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A Feminist Critique of Marriage

At a time of unparalleled social freedom, can we imagine a better way of living?

Source: Pixabay

[Article revised on 27 March 2020.]

Human societies tend to various degrees of patriarchy, in which men hold primary power. Most anthropologists agree that there are no known unambiguously matriarchal societies. In the state of nature, man subjugated woman by being physically stronger, while woman was frequently incapacitated by pregnancy and childrearing, which, through giving birth and breastfeeding, naturally fell upon her.

In a modern society like ours, which benefits from advances such as mechanization and birth control, the male advantage has become largely if not entirely redundant. But still the patriarchy endures, upheld by hoary ideology and vested interests.

This ideology is manifest, among others, in the socialization of children, which emphasizes man as breadwinner and decision-taker, and woman as mother and homemaker. Boys are encouraged to be brave and strong, while girls are expected to be passive and pretty, through, among others, fairy tales, dolls, activities such as dressing up or baking, and, above all, the examples and attitudes of role models, including historical figures.

From a young age, girls in particular are indoctrinated into the virtues of marriage, which itself contributes to maintaining and perpetuating traditional gender roles. Beyond a certain age, a man who remains unmarried is thought of as independent or intelligent, whereas a woman who remains unmarried is assumed to be desperate, at once a figure of pity and scorn. An unmarried man is called a bachelor—and you might even find him on a list of eligible bachelors—but apart from the antiquated ‘maiden’ or ‘spinster’, there is, despite the renowned richness of the English language, no polite term for an unmarried woman.

A woman who is strong-minded enough to forgo marriage and live out her own life is constantly made to doubt her resolve:

  • "Never say never..."
  • "You just need to find the right man..."
  • "There’s this great guy I’d like you to meet...”

On the marriage market, women are made to feel like low-value, perishable goods. To find a taker, whether for marriage or just for sex, they need, much more than men, to conform to sexist, ageist, and racist stereotypes, and do appalling things such as wear makeup and high heels, which become the visible symbols of their oppression.

As they are encouraged to marry a man who is older, more educated, and better connected, they tend to begin married life in a doubly subordinate position, which, of course, suits the man just fine.

So much is evident from popular culture. Even seemingly innocuous pop songs, which on the surface are about romantic love, are in fact inherently sexist, revealing love as little more than a tool of patriarchal oppression. Here, picked almost at random, are the opening lyrics of You Can’t Hurry Love by the Supremes:

I need love, love to ease my mind/ I need to find, find someone to call mine/ But mama said you can’t hurry love/ No you just have to wait.

It would be hard to imagine these lines in the mouth of a man.

And here are the opening lyrics of Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler:

Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit lonely/ And you’re never coming round/ Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit tired/ Of listening to the sound of my tears/ Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit nervous/ That the best of all the years have gone by/ Turnaround, every now and then I get a little bit terrified/ And then I see the look in your eyes/ Turnaround bright eyes, but every now and then I fall apart.

For contrast, compare these lyrics from Chris Brown’s Fine China:

It’s alright/ I’m not dangerous/ When you’re mine/ I’ll be generous/ You’re irreplaceable, a collectible/ Just like fine china.

The marriage ceremony itself is sexist beyond parody. The bride appears in a fussy white dress that symbolizes her virtue and virginity, and everyone keeps on remarking on how thin and beautiful she looks. Her father walks her down the aisle to ‘give her away’, and she passes, like property, from one man to another. The minister, who is traditionally and still usually a man, gives the man permission to kiss the woman, as if that is in the minister’s authority and the woman has no voice of her own. The man kisses, the woman is kissed. At the reception, only men are given to speak, while the bride remains seated and silent as a snowflake. Henceforth, the woman will adopt the man’s name, as will their eventual offspring. Despite all this, the wedding day is said to belong to the woman. This, would you believe, is ‘her day’.

