It is wedding season, and a landmark year for marriage equality. Someone asked me what would be my feminist utopia for marriage, and I started thinking: Utopias are for Enlightenment thinkers, those expansive philosophers who made heady contributions… but who sometimes didn’t quite see around their own contradictions? Take Mary Wollstonecraft, 18th century Enlightenment feminist polemicist. She had an essentialist streak that led her to argue that women needed to be better educated–to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers. For sure, the notion of a marriage between two men or two women was inconceivable because of the necessity of the natural roles in marriage. Despite her limits, I think Wollstonecraft captures some of my thinking about marriage and utopias via her two famous lines on the topic.
The first is in Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman (1798). The protagonist Maria proclaims from within a violent middle-class marriage, “marriage has bastilled me for life!” This politically-charged allusion to the Bastille at the time of the then, still recent, French Revolution suggests that just as aristocracy imprisons peasants, marriage—and men—imprison women.
It is too boring to catalog the subsequent 19th, 20th and 21st century complaints about marriage, one generation after the next finding novel or critical ways to look at marriage in terms of the extent to which it is an honored, covert bastille. There’s Friedan’s problem with no name! There’s the second shift for women in the workforce! Here’s the opt-out puzzle! What’s with the gender gap in depression among married people? Just today, the New York Times covered how marriage is a marker and maintainer of social class divides—more marriage for those with social advantages, and less for the rest. So, marriage even plays a role in replicating wider forms of inequality beyond gender inequality. Looking back at Wollstonecraft, I wonder how long it has been since anything new has been said by white middle-class feminists (like myself) who engage in critical thinking about marriage. It has been all imprisonment and limitations–with some bits of moving forward.
The second Wollstonecraft line appears in an earlier novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788), where she writes at the very end of a better world “where there is neither marrying, nor giving in marriage.” The heroine was on her deathbed. Her utopia was heaven, where there is no marriage. Now that’s more like it. Well, except for the death part. This was Wollstonecraft’s proposed resistance to the silliness of women’s education, which failed to parallel the reason-based training of men. Education instead socialized women into mindless versions of wives and mothers that she wrote about in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—a political treatise in response to Talleyrand’s 1791 remarks naysaying women’s education. Wollstonecraft ended up hating her earlier novel, but she still made a nice point about no marriage.
So what is my feminist marriage utopia? I don’t care if there is or there isn’t marriage; if it is available it should be available to all. In truth, I dislike it when people weirdly change their names. I don’t like the class and commodity fetish that weddings are. And the ceremonies, like when they bless fifty-year-olds to be fruitful and multiply, are embarrassingly heteronormative. But that’s okay. I also don’t like NASCAR, or football, or seafood, and these are things that other perfectly fine people do like.
What works better than a complaint about marriage (or a paean to it, for that matter) is a complaint about inequality, which seems always at the center of our repetitive critiques of marriage. And, with that, I’ll add a complaint about essentialism—or the belief that how your body was born or modified is sensibly linked to your lot in life.
A feminist utopia is one that does not tolerate inequalities, like the inequality of handing out informal and formal advantages based on preferences for some relationships over others. Today’s Times article, “Two Classes Divided by ‘I Do’” makes the point yet again—even if the conclusions folks draw from the classes divided is either “for marriage” or “against marriage.” Generation after generation, marriage plays a role in replicating inequality. A feminist utopia is one that would not put up with sneaky ways of embedding essentialism into our institutions. Marriage, as a cultural artifact of essentialism, does that a lot. It is baked into the cake.