Exploring anarcha-feminism: marriage and freedom

Part four in a series looking at anarchism as it relates to feminism, gender equality, and patriarchy.

In Marriage and the Family: an ideological battleground, Wendy McElroy sums up the stereotype of feminists and marriage;

To the sexually correct feminist, marriage oppresses women and the family breeds patriarchy. Both result from capitalism. Happily married women are considered pathological and traitorous. To justify this blast of enmity, they point to the soaring rate of domestic violence, even though violence against women — as measured by the murder rate — has not increased except in proportion to population growth. Although the gender feminist view of marriage borders on the absurd –eg. housework as ‘surplus value’ — it is key to understanding the depth of hatred they aim at heterosexual sex and men. This, in turn, is key to understanding the emotions that fuel sexual correctness.

McElroy’s position is a strange one. She is an anarcha-feminist, in the sense that she is both an anarchist and a feminist. However, her individualist stance, her support for private property and capitalism, and the fact that she is a FOX news commentator will, for many, diminish her “anarchist” credentials greatly. Her term “sexually correct,” of course, is linked to the term “politically correct.” It is a rhetorical device used to portray the very existence of any dissenting opinion as oppressive to the status quo. Instantly, we see that this stereotype is built not upon fact but on ideological dogmatism. Only the fact that she is openly derisive towards the Randian end of right-libertarianism buys her back any credibility.

Nonetheless, the question remains: does the stereotype hold any truth?

Marriage and human progress

As mentioned before, I don’t give the term “sexually correct” any credence, and so won’t comment on it any further. The idea of marriage as oppressive and patriarchal, on the other hand, is commonplace within the feminist movement. For example, in Why Women’s Liberation? Racism and Male Supremacy, Marlene Dixon argued thus;

The institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women; it is through the role of wife that the subjugation of women is maintained. In a very real way the role of wife has been the genesis of women’s rebellion throughout history.   Looking at marriage from a detached point of view one may well ask why anyone gets married, much less women. One answer lies in the economics of women’s position, for women are so occupationally limited that drudgery in the home is considered to be infinitely superior to drudgery in the factory. Secondly, women themselves have no independent social status.  Indeed, there is no clearer index of the social worth of a woman in this society than the fact that she has none in her own right. A woman is first defined by the man to whom she is attached, but more particularly by the man she marries, and secondly by the children she bears and rears-hence the anxiety over sexual attractiveness, the frantic scramble for boyfriends and husbands. Having obtained and married a man the race is then on to have children, in order that their attractiveness and accomplishments may add more social worth. In a woman, not having children is seen as an incapacity somewhat akin to impotence in a man.

Like most of the feminist critiques of marriage available, this was written when a woman’s lot in life was quite different from what it is now. We remain a long way from complete gender equality in any sphere of life, but certainly we are a lot farther advanced in 2010 than even in 1980. Not getting married, and even not having children, is no longer taboo. Likewise with women keeping their maiden name, or working rather than devoting their life to rearing children. Housewives are rarer than they once were, and are even balanced by the presence of househusbands.

It could be argued, then, that the problem lies not with the institution of marriage itself but with the framework of the society within which the marriage takes place. As an example, take the institutions of forced and arranged marriage. Clearly both (though distinguishable in various ways) represent greater limitations on freedom and equality than do marriages born of love. This is something that arguments in favour of arranged marriage cannot answer, focusing instead on “family values” and implicitly making the assumption that “security” and “stability” are better qualities than freedom. Ask those who have lived under military juntas and empires if this is true.

The fact that love marriages are relatively recent as an accepted institution adds to this argument. In the not-too-distant past, and even at present in some parts of the world, marriage was a contract to be negotiated between father and prospective husband. Marrying for love was much harder to do, even amongst the working and lower class where a dowry could not add up to much.

A love marriage is much freer and more equal than an arranged marriage, and certainly than a forced marriage. In essence, this gives credence to McElroy’s argument that we should “in marriage, as in all other peaceful pursuits of life, let individuals choose.”

State sanction and an economic arrangement

The mantra of individual choice in marriage, if applied un-hypocritically, covers the arenas of sexuality and religion or lack thereof as well as the basic question of whether or not to marry. As an anarchist I am certainly not going to argue that anybody who wishes to be denied the right to marry, with whom and in whatever manner they see fit, and what follows should not be seen as an argument for such.