Why should two people who want to celebrate their love and live together put themselves through a wedding, or even get married at all? Or to turn the question round, what is the state, arm in arm with the Church, doing by sanctioning the private relationships of citizens? By legitimizing a particular kind of relationship and denying others, the state is entrenching monogamy and patriarchy while devaluing and disenfranchising other forms of life and the people who choose or are forced into them, including single people, people in open or polyamorous relationships, and groups such as African Americans and the poor who for various reasons are less likely to marry.

Anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized inter-racial marriages, and sometimes even inter-racial sex, remained in force in many U.S. states until as late as 1967. Is this not the state telling us who is and isn’t fit to raise a family, and what that family ought to look like? Marital status is not merely a matter of social prestige, but is attached to myriad benefits in areas as diverse as immigration, healthcare, banking, taxation, and inheritance.

In addition, marriage benefits the economy by producing new workers and consumers, largely through the unpaid work of women, and by making it difficult for workers with families to support to withdraw their labour. A wedding alone generates spending of, on average, £31,974 (about $38,000), and probably that again on the gift list and the travel and other expenses of the wedding guests. And even that pales into insignificance compared to the £230,000+ required to raise a child, let alone two or three.

The laws that govern marriage are drafted by the state rather than the couple that has to abide by them, and while marriage is deceptively simple and straightforward to enter, it is, like the Hotel California, much more difficult to leave—and in two-thirds of cases, it is the woman who files for divorce. Divorce is a personal tragedy unnecessarily inflicted by the state on about 40% of the marriages that it sanctions, amounting in the U.S. alone to one divorce approximately every 36 seconds.

When a couple divorces, people usually ask what went wrong with their marriage, without ever questioning whether there is anything wrong with marriage itself. Here are the closing lyrics of Hotel California:

Mirrors on the ceiling/ The pink champagne on ice/ And she said, ‘we are all just prisoners here, of our own device’ ... Last thing I remember, I was/ Running for the door/ I had to find the passage back to the place I was before/ ‘Relax’ said the night man/ ‘We are programmed to receive/ You can check out any time you like/ But you can never leave!'

To partake in the institution of marriage in the 21st century is also to condone the historical abuses perpetrated in its name. Until relatively recently, women faced a ‘choice’ between marriage and a life of poverty and stigma. In many parts of the world, they still do. In Marriage and Morals (1929), the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that ‘marriage is for woman the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution.’ Once married, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed under those of her husband, and the so-called marriage bar restricted her ability to work outside the home. Her husband could rape her with impunity, and yet contraception, abortion, and divorce were all denied to her.

The rape of an unmarried woman was construed as a property crime against her father, robbing him of his daughter’s precious virginity—with, in some cases, the woman forced to marry her rapist. Rape of a married woman by a man other than her husband was construed as a crime against the husband, with little concern or regard for the woman herself. Only from the middle of the 20th century did evolving social norms lead to the criminalization of marital rape, but there are still many jurisdictions in which it remains a private matter or in which the law is not enforced. Forced marriage is still practiced the world over, including, albeit illegally, in the U.K. and U.S., and if marriage does not require consent, then, following that particular logic, neither does any subsequent sexual intercourse. Many married women cannot even leave the home without their husband’s permission. Women who protest or try to escape, or so much as talk to another man, risk being beaten or even murdered in an ‘honor killing’. In 2013, not so long ago, an eight-year old Yemeni girl died from internal bleeding after being raped by her forty-year-old husband on ‘their’ wedding night.

When I was a child, it was customary for a woman to sit in the passenger seat when there was a man in the car, or in a back seat if there were two men, because everyone assumed that the man or men had to be in charge. Things have improved since then: women have much more economic and political clout than they did just twenty or thirty years ago, and men are much more egalitarian in their approach to matrimony. But women still shoulder the bulk of the housekeeping and childrearing, even when working full-time. A married man is likely to pursue his career as though he were still single, while a married woman is expected to forfeit her public life to follow her husband or care for the young, the old, and the infirm of the family. Employers look favourably upon married men, who are deemed to be more mature and responsible, while married women may be passed over for fear that they will go off to have babies or, worse, refuse to collude with the patriarchy. A vicious circle sets in. Because the man brings in more money, his time is valued and prioritized, while the woman’s unpaid contributions, which she fits around the man, remain largely invisible. The more the man earns, the more the woman can afford to slip into subordination, with the middle classes leveraging their privilege to entrench the old gender stereotypes.

