What is marriage? I think it appropriate to attempt to answer this question, especially within the context of a forum that seeks to dissect gender inequality and sexism. Is marriage a necessary feature of human existence? Or, is it the product of a particular set of historical conditions? In what way does marriage relate to the subordination of women? Is it related to this subordination?
I pose these questions because they are really the only questions worth answering for those who are concerned with attaining gender equality. So, I must say that in answering this question and the others throughout this post, I am grappling with theoretical concepts. In doing so, I am attempting to spark a dialectic between myself and the reader; perhaps in the process we can enlighten each other and strengthen our conceptions of that which is taken for granted.
Marriage is not an essential feature of the human condition. I believe that its existence is entirely socially and historically contingent. That is to say that it came into existence at a particular juncture in human history. It is quite possible that at some other juncture marriage will disappear altogether. Indeed, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes, which were grounded upon sharing and equal distribution, were bereft of any concept of gender hierarchy, monogamy, or marriage. I posit that it was only at that mysterious period in human history when private property came into being that marriage became a seemingly essential facet of the human experience. Because marriage is, at its core, a property relationship, I believe that marriage is inextricably related to the subordination of women.
I could attempt to provide an exhaustive depiction of the origins of marriage, but that would prove to be impossible and impractical. What I can say is that marriage is surely the product of a point in history that was unabashedly patriarchal and sexist. A brief glance at historical texts will reveal that marriage was simply a contractual relationship wherein a particular male owned a particular female. This brings up an interesting question. Are contemporary marriages still of that same nature? Have they changed in any way?
I posit that contemporary marriage, at its essence, remains the same as marriage from the past. At least, this is the case for the vast majority of woman. Obviously, the world is populated with billions of people. I often feel that when we discuss issues such as this one, we often forget to maintain a sense of perspective concerning the immensity of the human populace. People in Sub-Saharan Africa, or South East Asia, or South Central Los Angeles, or South Dakota, are compelled to live in social conditions vastly different from our middle-of-the-road, middle class ones. They live under conditions of almost unimaginable poverty. For them, the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population, today’s marriage is no different in nature than marriage at the beginning of the twentieth century. A man, on account of barbaric constructs of patriarchy, is purchasing a woman. With that come the incidental features of these marriages: domestic violence, rape, psychological abuse, and economic inequality. I believe Obama’s recorded message at last night’s Grammys substantiates this fact.
On the other hand, a small minority of women have made a great deal of progress. Upper class women, after a century-long political struggle, have attained for themselves a level of relative parity. Of course, complete parity has not been attained, but upper class women have come a long way in terms of attaining the hot commodities of bargaining power and economic maneuverability. For them, marriage may live up more to the fancifully romantic, albeit hypocritical, illustrations of Hollywood and other media. For the most part, marriage for them is simply a means to avoid complete loneliness at old age by permanently aligning with one particular individual. And/or, it is a wise business decision.
In writing all this, I am not attempting to target marriage as the fundamental culprit behind woman’s subordination. I am not attempting to paint a picture wherein women should abandon marriage, or sex, or heterosexuality, altogether in order to liberate themselves from patriarchy. I think that is an idealistic way—as opposed to a way that focuses on the material basis of things—of dealing with the issues I have broached. Marriage is a necessary product of patriarchy, which is a necessary product of private ownership. As such, it follows that in order for women to be liberated from patriarchy and its features, disenfranchised peoples should aim at deconstructing the economic substructure of things. One can definitely choose not to marry, or abstain from sex, or become a political lesbian, but those are ultimately personal decisions of identity, which ultimately have no affect on the broader state of affairs. I only entreat that we do not lose sight of the forest on account of being fixated on the trees.