Magazine article The American Prospect

Reconcilable Differences: What It Would Take for Marriage and Feminism to Say "I Do". (Cover Story)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Reconcilable Differences: What It Would Take for Marriage and Feminism to Say "I Do". (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

In the true marriage relation the independence of the husband and wife is equal, their dependence mutual and their obligations reciprocal.

--LUCRETIA MOTT (1793-1880)

FEMINISTS HAVE LONG BEEN QUEASY ABOUT MARRIAGE, but our queasiness is not about marriage per se; it concerns the way marriage has been practiced. The religious right paints feminists as opposed to marriage and all that goes with it: heterosexuality, men, family, love, caring, and children. Campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly flatly warned that "feminists hate men, marriage, and children." Twenty years later, Pat Robertson advised would-be supporters in a fund-raising letter: "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children ... and become lesbians."

Clearly, the right misrepresents feminists' struggle with marriage, but many moderates and even some progressives have misunderstood feminist concerns. What have American feminists really said about marriage? During the first wave of the American women's movement, which intensified during the 1840s and culminated with the achievement of suffrage in 1920, feminists battled for egalitarian marriage as passionately as they fought for voting rights. In 1848--in the Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the First Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York--Mary Ann McClintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote:

   The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on
   the part of man toward woman.... He has made her, if married, in the eye of
   the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her all right in property, even to
   the wages she earns.... In the covenant of marriage, ... the law gives him
   power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer chastisement.

For the most part, nineteenth-century feminists did not oppose marriage itself. Rather, they fought tirelessly for the legal rights of wives, gradually winning statutory reforms that granted married women property rights.

A second wave of American feminism emerged in the 1960s, catalyzed in part by Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which sparked a nationwide soul-search about the emptiness of housewifery. "It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning," Friedan wrote. "As [each suburban housewife] made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slip cover materials, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies ... she was afraid to ask of herself the silent question--`Is this all?'" Friedan's book pulled countless wives into the women's movement and dovetailed with activist efforts aimed at breaking down employment barriers.

While the legal constraints that galvanized their predecessors a century earlier were mostly gone, the new women's liberationists found that marriage, de facto, still served many women poorly, especially in conjunction with motherhood. Sexual divisions of labor, locked in by the social norms of marriage, yielded gender inequality both in the labor market and the home, saddling women with the lion's share of housework. Those divisions of labor institutionalized wives' economic dependence on their husbands; in the worst scenarios, that dependence placed women in outright danger. Furthermore, feminists argued, the centrality of marriage in the dreams and expectations of girls and young women crowded out long-term aspirations for education, employment, and civic and political engagement.

Those were the central feminist concerns about marriage nearly four decades ago, and they are still the central feminist concerns today. Pegging feminists as coldhearted haters of heterosexuality, love, care, and commitment has always been a bum rap. Were marriages between women and men to become truly egalitarian--especially in economic terms--most contemporary feminists would rejoice. …

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