The New Case for Marriage

Marriage is undeniably a changed institution, because wedlock is no longer obligatory on the old patriarchal terms. For women this has been a hard-won, historic victory. Divorce became easier starting with the first wave of feminism in the early 1900s, and the second wave, beginning in the 1960s, obtained for women more kinds of work, better salaries, new legal rights, heightened self-esteem, and the acceptability of sexuality outside of marriage.

All this empowered some to leave bad marriages or to never marry at all. It helped inspire a lesbian liberation movement and, for a while, a polemic about the reform or abolition of marriage. Many women I knew in long-term relationships with men refused to marry; if someone mentioned "your husband," they got huffy. Romance was suspect. Breaking the old link between the horse and carriage became a cause. But now that angry polemic seems to have dissipated, like smoke from extinguished flames, very quietly.

Yet heterosexual marriage, and the gender divisions it seems to promote, is by no means entirely revolutionized. Indeed, with "welfare reform" and its penalizing of single mothers, pressure on "deadbeat dads," and the Bush administration's heterosexual-marriage promotions, the U.S. government tries to force women and men back into traditional matrimony. What needs explaining is why, under such circumstances, women of various ages and sexualities are finding more to say in defense of marriage -- and why some feminists, like me, are even fighting for it.

What transformed me from a rebellious critic of the institution into a vocal and explicit advocate had little to do with my private life in the new feminist era, although I have maintained a married, heterosexual relationship for 39 years. The impetus came from my recognizing and honoring the growing desire of some of my lesbian friends and relatives to enjoy the protections that marriage now extends only to heterosexuals.

For a long time I did not know how many legal benefits there were, so obsessed was I by the one whopper advantage that the law meant to deny me. When my husband and I first bought a house together, I almost lost the chance to co-own it because the default contract in Massachusetts gave it to the husband. I discovered this automatic male privilege only by chance at the closing, and the risk that I might have lost my share in case of divorce reverberated over the years and started me, like thousands of others, on the road to becoming a critic of marriage law. (That law changed soon after.)

Then one day over lunch, a friend made a shocking list of the benefits that "straight marrieds" like me automatically get and do not appreciate -- which she could not get and would have valued properly. She hurled them forth almost as if they were my fault. Spousal and child support. Joint tax benefits. Joint property ownership. Her midlife list emphasized medical and bereavement leave, and the right to inherit a spouse's pension. Her rage at the system -- or maybe at my insouciant ignorance -- was simply overflowing. Her list was dramatically long, and could have been a lot longer still. According to the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts, marriage provides more than a thousand legal rights and responsibilities to heterosexuals.

A few years later, a niece of mine who had exchanged pretty gold rings with her female partner in a private ceremony became a mother when her partner gave birth to twins. My niece had to adopt her children to become their legal guardian. (My husband would not have had to do that if I had been artificially inseminated.) In detail, the whole despicable indictment became clear to me. If my niece had lived in another state, she might have been unable to adopt. Even the child-free can despair at not having the right to marry. Absent marriage, one partner's day-care, health-care, and survivor benefits may not come to the other. If one becomes gravely ill, the other cannot automatically visit her in the hospital, make medical decisions on her behalf, qualify for family leave, care for her at home, or honor her last wishes if legal kin oppose it. All the love and commitment freely given over any number of years can be rendered null. Gay and lesbian partners already have the pure relationship that feminists said we wanted -- without wedlock -- and they want wedlock.

Apart from the legal rights, the fact that lesbian women and gay men invent commitment ceremonies suggests that some want the intangible benefits of a public wedding: the joyous celebration, the approving social notice, the community's support for their loving sharing of past, present, and future -- and sometimes the sanctification of a religious ceremony. Even if both women (or both men) were to wear white, it would seem pointless to argue now -- as some used to, decades ago -- that this is an imitation of the worst of patriarchy.

In Massachusetts, the state Supreme Court recently voted in a landmark decision that gays and lesbians have an equal-protection right to marriage; the legislature is still trying to circumvent the ruling. I will go on writing to the leadership, speaking as a heterosexual married woman, about the relief from misery that legal marriage could bring to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender couples. In Massachusetts, it will raise the cultural value of same-sex love and sexuality by equating those who match with the favored model -- as homophobic opponents well know. Even before the court ruling, more than 50 percent of Massachusetts residents said they supported same-sex marriage.

