Can marriage be considered a feminist act?

Marriage is one of those words in the English language loaded with contradictory meanings and connotations, and over time it’s become one of those things that people just do. Yet in New Zealand, marriage rates have been trending downwards for some time, and the age at which people are getting married is climbing. People are simply placing less stock in the institution of marriage. Or are they?

Despite the apparent collapse of society’s support for marriage, my Facebook news feed takes great pleasure in informing me that many of the people I went to high school with are getting engaged or married. Battling this flood of status updates (“ZOMG Barry just proposed!!!1”) are other friends choosing not to wed, some even advocating getting rid of marriage altogether by repealing the Marriage Act 1955.

Criticisms of marriage are not new. Isadora Duncan, a well-known 19th century ballet dancer famously declared that "any intelligent woman who reads the marriage contract, and then goes into it, deserves all the consequences." The idea that marriage is a negative, even oppressive institution for women is a hotly debated topic within feminist thought. Some feminists argue that while the general concept of marriage is not negative, the practices that have evolved and become associated with marriage are: The male asking the bride's father for his daughter's hand in marriage, the father giving the bride away, and the virginal white wedding dress stem from patriarchical concepts that devalue women by presenting them as 'property' of her father, with her only value being virginity. Other critics point out the heterosexist nature of marriage and the continued exclusion of the queer community.

Feminist thought frequently challenges the assumption that the ‘ultimate life goal’ for women is to get married and have children. Despite these challenges, old traditions still remain. The values of modern women are as diverse as the many viewpoints in the marriage debate, from advocates of both marriage and civil unions to those who oppose 'marriage', however it manifests itself. Since the legislation in New Zealand means that de facto couples get the same legal rights as married or civil unioned couples, some question the need for marriage at all. While, some would argue that the state needs to recognise partnerships for various legal and property reasons, it is questionable why the state needs to recognise this in the form of marriage.

Emily, a 23-year-old law graduate, sees marriage as an inherently religious institution. "It's fine if people want it, but I’m not sure if it's for me... if my partner wanted to get married, and it was important to him, then I probably would." But it’s not only the religious aspect of marriage that concerns Emily, but the commercialisation of marriage and weddings commonly referred to as the 'the wedding industry complex’: “It sometimes feels like marriage legitimises feminist women to spend a whole heap of money on one day - something that we'd normally look down on."

Tori, a medical science student, defines marriage as "commitment, security, family and love." Tori and her partner have been together for six years, and will be wed as they approach the seven-and-a-half-year mark. Like most married women, Tori will be taking the last name of her partner. "I've never been that keen on my own last name,” she explains. “If you're going to marry someone, last names are important. It’s about family." Emily was less enthused about taking her partner's name. "I don't see why I should change my name, it's mine, part of my identity... it also conjures up those ideas about ownership and property."

Changes to New Zealand law now recognise de facto couples as possessing the same legal status as civil unions or marriages. For many, the only significance of marriage remains a piece of paper. Arna, a school teacher in her late 20s, opted for a civil union a few years ago. "I wouldn't have married. I view it as a religious thing, and we're both atheists. Also, civil unions are open to everyone, and I was active in the campaign while the [Civil Union legislation] was going through." Arna and Tori both cited the public commitment aspect of ceremonies as important, and Arna emphasised that "it's really an affirmation of your desire to be together — it's a verbal commitment and a celebration of your relationship. And a new dress."

The question remains, can marriage be considered a feminist act? All of these women consider themselves feminists in some form while holding diverging views on the subject. Tori, the least willing to identify as a feminist, explained why marriage could be seen as more feminist than in previous generations: "These days, women don't need marriage to get ahead or for security, it's much easier to have a career and a family, so in a way, women are making active choices to get married, rather than falling into it because it's the thing to do. In that way, it can be quite empowering."

The founder of the blog, Jessica Valenti, recently got engaged, causing a significant amount of debate in the feminist community. Valenti wrote back, stating that her feminism would be incorporated her into her wedding, and her marriage. "It felt good, feminist even, to write about an institution so wrought with sexism, and discuss ways to make it our own."

While marriage will probably stand the test of time, the form this institution takes will continue to evolve from its current form. As social creatures, human beings have always created public ways to recognise private arrangements. Marriage has not been static and unchanging. The question for young women and young feminists today is whether the institution will evolve into a more inclusive and less sexist practice, and how much involvement the state should have in these changes. With marriage as increasingly diverse as feminism itself, the answers will be interesting.

— Sophia Blair


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