Some Notes on the Institution of Marriage

(This is an email I never sent. Back in 2009. Addressed to a family member now departed, it began as an angry rant then it evolved into something like an essay, because this is a political issue larger than my family. I stumbled upon it last night and thought I’d share. I don’t remember why I never sent it, probably because I wasn’t satisfied with it. Or maybe I got it out of my system during the process of writing. It sounds a bit defensive and self-righteous. The anger is still there, pulsing just underneath. But, really, who in her right mind is not angry? All power to righteous babes.)

Some Notes on the Institution of Marriage

“Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right of anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them, by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc., by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities; by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation.”
Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays

There is sufficient feminist critique of the patriarchal family but I have not yet found an article or a book that systematically critiques the institution of marriage from a feminist and anti-authoritarian point of view. Below are some preliminary notes that briefly sketch my general position.

My most fundamental critique of marriage reflects my relationship to authoritarian institutions. I refuse to have the state, or any other religious or secular authority, institution, group or individual to regulate, control, legitimize or de-legitimize my dealings and relationships with other people– intimate or otherwise. I believe in the principles of direct action and direct democracy. This means I do not delegate my capacity for making decisions, forming opinions or taking action to any representative, party or any other type of centralized authoritarian power.

Just as I don’t vote to “choose” between two or three equally abysmal, pre-selected puppets every four years, I also do not submit my will to any institution, law, group or individual that tries to govern me. Following from this, I am with my current partner right now because we both want it, not because we are obligated by some arbitrary law. Nothing keeps us together but our mutual will and desire to be together. In other words, this is an honest relationship unmediated by social convention and untainted by the conformism of habit.

I can’t blame earlier generations, who thought they had no other choice, who thought they needed legal and social permission to have sex, to live together or have children. I also can’t blame people who live in extremely oppressive situations today and literally risk getting killed unless they get married, which is the case for a lot of people in the world, including most places in Turkey. But in situations where that is not the case, marriage is for hypocrites who won’t do anything unless it is legally required, financially rewarded, socially sanctioned and/or brings some sort of social or political recognition. But it seems that even hypocrites get tired of being hypocritical half the time. Hence the roughly 50 percent divorce rate which has been constant ever since divorce has been an option.

Refusing to let the state or any other centralized control mechanism manage my relationships with fellow human beings, is my most general stance on the institution of marriage. But of course I am not living in an ideal world. I am forced to have relations with the state. I have an identity card, I have a passport, I pay taxes (well actually they are automatically extracted from every purchase and every bill without my consent). I participate in capitalism, I sell my labor and I buy things which are the products of exploitation. I deal with institutions like banks (which are some of the biggest war profiteers in the world) although I wish I didn’t. I also become part of institutions that, for instance, have some terrible labor practices or that are racist like the universities I have been a part of.

But there are things I can do in some of those situations that partially ease my conscience about being a part of them, like organizing protests against racism on campus, or participating in and supporting labor strikes etc. But I sort of have to carry an identity card and have to have some type of job. So these dire realities I reluctantly accept and I try to live what I regard as a conscionable life to the best of my abilities within those boundaries.

Marriage, on the other hand, is irrelevant to my daily survival and therefore is not among those dire realities that I have to reluctantly accept. On the contrary, marriage is not only utterly unnecessary, it is also irredeemably harmful. More than just a state-regulated and socially celebrated farce, marriage is also an extremely discriminative institution and an ideological apparatus that is historically (and fundamentally) misogynist, racist and homophobic.

From its inception, marriage has been a patriarchal institution with the function of concentrating wealth and private property in the hands of certain groups of men as opposed to others. The institution regarded women as the private property of the husband, controlling and regulating women, their bodies, their sexuality, their labor and their reproductive capacity to ensure that the children belong to the same patriarch, again for the purposes of passing down wealth, property and status. This property relationship is strikingly obvious in the etymology of the word “woman” which means “wife of man,” defining women solely in their relationship to a patriarch. One of the most disturbing examples of the disappearance of women in marriage is the early legal principle of “coverture” whereby a woman’s legal rights were merged with those of her husband:

“Under traditional English common law an adult unmarried woman was considered to have the legal status of feme sole, while a married woman had the status of feme covert … A feme sole had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name. A feme covert was not recognized as having legal rights and obligations distinct from those of her husband in most respects. Instead, through marriage a woman’s existence was incorporated into that of her husband, so that she had very few recognized individual rights of her own. As it has been pithily expressed, husband and wife were one person as far as the law was concerned, and that person was the husband. A married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband’s wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If a wife was permitted to work, under the laws of coverture she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. In certain cases, a woman did not have individual legal liability for her misdeeds, since it was legally assumed that she was acting under the orders of her husband, and generally a husband and wife were not allowed to testify either for or against each other.” []

One of the cosmetic changes that the institution of marriage went through in the recent decades was the dropping of coverture. But the idea of treating a married couple as a single unit (and that unit being the husband) survives. This is evidenced by the fact that for the most part women still get the last name of the husband (or some freakishly long composite last name that combines father’s name and husband’s name) and some women still refer to themselves with the full name of the husband ( i.e., “Mrs. Joe Banmatrimony.”)

