental imbalance and would promptly have him or her treated. But because the mess is general, almost universal, we regard it as normal. An alien from outer space would certainly have difficulty understanding the princess outfit on adult women, the gigantic wedding party and then the far-too-frequent divorce not that much later.

But that alien might also notice that perhaps we live in the twilight of the traditional marriage, in a time when the old conventions have only recently started looking somewhat odd, given that the truly patriarchal marriage arrangement is fading away. It was, after all, that unbalanced arrangement which made the wedding day what it still resembles today: The last hooray of the woman who on that day stopped existing as a separate individual.

What will the future marriage look like if it exists? I suspect that it will exist, in some form, because human beings want to make longer term bonds with each other. But perhaps it won't be as discriminatory towards gays and lesbians or as oppressive to women (and yes, even to men) as the traditional marriage could be. Perhaps we will differentiate parenting contracts from partnering contracts one day and perhaps the latter will be regarded as renegotiable and not necessarily related to sexuality at all.

And then perhaps pigs will learn to fly, too.