Marriage is indeed a sexist institution operating for the benefit of males that must be rejected by the heterosexual women who have the opportunity to do so.
The central feature of the historical significance of marriage has been the sharp disparity in power relations between spouses. The woman has historically been a practical commodity in the man's life plan and her interests have consistently been subordinated to those of her husband. Yet one of the central arguments in support of marriage is this very notion of the historical significance of marriage in society.
Our wedding ceremonies today reflect the omnipresence of sexist traditions. Veils worn by brides are a central feature of the bridal gown and are often removed only once the bride is legally bound to a male (her husband) or once the father hands her over to her new male guardian.
The presence of the father is another significant holdover in wedding ceremonies. The father is still said to "give away" his daughter and often stands between the bride and groom for a significant portion of the ceremony until he verbally expresses his desire to give his daughter to her husband as though she were a commodity to be given.
Note also the practice of changing the last name of the wife to that of her new husband's. Her identity is dissolved into his just as her dowry became his in the Middle Ages. There are tens of other examples of the pervasiveness of sexism in wedding ceremonies and marriage, illustrating the lasting impact of tradition upon present day marriages.
The next question to be asked is why women would choose to marry. The most popular answer is probably that the individuals love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives with each other. Couples often feel that marriage is the only way to express this high level of commitment to each other.
But this is hardly true. If two people want to live together or stay with each other for the rest of their lives, there certainly is no need to have legal permission to do so. The couple may simply make that decision between themselves. And the desire to express commitment to one another in a public setting can be done through countless ways other than an official wedding ceremony. Marriage is simply the traditional way to do so.
Perhaps the runner-up justifications for marriage would be financial and social reasons. As Claudia Card discusses, "employers and others (such as units of government) often make available only to legally married couples benefits that anyone could be presumed to want, married or not, such as affordable health and dental insurance, the right to live in attractive residential areas, visitation rights in relation to significant others, and so forth."
Certainly the desire to have affordable health insurance is understandable and the practice of giving that insurance only to individuals who choose to participate in state-regulated, heterosexual, intimate relationships is discriminatory in nature. In addition, couples who "choose" to marry for this reason are hardly choosing at all. Finances have coerced them into a significant and legally binding life decision.
Social pressure to marry is intense, but not sufficient to justify participation in marriage. Only several years ago, marriages between individuals of different races were considered wrong for these same reasons. The relationship was often socially awkward and the parents worried about the social effects on multiracial children within predominantly single-race schools.
But today, children of mixed descent are the fastest growing population in the United States. The taboo is fading fast. I would like to think the same holds true for marriage. But regardless of the changing nature of social mores, social pressure to legally commit your life to another individual within the confines of a sexist institution is a pressure nowhere near sufficient to justify that decision.
Personal Responsibility in Social Reform
Women who have healthy, equal relationships with their male partners are the very individuals who shoulder the heaviest burden for rejecting the necessity of marriage. It is these women who must recognize their role in perpetuating a sexist institution by the passive acceptance of its norms and history.
Individual women in a very real way have much to gain from the abolition of state regulated intimacy and the first step to that very important gain in sexual equality is refusing to participate in an institution that continues to maintain the opposite.
Jenny Stepp is a junior political science major whose new progressive magazine, Boiling Point, will be coming out next month. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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