It is, however, an argument against marriage in two specific contexts. That is, as a purely economic arrangement and as a state-sanction on love.

As argued above, the actual act of confirming a loving relationship through ceremony is not in itself oppressive or patriarchal but a matter of individual freedom. Indeed, I am due to get married next year. This isn’t a decision it took me long to make. Although my own attitude towards the act of marriage is best described as apathy, I love my other half dearly, she wants to do it, and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. The decision was a no-brainer. For me, this is nothing more than a rather elaborate way of confirming my lifelong commitment to the person I love.

What it also is, but shouldn’t be, is a state sanction of my living arrangements. I live with her, and she is essentially my next of kin, but the state will not recognise that without the act of marriage or some other convoluted, and costly, legal wranglings. If these do not exist, then should I die the courts and other interested parties could strip her of all the rights that being my life partner should entail.

Not only is this wrong, but it entirely changes the meaning of marriage. Most people see it, and I want to engage in it, as an outward demonstration of commitment and love. As a ceremony enacted within the constraints of law, it is not this as much as it is an economic arrangement. Essentially, it becomes insurance should one of us die or should the relationship go sour, binding us not with love but by the rights of property and inheritance assumed to be self-evident in a capitalist system.

As Emma Goldman noted in Marriage and love;

Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact. It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting. Its returns are insignificantly small compared with the investments. In taking out an insurance policy one pays for it in dollars and cents, always at liberty to discontinue payments. If, how ever, woman’s premium is a husband, she pays for it with her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life, “until death doth part.” Moreover, the marriage insurance condemns her to life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social. Man, too, pays his toll, but as his sphere is wider, marriage does not limit him as much as woman. He feels his chains more in an economic sense.

Thus Dante’s motto over Inferno applies with equal force to marriage: “Ye who enter here leave all hope behind.”

I cannot claim to be quite as sceptical as Goldman. I am more inclined to take the position of Dennis Fox, in his essay From a married anarchist;

Marriage doesn’t exist in the utopian community in my mind. There, relationships are fluid; freed from state and religious oversight, they vary from monogamous to serial to multiple in response to the ebb and flow of desire and commitment, love and need. Communal institutions support those engaged in nontraditional interactions. People have the time, motivation, and energy to work through jealousies and insensitivities. Life is communal in other ways, too, with the nuclear family itself outmoded. Friendships are intimate even when nonsexual. Work and resources are shared. Stability and security come from the community. So does love.

Back in the Seventies and Eighties, though, my experience with multiple relationships rarely matched my vision. I found excitement, yes, but often isolation. New experiences, but old hangups. Personal and interpersonal growth, but too often superficial interaction. It was sometimes hard to distinguish my convenient anti-monogamy principles from more traditional male privilege–easy to mistake for truth a woman’s assurance that no-stings-attached was what she, too, really wanted, easy for me to make the same assurance when I didn’t always know if I meant it.

The effort eventually wore me down. Lacking a functioning community to reinforce multiple sexual affiliations, the attractions of long-term commitment resurfaced. For a time I sought nonmonogamous coupledom, trying to have it both ways–a lover I could build the next portion of my life with, both of us unthreatened by (or, more realistically, willing to work through) other sexual interactions. Some couples accomplish this, talking more or less honestly about primary and secondary lovers and seeking more or less effectively to prevent and heal wounds. Polyamorous groups exist today, some of them long term, or at least as long-term as many marriages. Yet when I haphazardly looked for alternatives two decades ago, I never found them–in my experience, almost always, she or I wanted more than the other could provide.

In the end, I chose stability. If I couldn’t have it both ways, I’d live with someone who at least understood my motivations, someone committed to not giving up at the first sign of trouble and–equally important–not giving in to monogamy-induced stagnation. Someone I loved, with whom I could envision remaining.

The decision to marry my lover nine years later was somewhat anticlimactic. Among other factors, for the good of our own nuclear family I wanted to adopt her daughter. Legal ties may be a poor substitute for well-functioning community, but even anarchists find it difficult to resist practical advantages ranging from health insurance to child support to immigration status. Sometimes we rise above principle. So I accepted the courthouse ceremony with a decent amount of humor. It felt like I had lost a part of myself, but I was no longer sure how important a part.

