Why push for marriage reform when the institution of marriage itself only reinforces patriarchal norms, asks Jenn Leyva?
On Sunday, The New York Times published an article opining that the end of marriage will be bad for women and girls. Oh, so we’re saving women and girls now. Our culture is saturated with misogyny, and I’m interested not only in theoretical ideals but also practical, tangible, incremental steps for creating my feminist utopia. OK, I’ll bite.
So, how does marriage protect trans* (an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum) women? The average trans* lifespan is 23 years and could use some structural support (in addition to a cultural revolution and a thousand other righteous demands being made). Since the average age of marriage in the United States is about 27, I doubt marriage will have a practical effect. Furthermore, a few clicks around the Trans Women’s Anti Violence Project and it’s clear that violence directed at trans* women has nothing to do with marriage. The violence trans* women face is about surviving in a world not designed for women, let alone women who do not fit into the bogus categories we’ve created. Marriage won’t help or protect trans* women, so the argument is bogus. And let me just stop you before you say something disgusting in the comments: Trans* women are real women. If, in crafting your arguments about women, your definition of women doesn’t include trans* women, try again. Justice for women must include all women.
My insistence on including the experiences of trans* women is not just nitpicky. Our movements for justice have to center the voices of the most vulnerable, the most marginalized. As Dean Spade writes in Normal Life, when we engage in reform work without centering the voices of the most marginalized, we end up strengthening violent institutions while leaving the vulnerable even more vulnerable. Prison reform strengthens prisons and while some do experience some relief, it doesn’t improve the lives of those most targeted by the prison industrial complex. Marriage reform (and this includes gay marriage) doesn’t end capitalism or misogyny; it strengthens it.
Marriage has always been about ensuring a patriarchal family norm for the succession of property. More than love or whatever else Hallmark is trying to sell you, marriage is about capitalism and the social control of women. When I say this I don’t mean that all men beat their wives and lock them in dungeons to produce goods (though if you’re into that, don’t forget your safe words!). I mean that marriage, as a social norm, is about the state creating a set of rules for the distribution of property. These rules rely on blood ties, so women are forced to be chaste and otherwise complacent. It’s complicated since women are often willing participants because marriage brings about a certain level of social comfort. To this day, a woman over a certain age (around 35) has to explain why she isn’t married or engaged or having babies or fulfilling certain “womanly achievements.”
But what if you choose to get married? Shouldn’t I, as a feminist, support every woman’s choice? No. I’m not pro-choice; I’m pro-abortion. I’m not interested in privileged white women making choices. I’m interested in justice. I’m interested in creating a new reality in which misogyny is not something that we have to unlearn and work around. To that end, I am trying to build a world without marriage, without the nation-state, without inter-generational wealth.
We need alternative support structures. If marriage is holding the promise of healthcare, caretakers, and a host of other social needs, we need a way for everyone to have those things without marriage. Let’s start with universal healthcare (if it’s good enough for France, Germany, England, and Canada, it’s good enough for us). Let’s unlearn the ways we have been taught to monetize our interactions with one another. Caretaking is valuable work, but it’s not just “women’s work.” Let’s imagine ways to support each other without capitalism. I know it sounds impossible, but that’s the point. I want a society that is so radically different it cannot be imagined within our current understanding of “how things are.”
As much as I would like to believe that marriage could create equality, marriage is about ensuring the status quo. The problem is that the status quo is not just broken, it’s wrong. To quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Marriage won’t fix misogyny and capitalism because marriage is built on and from a deeply flawed culture. To really fight for justice, we must dwell in possibility and fight for these supposedly impossible possibilities.
NOTE: “Trans*” (written with an asterisk) is taken generally to mean: Transgender, Transsexual, Genderqueer, Non-Binary, Genderfluid, Intersex, Third gender, Transvestite, Cross-dresser, Bi-gender, Trans man, Trans woman, Agender and further gender expressions that we may not be aware of, whereas “trans” (without an asterisk) could be taken to mean only trans men and trans women.
When Jenn Leyva was 16, her dad told her that he’d buy her a car if she lost weight. She cried, finished her calculus homework, and is now a New York-based fat activist and recent graduate of Columbia, where she studied biochemistry. She authors Fat Smart And Pretty, a fat blog about social justice, feminism, science, health, and fa(t)shion.