Feministing’s Jessica Valenti’s engagement to Talking Points Memo editor Andrew Golis raised brows. Now her marriage to Golis, which was written about in the New York Times style section, has sparked quite the discussion on the institution of marriage.
In an essay for the Nation, African-American feminist Melissa Harris-Lacewell used Valenti’s traditional and fairy book wedding to criticize the antiquated aspects of marriage and why the institution itself needs to be reformed.
Marriage is now a minority lifestyle among black people. African American women in all socioeconomic categories are the group least likely to marry, most likely to divorce, and most likely to bear and rear children alone. And although marriage has fallen most precipitously among black people, it has declined throughout the United States. Since 1970, marriage rates in the United States have dropped more than 15% overall, and divorce rates have climbed steadily during this same time.
Fewer people who can marry are choosing to do so. More people who do marry are choosing to exit. This is not solely about selfish individuals unwilling to sacrifice for joint commitment. Marriage itself is still bolstered by a troubling cultural mythology, a history of domination, and a contemporary set of gendered expectations that render it both unsatisfying and unstable for many people.
In short, despite the fierce battles for marriage, contemporary heterosexual marriage is a bit of a mess. The current state of straight marriage is a reminder that simply having the right to marry is not sufficient to generate social equality, create economic stability, or ensure personal fulfillment. Marriage is a crucial civil right, but not a panacea. Even as progressives fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples, we need also to reflect on marriage as a social and political institution in itself.
Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether.
All the history on marriage — especially in regards to enslaved Africans — was fascinating. Harris-Lacewell’s essay is definitely worth a read.
While I never understood the outrage surrounding Valenti’s wedding — feminists can’t marry? — I agreed with Harris-Lacewell that we should find a way for all families and individuals to receive the rights and privileges of marriage. For example, you should not have to marry to gain tax-free property rights and healthcare. What say you?
By the way, I originally spotted Harris-Lacewell’s piece in Salon Broadsheet, which also had great analysis on this topic.