In more overtly patriarchal cultures, like the case in Turkey, husbands are considered to be the “heads of the household” (although legally this is not the case anymore), and the members of that household are subject to his absolute rule. The laws have somewhat changed but the practice and the mentality of marriage as an oppressive patriarchal institution that regulates, controls and represses women’s bodies, their sexual activities and their labor, has not really changed. Basically women are considered the property of their fathers before marriage, and the property of husbands after marriage. Thus, they either carry their father’s last name or husband’s last name, indicating which of the two they belong to.

Even in societies where patriarchy is less overt, it is obvious that marriage serves to ensure male lineage and regulates patriarchal ancestry. This is evidenced by the almost universal legal and social practice of branding children born out of wedlock as “illegitimate.” Why are children born to single women branded as such? How can a person be “illegitimate” in the first place? Let me try to unpack that term. The mother of a child is always evident, because the child comes out of the body of the woman. Duh. But until the recent advent of DNA testing, the father of a child could never be ascertained beyond the shadow of a doubt. This is probably why patriarchal marriage exists in the first place.

Now, going back to the term “illegitimate:” the children are deemed illegitimate because the father is “unknown,” or, even if he is known, because the father of the child does not own the mother of the child in the form of marriage. The fatherless child disrupts the patriarchal ancestry line because when the child is only defined in relationship to the mother (as opposed to the father) this seriously threatens the patriarchal order. That’s why it’s still a taboo to this day.

I deplore marriage for defining women in relation to, and as extensions of, men in social, political, legal or rhetorical terms. I am also quite bitter about the fact that the institution of marriage and the tradition of coverture, which survives in the changing of last names, has contributed to the invisibility of women by effacing women’s names and their history, such that it is extremely difficult to do genealogical and historical research about women’s lives.

Even in societies where marriage seems more like a benign institution with some social and financial perks, the institution has unforgivable, insurmountable problems. As I have argued above, it is foremost an instrument to ensure patriarchal lineage, to ensure the children produced belong to a certain patriarch. This relationship is reproduced in the macro level as well. As the smallest political unit of the modern nation-state, the nuclear family structured around marriage defines and polices the boundaries of citizenship, marking who can and cannot be considered a citizen of the nation (a. k. a. “the big family”), in other words, who can and cannot participate in social life as adults will full rights. This is most obviously evidenced by the former miscegenation laws in the U.S. prohibiting interracial marriage until just a couple decades ago. In a society with a dominant white majority controlling political power, prohibiting interracial marriage has only one function: keeping the white nation “pure.” That is, it has a fascistic purpose, as all nationalistic ideologies ultimately do.

Since marriage is touted as the most celebrated and socially sanctioned institution in the modern nation-state, excluding certain groups from marriage is tantamount to excluding those groups from full citizenship and adulthood. The miscegenation laws are no longer in place but marriage continues to be a discriminative institution because it is designed that way.

Marriage, defined as the state-regulated heterosexual, sexually and emotionally exclusive monogamous coupledom, legitimizes and sanctions only one form of intimate relatedness over others (such as that between two women, for instance). Recognition of marriage between a heterosexual couple as the most legitimate form of relatedness by law, and the glorification and celebration thereof by the society as the most meaningful and moral form of relationship results in the promotion of compulsory heteronormativity and de-legitimizes other forms of intimate relationships, branding them as immoral and even criminal.

The gender of my partner is only nominally relevant. He might as well have been a woman or I might as well have been a man. As one of my favorite slogans go: love has no gender. I cannot be part of a hypocritical institution that recognizes and celebrates my love when it is directed to a man but punishes it when it is directed to a woman. If there should be marriage at all –although I strongly believe there shouldn’t be– then it should at least be available to everyone.

There would be two conditions whereby I would opt for marriage as the very last resort. One would be if being married to him could save my partner’s life (I can think of some far fetched hospital or prison scenarios). Another condition would be if getting married would be the only way we could travel to and live together in other countries, that is, for visa purposes. But this second, and much weaker, condition is something I would feel horrible about, knowing very well that this “privilege” would not be granted had I been a man, or had my partner been a woman. The other side of the coin of privilege is always someone else’s demise.

If I were to opt for marriage as a last resort, nobody would know about it, other than the civil servant who signs the relevant papers and I would terminate the marriage as soon as the danger in the first example passed or the grounds for the second example disappeared. But, even so, this would feel very much like “selling out” for me and I would think very well before doing it.

In conclusion:
First of all, to the best of my abilities, I refuse to have the state regulate any of my relationships with other human beings. And, secondly, I do not want to be part of a misogynist, racist and homophobic institution whose sole function is to discriminate on the grounds of arbitrarily defined social legitimacy. On the whole, marriage is unconscionable and unethical from where I stand.

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