We had a party.

It hasn’t always been easy. Like most couples, over the past 15 years we’ve had our strains, compounded by the disconnect between anti-marriage philosophy and our married-and-settled condition. When things are tense, and sometimes even when they aren’t, temptations arise. But the truth is I can’t always distinguish an anarchist longing for spontaneity and connection from more mundane middle-aged, married-man horniness. I do know that, as we work our way through difficult periods, we repeatedly determine to reinvent ourselves, resist stagnation, grow and explore together. And we do a decent-enough job, enough of the time.

More than lost opportunities for sexual adventurism I miss the intimacy and support of a broader community of comrades. Recalling communities of my past and that utopia in my mind, I remain convinced that the nuclear family’s disadvantages outweigh its benefits. Friends can sometimes step in and share child care, diffuse tensions, offer other perspectives, but individuals alone don’t make an ongoing community. To make matters worse, the dynamics and time pressures of nuclear-family coupledom complicate the effort to nourish other ties. Creating alternatives to monogamy now seems to me less urgent than creating communal alternatives to the nuclear family.

Am I still an anarchist, or at least as much of an anarchist as I was 20 years ago? I’m not sure, but I don’t think being married has made the difference. Unmarried and uncoupled, I would have had other lovers and other experiences, have grown in different directions–but I would have missed the growth and comfort that came with a stable lover and life partner. Is one kind of growth more anarchistically correct than the other? As I look at it today, marriage and monogamy are symbols, not essence. The real challenge is how I deal with power, hierarchy, equality, concern. As I recall it, my between-marriage success rate wasn’t perfect either.

I wonder if marriage and monogamy violate anarchist principles less at 52 than 22, or if my finding them less objectionable merely represents fatigue. Perhaps things would be different if I were starting over, or if more of us were trying more effectively to create something different. In any case, whether anarchists should marry is less important to me today than whether it’s possible to sustain satisfying relationships. That question challenges anarchists and nonanarchists alike, both those who are married and those who are not.

In an anarchist society, I don’t believe marriage will cease to exist. But it will be very different. Whether one takes it up will be entirely the choice of the individual, but if one doesn’t there will be no disadvantage in terms of rights. Voluntary agreements and common-law will prevail over the exploitative system that is in place at present, built by and for vultures.

In Goldman’s words, “some day, some day men and women will rise, they will reach the mountain peak, they will meet big and strong and free, ready to receive, to partake, and to bask in the golden rays of love. What fancy, what imagination, what poetic genius can foresee even approximately the potentialities of such a force in the life of men and women. If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage, but love will be the parent.”

2 Responses to “Exploring anarcha-feminism: marriage and freedom”
  1. It’s good to see anarchists thinking about this issue. Are familiar with Voltairine de Cleyre, a friend of Emma Goldman’s, and her writings on the subject? She espoused one of the most radical feminist positions of the time. Unfortunately, I don’t know if society has advanced as much as you say. De Cleyre criticisms still resonate today.

  2. uloccupation says:

    honestly, i dont think marriage between lovers can do anything BUT play into social norms. i think it is sexist by history and nature (with married men doing less housework than cohabitees, regardless of their stance on eglatarianism) and actually, there is no end to stigma on women who never get married or keep their maiden name, because of tradition, its seen as a hassle NOT to, and to have to write back correcting companies which insist on calling you by your partners name. i think as an individual the idea of contracting spending your life together is an absurd curbing of freedom, not because placing barriers to leaving would stop everyone (though a few who could use not having barriers, like to escape domestic violence would be) but because its natural for humans to have their own space and grow as people, and if two people grow, it is highly unlikely they will grow the same way. for this to happen is seen as a failure after marriage, which is a shame. without such boundaries the transition into friendship that most long term partners have would not assume to restrict them sexually or financially. most of all though, it plays into heteronormativity, esp at the moment. it allows financial arrangements to be met only for monogamous and heterosexual couples. what a ‘relationship’ is, is set by traditional boundaries, often even by people who question everything else. i am not saying those trying to improve marriage are destined to fail (as largely in england it is still a struggle) as scottish humanist ceremonies appear to be a vast improvement, but if they will ever contribute to making society more free? i dont think so

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