Where else can you read about newlyweds getting all the loot and how to combat singlism, with a step in between to consider Plato and Cicero? Welcome to Part 2 of my interview of Jaclyn Geller, author of Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique. (You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.)
PART 2 (of 3): Q and A with Jaclyn Geller
Bella: In your book, you give voice to a complaint I hear often from other single people - they are expected to subsidize all of the weddings and showers of their married friends and relatives, but the important milestones in their own lives are not similarly recognized. But what's a person to do? It seems really hard to say to another person who invites you to their wedding, "Hey, you and your partner already have two sets of linens and two salaries; why should I have to subsidize still another with my one salary?"
Jaclyn: I suggest that when every person turns 25 he or she gets a party. The celebrant can register for house wares, furniture, linen. He or she might even have a ceremony that involves committing to important people, one of whom might be a lover. But these material rewards would not be contingent upon finding "the one." There wouldn't be this mad husband-hunting mentality. It's moving that the older generation wants to help the next generation get a start in life, but reserving this support for those in amorous couples is outrageous.
As a college professor I teach 18-year old girls, Bella, and they're very aware of this system of reward and punishment. Apart from the recent economic crisis, the cost of living is high these days. Not all but many of my female students, as they near graduation, seem to get distracted from their studies as they pursue that elusive engagement ring...The anthropologists Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart tracked a group of women students at a southern college over a period of eight years. All entered school expecting to pursue careers: half said they wanted to work in the sciences. But they became increasingly invested in the matrimonial hunt: reading "how to get a man" literature and neglecting their studies. After graduation over half ended up in low paying jobs in what sociologists call "the pink ghetto" - work that's meant to supplement a husband's paychecks.
In terms of etiquette, how do we diminish the marriage mystique without insulting our friends who are tying the knot? I have two suggestions. Write a check in honor of your friends' nuptials to the Alternatives to Marriage Project, and pen a warm note expressing your happiness for your them and your determination to support diverse family structures and unconventionally partnered people's rights. Or, if you can afford it, buy a wedding gift and provide a check for matching funds to the Alternatives to Marriage Project. There are many wonderful causes, but AtMP is the only organization I know of that exists to fight marital status discrimination. It's a fledgling organization that really needs support.
Bella: Now I want to take advantage of your expertise in literature. I'm always looking for authors who are not matrimaniacs and do not use marriage themes as mindless shortcuts. Who can write great stories based on friendships or solitude or any of the other many experiences that make life meaningful?
Jaclyn: Where do I start? This is going to be very difficult because there's so much. There's a lot of great writing in antiquity. I would urge everyone to read Plato's The Symposium. It's a short dialogue on the meaning of love - probably the greatest piece of western literature on the subject. It does not mention marriage. I would encourage everyone to read Cicero's short essay on friendship; it's in his collection, On the Good Life. And the first century poet, Horace, has beautiful accounts of friendship in his Satires. His fifth satire, an account of a road trip he took through rural Italy with his buddies, is my favorite, and it contains the line, "For me there's nothing to compare with the joy of friendship."
Bella: Are there any other ways we can nudge society into valuing the important relationships, such as friendships, and important experiences, such as solitude, that so often go unrecognized or worse?
Jaclyn: It's hard. Marriage is a sacred cow. Married people tend to want to preserve their privileges; unmarried people often want to access those privileges by joining the conjugal club. And while we've witnessed great diversification in relationships and family structures, there's also been a terrible backlash. The past twenty years has seen the birth of a pro-marriage movement, with an agenda of preserving special rights for wedded couples. In terms of health insurance, tax breaks, immigration privileges - all sorts of benefits - they want matrimony to be the dividing line between who is "in" and who is "out," because they think wedded couples are superior. Political organizations like the Eagle Foundation, Protect the Family, and the Arlington Group, assert this doctrine without apology. Their members are obsessively, hysterically pro-marriage. They blame a variety of social ills on divorce and on the large numbers of Americans now enjoying an unmarried existence. They're prone to a kind of magical thinking, laying the blame for everything from crime to disease on the doorstep of the unmarried, rather than examining deeper, more complex underlying causes. They demand even more marriage incentives and legal obstacles to divorce.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is keep the conversation alive - not let the subject of marriage status discrimination get buried among other, seemingly more urgent issues. I had an interesting recent experience. My friend Lisa Ehrlich is a certified public accountant. She's one of the really significant people in my life, and some time ago we co-authored an essay for the Alternatives to Marriage Project Update called "Reflections on Politics, Death, and Taxes." For those who might want to take a peek at it, it's posted in the newsletter archives of the Alternatives to Marriage Project website. Lisa's financial expertise enabled her to detail the American tax code's biases against unmarried people. For instance, a married couple doesn't have to pay capital gains tax on the first 500,000 dollar increase in value on a house that's being sold. An unmarried person - living alone, with friends, in an unlicensed partnership that might not be monogamous - can exclude only 250,000 of the gain. That's an incredible margin.
So, we published the piece. And I got an appreciative email from my oldest friend's mom, a married social worker who lives in New York. She wrote that the essay really opened her eyes. She had not realized the kind of legal and financial privileges she was enjoying as a wife. Now, this is one of the brightest, most articulate women I know. She has worked in the area of public policy and reads the newspaper compulsively. She's been signing joint tax returns for 45 years. But she didn't have a full picture of the system she was perpetuating. I think it's a telling little anecdote; marriage-status discrimination is somewhat invisible. Debates about racial issues, foreign policy, or a hot subject like the environment, are prominent in the public domain. But marital-status discrimination goes largely unchecked. It's not on most people's radar screens. So those of us who have thought the issues through need to keep them alive: in print, in conversation. This doesn't make us gurus or role models of any sort - just people with a strong historical and ethical consciousness.