Mary Wollstonecraft, a founding grandmother of liberal feminism who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), focused on how to improve the status of women (middle-class, white British women, that is) by revising education and transforming marriage. She writes of love,
Love, the common passion, in which chance and sensation take place of choice and reason, is, in some degree, felt by the mass of mankind; for it is not necessary to speak, at present, of the emotions that rise above or sink below love. This passion, naturally increased by suspense and difficulties, draws the mind out of its accustomed state, and exalts the affections; but the security of marriage, allowing the fever of love to subside, a healthy temperature is thought insipid, only by those who have not sufficient intellect to substitute the calm tenderness of friendship, the confidence of respect, instead of blind admiration, and the sensual emotions of fondness.
Down with romance, says Wollstonecraft. To liberate women and men, marriage should be stripped of passion. She argued, in effect, that doing so would offset the way that marriage starts as a cartoon of manly men adoring delicate women of great beauty and not much more (because of the limits of women’s education that Wollstonecraft deplored). To wit, the hero of her unfinished novel, Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman, is remembered above all for her line, “marriage has bastilled me for life.” (Bastille being the 1790s equivalent of Occupy today.)
Now to my story: Today in the New York Times, Matt Richtel develops his thought experiment for how to liberate marriage from that bastille experience. He proposes to a set of family researchers the notion of a 20-year marriage contract in “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part.”
Seems like everyone he interviewed thought marriage—and ideas about marriage—could use some revision. Pepper Schwartz ripely noted, “We’re remarkably not innovative about marriage even though almost all the environmental conditions, writ large, have changed…We haven’t scrutinized it. We’ve been picking at it like a scab, and it’s not going to heal that way.” The upshot was that marriage still is Occupied, and in important ways a prison for our imaginations.
My own proposal focused on getting rid of a lot of marriage fantasies that are represented in the commercial hype around marriage—very Wollstonecraft-ish, right? There might be something to that: wedding hype seems to bring out a lot of the gender cartoons that Wollstonecraft railed against. But is that anti romantic? Not in the way that I mean it.
I don’t think that getting rid of old-school marriage fantasies means not being romantic, not being hopeful, not being tender, committed, loyal, tolerant of bad days, exuberant about good days. What interests me are ways to cultivate romance and commitment in a context where partners recognize that the choice to participate in marriage, to remain, day in and day out, is something that makes it more fantastic, not less. Marriage, in this view, becomes mindful. And the reality is that marriage is a choice day in and day out, for a lot of reasons cogently reviewed in Matt Richtel’s column.
Same-sex partners, who until recently haven’t had access to marriage, have often been forced to forge more imaginative, more mindful unions. Now, as we edge towards marriage equality, everyone gets to see unions that take the sweet traditions of marriage, the fun, the legitimacy, and the somber commitment of it, but perhaps less often encumbered with the baggage of the bastille Wollstonecraft spoke of in heterosexual marriage.
As for me: I’m not married. When I was married, my vows included none of that “till death do you part” stuff; instead we pledged to remain interesting to each other. And we did. Till the day my husband died. And then some.