Food for Thought on Marriage

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.

13 thoughts on “Food for Thought on Marriage

  1. Yes….

    the fact is that many people, gays included, marry for reasons that include many forms of financial security and protection.  In this country, healthcare insurance is one of the primary advantages.  I know people in less than happy marriages who are staying married SOLELY for this reason.  

    Reminds me of Mary Cheney saying that she personally didn’t feel any need to wed.  Well, ofcourse not…extreme wealth can spare one from many of the reasons the rest of us need that financial/legal protection.  That said, I do understand the point of this article, but I’m not too worried that we liberals will just say “oh, gays have a right to marry, we can stop worrying about building safety networks for our citizens”.

    • This is

      a really good point.

      I feel pretty bad about being married and taking advantage of the benefits when others can’t, when I couldn’t it I were living with a woman instead of a man. We married out of convenience, too, at least in terms of the timing.  

      But of course I don’t want anyone to be so screwed that marriage is one of a few ways to survive and be secure.

  2. Marriage should not not give people rights…

    Mostly a lurker, but this is a hot button with me.

    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.

    Everyone – single, gay, coupled, should be able to enjoy the same rights that are currently only available to married couples. While I support gay marriage, I really think that the it should be re-addressed as some kind of “rights for all” issue.

  3. One nitpick

    More people who do marry are choosing to exit.

    This is not true, at least not since about 1980 – see this chart showing the trend in divorce rates in the U.S. as well as the divorce rate table showing the trend from 2000-2007.  Divorce rates have pretty much continually declined (at a low rate, but still a general decline) since 1980 after the big spike in the 1970s.

    • And

      the earlier increase in the divorce rate is partly due to divorce becoming more possible and there being at least some rights women could have without marriage, less discrimination against unmarried people, etc.

    • thank you!

      We are always hearing about the skyrocketing divorce rate and how it signals the end of civilization as we know it, and it’s just not true.

    • And

      aren’t there huge variances across states, with the “blue” states having a much lower divorce rate than the conservative “red” states?

      • Not sure about “huge”

        but definitely there is variability, same with poverty, teen birth rates and various other indicators.  

      • And

        The state with the lowest divorce rate – in other words, the one that has most effectively protected marriage – is the one that allowed gays and lesbians to marry years ago.  Coincidence?  I think not.  

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  6. Why did this diary show back up? It’s certainly relevant to our current situation, but it’s strange that it popped up when there haven’t been any comments since 2009.

    It kinda makes me miss NJMom who used to be around, but seems to have gone missing. And I’m not sure who SB Mama is…are you still here?

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