George Bernard Shaw once described marriage as an institution that brings two people together “under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions,” requiring them “to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.” Superficially, the foregoing lines are a satire on the normative ideal of a marriage: since marriage is thought to be based on inexhaustible love, it can only be dissolved in death. Shaw’s insight, however, is much more penetrating. It speaks to the social compulsions that underlie the truth about marriage: marriage exists for the express objective of social reproduction, and conservation of society’s power dynamics. Defining the subject, primarily, by its raison d’être, feminism and liberalism provide a scathing critique of marriage.
It is on the point of institutionalisation that feminism takes issue with the concept of marriage. Most significantly, the emphasis is on the inherent dependency of women on men that is ritualised, formalised, necessitated, and perpetuated by wedlock. A married woman is ascribed a social identity that has no space for individuality, or particularity. She is either classified into a universal category – mother, wife, daughter-in-law, etc., or recognised relationally, with respect to her husband – she takes on his name, his religion, becoming his ‘half,’ and a member of his family. Not only does the lack of a recognisably independent character mandate the attachment of a woman’s self to that of the man with whom she has matrimonial relations, the dependency further solidifies the unequal power relations between the genders. As an edifice of power interactions, marriage takes care of its own renovation – by virtue of being the weaker sex in singlehood, woman is compelled to a contingent existence in matrimony. The incidence of the structure guarantees its propagation.
This power dynamic is further manifested in the formal ceremonies of marriage. From the bride’s father (or brother) ‘giving her away,’ or the groom being chosen by the family instead of the woman herself, to the demand for dowry by the groom’s family, the rites of marriage take away the woman’s agency. She is reduced to property to be negotiated and transferred between the men in her life. The difference in stature between man and woman is such that “man does not make his appeal directly to woman herself; it is the men’s group that allows each of its members to find self-fulfilment as husband and father.” Having once entered the structure of a marriage, the woman comes to ‘belong’ to the man, obliged to fulfil sexual and familial obligations.
Being so compelled in a marriage confers inflexible gender roles upon both partners. The man’s success is measured in economic terms, and his ability to ‘control’ his wife. For the woman, these gender roles exhibit themselves in a ‘feminine’ bearing. In behavioural terms, this essentially translates to a submissive, tender, nurturing, and motherly conduct. Female desire to venture into the professional world is frowned upon; even when this desire is allowed expression, women bear the double burden of maintaining an impeccable ‘work-home balance.’ The rigidity of these normative ideals manifests itself most evidently in censorship of sexuality. The private, sexual lives of the individuals in a marriage become the subject of public speculation and debate.
A conservative argument in favour of marriage claims that to a large section of society, it is a means of liberation. Even premier feminists, Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, grant this concession. However, the path through which this emancipation occurs – to wit, dependency on man – is inherently problematic. While there are certain legal rights that a married woman is granted, their liberating character is ostensive only. Wedlock is argued to guarantee the acquisition and maintenance of social standing (except in cases of adultery), and a greater degree of economic manoeuvrability by allowing access to the husband’s wallet. Yet, it is precisely this instrumentality that perpetuates the inequality of gender politics. In and of itself, marriage can only be detrimental to the feminist goal.
The institutionalisation of marriage is marked, also, by its legal aspect, which forms one of the foci of its liberal analysis. To this end, methodological individualism is taken to be an unassailable premise. It follows, then, that a “marriage” would be understood by the political liberal as a relationship consciously entered into by consenting private individuals. This contractual conception of nuptial relationships disregards the significance of any societal expectations and/or norms relating to any ‘ideal’ of the same. Since the association is votive, liberal ideology, while discarding social normativity, would call for enforceability, and, hence, demand that marriage necessarily be a legally recognised institution.
However, this is complicated by the founding tenet of liberalism that any principle of political justice should be acceptable to those to whom it applies, without any group feeling dominated or otherwise manipulated due to their occupation of an inferior socio-political position. This necessity of legal ratification takes away from the freedom of choice of those who wish to practice marriage differently, as well as their legal equality in terms of rights. A possible solution to this conundrum is the privatisation of marriage, wherein the intervention of any arm of the state extends only to the extent of criminalising abuse and incestuous relationships. In a privatised marriage model, all implications of a legal marriage, such as inheritance, or decision-making powers in case of incapacitation, are made independent of the act of the conjugal act itself, while retaining legal protection as freestanding issues.
Tension also arises in liberalism’s relationship with marriage on the question of characterisation of marriage itself. This contention, however, is more experiential than theoretical. Since liberalism, within its ideological reaches, is free to define marriage as it would please, the idea of wedlock as a free, more than formal, association is hardly knotty. The implementation, however, leads to complications since it needs to be done within the existing social structure. The prevailing understanding of marriage is that of ritualised, purposeful cohabitation which, through social ridicule, obstructs the practise of any alternative form of romantic and/or sexual association. This extends to performance of gender roles within wedlock, as well as to marriages which do not conform to the heteronormative ideal. The ideas that characterise the dominant interpretation of marriage and liberalism are clearly in direct conflict.
In their common opposition to marriage as an institution – social or legal, feminism and liberalism find overlaps in their advocacy of individual equality, breaking gender roles, marriage equality, and, to some extent, equal recognition of non-formalised relationships. Ideologically, therefore, neither accepts the existence of the oppression that is the formalised wedded institution.
By Suvanshkriti Singh
Suvanshkriti is a nerd and a geek, and a dork enough to educate you on the
difference between the two. She alternates between despairing for the fate
of the world and debating solutions to all its problems; she’s part
pessimist, part romantic, and all goof.