This new civil-rights movement has changed progressive attitudes toward state-sponsored marriage. It's clear that nothing less than "marriage" will do. Otherwise, in a country that George W. Bush's Christians often seem to be leading, some rights are likely to be missing. Too many painful and practical questions ride on lawful matrimony. Once my niece, too, can choose to become an old married lady with all the thousand rights I have, I'll have the leisure to take up utopian critiques of marriage again.

Now that heterosexual women have more alternatives -- legal, sexual, economic, sociological, psychological -- we can vote for or against marriage with our unshackled feet. Staying in a marriage has come closer to being an existential decision. You repeat it, as it were, annually.

I have stayed put in mine for a long time. But I need not accuse myself of inertia for this, or of having been bought, or of putting up with insult -- all the distasteful reasons that honest women would have had to take into account in earlier millennia. I married so long ago, measured in feminist light years, that I exuberantly labeled my book boxes, sent from my grad-school apartment to our new home, "From Margaret Morganroth" in the upper left-hand corner, and, in the middle, "To Mrs. David Gullette." I did this while considering myself an advanced woman, a critic of historic marital arrangements. My mother had worked and had kept her own checkbook separately from my father's. I had earned a master's degree and planned to get a doctorate and be economically independent. I meant for us to be equals, and David did, too. From the beginning, we shared housework. Another couple we knew had compiled a list, prominently affixed to the refrigerator, of who did each miniscule chore, but we felt that we could handle the division of labor without rigid rules.

It was only when we had a child that I found myself in what I call the "Equality Wars." One example: At some point I noticed that while I made breakfast for us all, David was reading The Boston Globe. When I sat down, he didn't offer to share it: Every day I had to ask, and then he would absentmindedly hand me the second section. I stoked that anger day by day until it exploded. To him behaviors such as the Globe episode seemed like little things. To me, too, my fury seemed disproportionate, and I could see it scared him. But there were days and nights when I hated him for turning me into a "wife," the subordinate I had sworn never to be. A hundred times I was ready to walk out. Instead I would say what needed to be said disdainfully. I used our anniversary celebrations in part to critique the state of our marriage.

Some of my friends were in support groups in the 1970s, working collectively through their own Equality Wars. Up in Boston, though, I was alone, fighting blindly with fists and nails, not entirely against him-as-husband but, had I only known, against patriarchy itself. I fought for David's fuller attention, for our son to respect me equally, for equal amounts of leisure time -- for my very selfhood. But (and this is a long story for another time) as the women's movement spread broadly into the lives of couples we knew and influenced some friends who then divorced their husbands, and as I became firmer and calmer about what was at stake, and as David continued to teach in a women's college undergoing its own gender- consciousness-raising, he became more pro-feminist in theory and practice.

Now those angry War years are behind us. My grievances against male privilege, my young husband's fears, his repetition of his father's habits of superiority, my repetition of my mother's angry resistances, all our passionate mistakes -- can be told, as relics of our prehistory. I'm in the marriage now for the pure relationship. The issues concern gender less and less. They come from different dimensions: privacy versus intimacy, professional rivalries, co-parenting an adult child. I had once imagined that marriage involved only such interesting problems. And because of various lucky breaks aside from the successes of feminism -- like the closer convergence of our activism -- our marriage eventually turned out close to the way I had once dreamed marriage could be, but better (because before feminism I could not have had such a good dream).

Even reported in such an abbreviated fashion, an autobiography like mine can cast a useful light on decades of unnoticed continuity through change. It is one true history of the nearly 50 percent of straight marriages that survive. But my point is this: Single heterosexual feminists my age, working women with adequate incomes, often want matrimony once they have found a man they like living with. I went to two such weddings just last year.

My divorced friends who remarry do not do so to obtain economic support. One says she wanted to confer her company's health benefits on the man she had long been living with. (If sharing finances or adult children is too complicated, many older retired couples don't tie the knot.) Customs have changed: One husband I know, for example, does all the shopping and cooking. It doesn't occur to these women today to be afraid of being bullied; at midlife they feel able to take care of themselves, thank you very much. The principled objections seem to have disappeared along with the polemic. It is possible to be grateful for marriage as an evolving institution that doesn't oppress us.