The truth of the matter is that a lot of people tie the knot because they are terrified of loneliness, or buckle under the social and psychological pressure that bears upon the unmarried state. But in the longer term, marriage can be even lonelier than its alternatives, and that’s before it breaks up. ‘The trouble’ mused the writer Charlotte Brontë (d. 1855) ‘is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.’ There is also an argument that marriage is detrimental to community, weakening ties with relatives, friends, and neighbours. ‘Families, I hate you!’ wrote André Gide in Les Nourritures Terrestres (1897), ‘bolted homes, shut doors, jealous repositories of happiness.’ [Familles, je vous hais! foyers clos; portes refermées; possessions jalousies du bonheur.] There is of course the intimate relationship with the spouse, but sex can lose its appeal when it becomes a habit, or when it is taken for granted— wherefore the proliferation of sex manuals aimed at married women. In the spring of its rapture, romantic love seems to enclose the germs of freedom and fullfilment, but, with the turning of the seasons, yields nothing but failure and frustration—and it is worth remembering that man had no time for romantic love back in the day when woman was his possession.

The gay rights movement fought long and hard for gay marriage, and, in many countries, carries on the fight. But ironically, this obscured the feminist message by making marriage seem like the crowning glory of love and a fundamental human right. David Cameron as Pater Patriae (a Roman honorific meaning ‘Father of the Fatherland’) declared that he supported gay marriage because he was a conservative, not in spite of it: and marriage, even gay marriage, or especially gay marriage, is a deeply conservative institution.

Equality in marriage as in everything is of course to be welcome, but equality in this case should not be confused with liberation. To have the right to do something because others have it is one thing, to exercise that right is quite another.

In The Second Sex (1949), the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote that ‘marriage is obscene in principle insofar as it transforms into rights and duties those mutual relations which should be founded on a spontaneous urge’.

At a time of unparalleled social freedom, why, say many feminists, should we limit ourselves to an inauthentic, monotonous, and potentially calamitous life of state-enforced monogamy?

Are we really so brainwashed, and so cowered, that we cannot imagine a better way of living?

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.


Supremes, The (1966): You Can’t Hurry Love. Holland-Dozier-Holland for Motown.

Tyler, B (1983): Total Eclipse of the Heart. Jim Steinman for Columbia Records.

Brown, C (2013): Fine China. Chris Brown, Eric Bellinger, Leon ‘Roccstar’ Youngblood, and Sevyn Streeter for RCA Records.

Brides (2016): How much does a wedding cost?, 12 September 2016.

Collinson P (2016): Cost of raising children in UK higher than ever., 16 February 2016.

CDC/NCHS National Vital Statistics System: National marriage and divorce rate trends 2000-2015. Retrieved on 26 August 2017.

Eagles, The (1977): Hotel rfornia. Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey for Asylum.

Russell B (1929): Marriage and Morals 11: Prostitution.

Elie J (2013): Yemeni child bride, eight, ‘dies on wedding night’., 11 September 2013.

Brontë C (1852): Letter to Ellen Nussey dated 25 August 1852 in Smith M (2004): The Letters of Charlotte Brontë Vol. 3. Clarendon Press.

Gide, A (1897): Les Nourritures Terrestres IV. Trans. Neel Burton.

Guardian, The (2011): David Cameron’s Conservative party conference speech in full., 5 October 2011.

Beauvoir S (1949): The Second Sex (Vintage, 1989) 444. Trans. HM Parshley.

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