Let me take you through the bumpy road that is the topic of marriage…
It does not take much investigation to conclude that marriage is an institution deeply rooted in patriarchal norms and heteronormativity. Historically, marriage has been an important site of women’s oppression. This was recognised as early as 1869 by the liberal John Stuart Mill, who uttered the now-famous words: “The wife is the actual bondservant of her husband: no less so, as far as legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so-called”. In the same vein, a couple of years ago, a 1918 suffragette pamphlet on marriage advice became internet viral as it wittily declared to women: “Do not marry at all”.
However, we do not need to go as far as 1869 or 1918 to witness legal abuse within marriages. Under the Francoist regime in Spain, until 1975, women were forbidden to travel, apply for a passport, open a bank account, or sign a contract, without the permission of their fathers or husbands. Additionally, wives needed written consent from their husbands to hold a job outside of their homes. These laws were part of the government’s advocacy of “the perfect housewife” and the “angel of the home”, which aimed to reaffirm women’s subordinate role within the family and society.
Fortunately, much has changed, however, marriage continues to be a problematic institution. For starters, marriage tends to reinforce the gendered division of labour. Women are most likely to take over domestic and caring duties, while men are expected to “bring home the bacon”. Weddings are also replete with sexist imagery. For example, the father “gives away” the bride, handing her over to her new patriarchal carer, her husband. Moreover, in many cultures, marriages include the surrender of the wife’s birth name in favour of her husband’s name. Hence, making it clear to whom she belongs.
Today, marriage and partnership continue to be advertised to women as the only possibility of happiness and bliss. Women are pressured to perceive single life as a temporary phase that precedes marriage. Marriage being the ultimate goal. Women that do not reach this goal are seen as desperate, incomplete, lacking, and ultimately, unhappy. This belief is heavily impregnated in pop culture. It is impossible to watch a Rom-Com without being bombarded with the message that a successful life is a married life. I myself was recently reminded of this as I tried to enjoy the iconic “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. The opening line to the movie being: “You better get married soon. You’re starting to look old!”.
Thus, although much has changed since the early 1900’s, and most historical legal oppressions have been reformed, marriage continues to dictate and subject women in a myriad of ways. Painfully, this translates into women being raised to be desirable and attractive for marriage, constraining their options and desires.
Now, we cannot discuss marriage without commenting on one of its most notorious features, the privileging of heterosexuality. The struggle over same-sex marriage is a civil-rights battle that continues to be fought in many places around the world. Although marriage equality is today a reality in most Global North countries, symbolically marriage continues to be extremely heteronormative. Why don’t we prove it through an exercise? Close your eyes and picture a marriage, what do you see? It is likely that we all see the same thing, a beautiful middle-class heterosexual couple, with beautiful healthy children, in a beautiful house, maybe with a golden retriever running around. This impression is replete with normative imagery, one of them being heteronormativity.
You might ask yourself; if marriage is such a problematic institution, grounded in heteronormativity and patriarchal norms, why would the queer community want to be a part of it? Well, marriage offers many customary and legal advantages to couples, including tax benefits, rights to pensions, health insurance and inheritance. Furthermore, marriage continues to be considered the embodiment of love and the natural fairy tale ending to a deep and true relationship. Also, the negation of the right to marriage is ultimately the negation of a fundamental civil right on account of a person’s sexuality.
However, the question of whether the queer community should want to be a part of the institution of marriage is today a divisive question within queer groups. Many argue that marriage would constrain and invisibilise queerness, essentially leading to heteronormative assimilation. Refusing marriage would undermine its hegemony and the traditional gender norms that prevail within. Marriage as it stands today also excludes certain queer relationships, such as non-monogamous relationships. Nonetheless, one could also argue that joining the institution of marriage could essentially transform it from within and ultimately queer marriage.
Marriage is a difficult topic to tackle. Personally, as a queer individual I understand marriage as a fundamentally flawed institution, however, presently, my desire to marry one day prevails. However, I cannot help but ask myself the following questions: Is there such a thing as a feminist marriage? Should we aim to move towards the abolition of marriage? Should we aim to enter normativity or commit to disrupt the system? My answers to these questions change frequently, how about you, what do you think?