Tuesday, May 01, 2012

It's Not the Attack on Marriage, but the Attack on Patriarchy

I read an article in the Pacific-Standard (used to be Miller-McCune) about the death of marriage. It examines how marriage died not because of those Evil Gay People™ and their Anti-American Gay Agenda™, but because of "growing equality in the workforce, social acceptance of licenseless sex, and the dissolving of the stigma of being either single or gay."

I thought about it, and I think the death of marriage can be narrowed down to a single thing: women's rights. Marriage wasn't necessarily about being moral. Marriage was about inheritance. Women's sexuality has been rigorously controlled since the advent of civilization because the only way to make sure the baby she had was fathered by a specific person was to make sure that he was the only person she had sex with. Female virginity, "purity", was prized because men wanted to make sure they didn't raise someone else's kid and then leave their property to someone else's kid. More importantly, men with positions of power did not want someone else's kid to inherit their position. While this sounds reasonable enough on the surface, it kind of boils down to a single problem. Women did not own property or have positions of their own to leave as an inheritance. They were property, and worse, they were a burden, financially. A man had to take care of his wife in almost all ways. That's the way the system worked.

Marriage was an insititution developed to make sure that women were cared for and that property was correctly distributed to heirs and through dowries. A married woman always had a home, food, water, and other necessities. She may have had to work in various ways, and she definitely had to have children, but marriage was a contract not between man and wife, but between man and wife's family for her care. Marriage was not about "family". Marriage was about economic and political control.

So, along comes Second Wave Feminism and the Sexual Revolution. Women now had jobs that made them self-reliant. En masse, rather than a few with skills to be in one of the "women's" professions such as nanny, maid, or governess. Women no longer had to be married to be taken care of. Add to the mix the birth control pill and its effect of giving women a choice on when and how many children to have, and we have a recipe for the end of marriage. By the time Third Wave Feminism comes along, marriage is suddenly a choice to be made without much social pressure. And it is suddenly. Between the early 80s and the early 90s, marriage lost most of its moral cachet. She doesn't have to be married to have kids. She doesn't have to be married to be socially acceptable. She doesn't have to be married to designate an inheritor. She doesn't have to be married to have an enriching, successful life. So, why should she get married? Why should he get married if they can cohabit? The pressure for both men and women to marry in order to reproduced is gone. There is no real moral purpose for the institution. With a civil process that regulates the economics of child rearing, regulates co-parenting of separated people, and regulates inheritance and legal identity, what purpose does marriage serve? Bastard is no longer a social problem. It's reduced to nothing more than a naughty word people shouldn't say. It has no real meaning.

Marriage isn't on the ropes because gay people want the same rights that straight people have. Marriage is on the ropes because the reasons for its existence no longer apply. The patriarchy is diminishing. Yeah, it's the institution that's been the foundation of our society for millenia, but I have to question the ethics of that foundation. It's wrong to control a person's sexuality, devalue them, and consider them property because of their role in procreation. Traditional marriage is the institution that maintains this kind of oppression. The patriarchal system requires marriage. The egalitarian system our society is hammering out does not. What does that turn marriage into? A choice, not a necessicity. People marry for personal reasons, love, lust, their religious beliefs. They don't marry because they have to, but because they want to.

I think, instead, that marriage must be redefined. Contemporary marriage is an institution that's about people voluntarily committing to each other for personal reasons, not social ones. Contemporary marriage isn't about making an "honest woman" or "honest man" of someone. It's not about making sure children aren't bastards, or that women have homes, or that who inherits what is clear. It's about personal committment between two people. The erosion of the traditional marriage value system has nothing to do with gay people and everything to do with an old social system that's no longer acceptable. Maintaining a traditional marriage system and the traditional marriage morality isn't upholding the foundation of our society, it's a direct attack on not only women, but on the premise that all people are equal. Marriage that's a voluntary union between two consenting adults reaffirms our basic values of a loving nuclear family rather than an economic grouping, personal freedom, and equality for all. That means that people marry because they choose to, not because it's a requirement in order to have children, or because it's that magic ceremony to mark a person's passage into responsible adulthood, or because people are "bad" because they aren't married, or because the husband must husband his family, or because it's the only way for half of the population to sustain themselves.

Traditional marriage is dead. Long live contemporary marriage.