Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The deinstitutionalization of marriage

In response to this recent blog post’s critical look at the purpose of marriage, and many in class discussions regarding women’s role as caregiver in heterosexual relationships (and subsequent blog posts on related topics here, here, and here), it might be useful to highlight another approach to addressing women’s role as caregiver -- an approach that abandons the traditional, antiquated concept of marriage.

In Martha Fineman’s The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family, and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, she discusses the role of dominant institutions, such as marriage, as being to blame for gender subordination. Fineman says marriage, as a dominant social institution, fails to support caregiving activities historically associated with women. Instead, caregiving has been privatized to culturally normalize the nuclear family, so that the predominant patterns of gender subordination, such as caregiving, become the responsibility of women. 

Fineman’s solutions to these problems include both re-educating public institutions so they acknowledge the burden of caregiving, and also restructuring the family dyad through the deinstitutionalization of marriage. In terms of restructuring the family dyad, she argues family, through marriage, is structured around the sexual dyad, so that a sexual union between two adult individuals is used to define the family. She instead argues to conceptualize the family unit by restructuring it around a caregiver-dependent dyad—for example, mother-child dyad or any other caregiver-dependent dyad. Fineman claims marriage should be eliminated as a state institution, and the state’s interest should be in the unit of social work that most needs supporting – giving state benefits to caregiving relationships rather than sexual relationships.

This type of deinstitutionalization of marriage is not unfamiliar to political theorists or feminist scholars. Tamara Metz, citing Fineman, succinctly describes a model for the deinstitutionalization of marriage in which the state would neither confer marital status, nor use 'marriage' as a category for dispensing benefits. Legitimate public welfare goals currently addressed through marriage would be addressed through an intimate caregiving union status.

Additionally, abandoning the state’s role in regulating marriage and dispersing benefits to caregiving dyads would also prove beneficial in “queering” the concept of family
Queering the family refers to giving more legitimacy to unconventional, non-nuclear families common among the LGBT community who had been previously excluded from traditional family structures. This includes questioning how institutionalized heterosexuality, through marriage, ensures that some people will have more power, privilege, status, and resources than others. Queering the family would also protect other types of unconventional family bonds in which members of extended family, as well as non-blood kin, participate in childcare and family responsibilities. Currently, the institution of marriage does not value this kind of non-marital parenting, but rather protects the integrity of heterosexual marriage, by disregarding unconventional family bonds.

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