Why do those remarrying bother? Each one would have a different story. But if there were a movement afoot to abolish heterosexual marriage and it succeeded (leaving state-sponsored support for the needy in place), a feminist who remained through love in the no longer legally constituted relationship might feel that something was lost in the span of available feelings and meanings. I, for one, dislike both the chipper term "companion" and the formal "life partner." Like my niece, I like having a fixed starting date in order to be able to say "39 years" meaningfully. I think people who want a little sentimentality deserve access to it. Like various lesbian and gay friends, I enjoy the resonant language of the past, which is far more poignant now that it has been shorn of its patriarchal enforcements and hypocrisies. "Husband, I come" (said in fact by a Shakespearean queen to a Roman married to someone else). "Que faró senza Euridice?" "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be."

But none of this means that i feel complacent about marriage as an equal institution for young heterosexuals under capitalism today. It could be legal perfection and still not work for partners who are made unequal by gender history and gender economics in the everyday, practical part of their relationships. Perhaps that is one of the reasons younger women are marrying so late.

Socially constructed gender is like a snake-in-the-box, ready to jump out when a young couple hits scarcity. There is more insecurity in the 21st-century workforce than there used to be -- more need for two salaries, more burnout, more time crunch in the 24-7 workforce, more anxious job searches, more anguished changes of job or career. Men who marry more often get a "helpmeet" who can help meet the monthly nut. But in many relationships, both partners must work full time, or take two jobs, even before they think of children.

Shadows of patriarchal power and male dominance also survive. A friend told me that when she answered the phone one day, her daughter's boyfriend asked to speak to her husband so that he could ask the alpha male for her daughter's "hand." At Reform Jewish services, the groom often still stomps on the glass. Maybe each is an anachronism standing by itself, not a symbol of traditional male bullying and female inferiority to follow. These younger men presumably want equal partners in marriage; the women are professionals used to independence. May the women who look back from midlife in 2030 on such early tableaux feel nothing worse than the same cringing tolerance for romantic sexist conventions that I feel toward my book-box labels.

In any case, to me every new birth, which should be so welcome as long as women have choice, obliquely announces the possible onset of the Equality Wars. The lack of child care in the United States is as bad as ever, adding domestic uneasiness to work worries. Insecurity and overtime in the workforce lead to more stress in the relationship, felt by both the parents who work double shifts and the children who miss them. Young mothers may have to fight even more fiercely inside their frail, heterosexual dyads than mothers in my generation to avoid the "compromises," or postponements and defeats, that we suffered while our male partners continued on their culturally lightened careers and job paths. Among those couples who have more economic choices, who stays home with the babies or cuts back on her hours, forgoing promotion to take the "Mommy track"? Or who doesn't, and loses intimate contact with her children during their formative years? Young husbands today may be pro-feminist men, but most will not sacrifice themselves to take the Mommy track, or not for very long, for the sake of their wives' jobs and careers. Most will have to profit -- guiltily, "for the sake of the family" -- from whatever favors maleness confers by way of their higher wages and swifter and higher climbs up the age-wage curve. It is an irony of our time that raising children today makes having a husband so convenient and necessary as to seem, once again, obligatory. There's no room for complacency here, because the pure relationship seems in different ways far out of reach, as in the past.

What would further egalitarian marriage once children are born? A dauntingly vast radical and feminist agenda is implicit in these observations. First, affordable, high-quality child-care and after-school programs, run by well-paid and well-trained and caring teachers. Related to this, an end to the guilt-provoking hostility of childless workers toward working parents, because the latter occasionally get excused "early" to go home for dinner. All of us need the next items on the agenda: a "slow time" movement, rescuing us from the madness of the speed-up regime -- the dwindling of the weekend, endless cell-phone and computer accessibility, billable quarter-hours, the shrinking of vacations, the need for second jobs, the loss of time for meditation, for enjoying our own rhythms, for free reading and play. Finally, more job security. This would require job creation and much stronger responses to the global race to the bottom, from higher minimum wages to supports for seniority to penalties for companies moving overseas. None of this is around the corner, or even over the river and through the trees. But only as such dramatic changes occurred might we be able to determine how much was left of the Equality Wars between each loving woman and each loving man.

Meanwhile, sighing over these troubles, I sometimes think, OK. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight women in midlife or old age, younger women who do not want to have children, all those likelier to achieve equality for themselves with their partners -- let them marry if they wish. But as for young straight women who want to live with men and who care about equality and who also want children -- until the revolution comes, they would do well to be a little wary.