Modern Feminism and the Backlash Against Marriage

I was having a conversation about this yesterday with a very good friend of mine and she inspired me to write an article about it. We were talking about marriage, and how feminism and the ideal of the ‘modern woman’ interact with our idea of marriage. I think it’s obvious to say that the weight of marriage in a woman’s life and in our society has been decreasing for many years. Not to say that it isn’t still important, just that it is no longer understood to be basically mandatory for women. Society no longer demands that women get married, it provides other options for women to achieve financial success and stability outside of marriage, it allows and indeed supports (to some extent and in more places than others) sexual activity before and outside of the marriage bed. As a society, we no longer explicitly control women in this way.

But just because society no longer explicitly enforces these views doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Women are still expected to get married. Women still put their worth in being able to find a man. Movies and television shows tell us that we should want to be in a relationship. Most female characters in our media are actively looking for relationships, and many female characters are solely defined through being love interests. Single women characters are often shunned or pitied; they are commonly relegated to the ‘funny sidekick’ role and problematically are often women of colour or fat women. This is problematic because pretending that WoC and/or fat women don’t ‘need’ relationships is just as bad as pretending that white women always need relationships. It’s the opposite side of the same coin, that pigeonholes and stereotypes women. The ‘strong black woman’ trope who doesn’t need a man is not a feminist response to our media’s preoccupation with women finding men. None of these tropes allow women to be full, three-dimensional characters.

Beyond relationships, our culture is also obsessed with women as mothers. Advertisements, be they print or video, implicitly assume that women are the primary caretakers of the home and family. Motherhood (and all that comes with it) is widely thought of as a role that comes naturally to all women, and therefore ought to be desired by all women. Kelly Ripa’s Electrolux ads are a good example of this:

Now, if you didn’t know anything about Kelly Ripa, you might think that she’s a stay at home single mom. In reality, she has a husband and has a career, but those are things we never see. It’s just her and her Electrolux, running the show. And after all, what woman doesn’t want to be supermom? Housework RULES!!

Society still forces women to place their worth in their relationship status. So Feminism has worked hard over the years to dispel these myths, to prove that women are not only capable of existing outside of being with a man (again, something too few female characters are shown to do), but that they are capable of living full, happy amazing lives that don’t have to revolve around marriage or men. Now, this is important: re-read what I just said. That women are capable of living full, happy amazing lives that don’t have to revolve around marriage or men. Not that in order to be a feminist you shouldn’t want a relationship or want to be a mother. But somewhere along the line this got mixed up, and here we have today this idea that feminism hates marriage and that to be a feminist means ‘not needing a man’ (remember how I said that was problematic for WoC?) and that motherhood and marriage and domesticity absolutely equal female subservience. 

I have heard girls and women say things like “well, I don’t want to get married because I’m a feminist”. This is very problematic, because that is not what feminism is. Feminism does not dislike marriage on principle. What Feminism does dislike is the idea that in order for a woman to do anything or be anything or even survive, she needs a husband. It disagrees with the idea that there is no such thing as an independent woman outside of marriage. It disagrees with the notion that women are born and bred to be mothers and wives. All of those things, yes - those are things that feminism is against. But to say that being a feminist means you have to be against marriage is a clear misunderstanding of what feminism is and what feminism stands for.

It reinforces the INCORRECT notion that feminism is about hating men. Feminism is about ending inequality towards women. For a long time that meant marriage, as marriages were institutionally and explicitly a site of inequality towards women. And Feminism is STILL against inequalities that persist within modern marriages, such as the phenomenon of the ‘second shift’, the idea that mothers are naturally more caring/better caregivers than fathers, and domestic violence. But the idea of marriage itself, of two people wanting to spend the rest of their lives together because they WANT to - feminism is not against that!

If you understand one principle about Feminism, it ought to be this: that Feminism respects a woman’s autonomy to make her own choices. If that means going to school and getting your PhD? Awesome. If that means starting your own business? Super. If that means getting married young and being a stay-at-home mom? STILL GREAT.

When I was talking with my friend, she was upset because she considers herself a feminist but also wants to marry young and start a family. Because of this, she felt that people (especially other feminists) looked down on her. As a religious woman, she felt that other feminists believed her to be brainwashed or incapable of thinking for herself - that she was throwing her life away for a man. Now, my friend is a well educated woman. She is smart and independent. Seriously, nobody is going to make this girl do something she doesn’t want to do. She has very concrete ideas about what she wants to do in her life, and one of them is get married. Feminism is supposed to encourage individualism and individual decision making amongst women. It’s supposed to create and encourage a community that supports different choices, that supports women pursuing their dreams whatever those dreams may be. If my friend wanted to get married because she felt like she had to - because she felt like she couldn’t be happy without a man, because she felt like she had no worth outside of marriage, because she knew that there were no other options for her other than marriage? That would be something that, as a feminist, I would absolutely disagree with. But seeing her make an independent, informed choice about what it is she wants to do with her life and going after it? Hello! That is Feminism in action people! Creating such a concrete opposition to the principle of marriage is just as bad as a concrete opposition to single women. Telling women that ‘marriage is bad’ is just as bad as telling them that ‘not having a husband is bad’.

I dislike environments where women ‘shame’ other women. That girl is a slutThat girl is never going to find a guy who wants her. That girl is throwing her life away by getting married. These are all statements of shame, perpetuated by women onto other women. This is not feminism. Statements like these are just as bad as a society explicitly demanding things from women, because they assume that there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to be a woman. That there is a right way to dress, a right way to act, a right way to interact with men. That is NOT feminism.

There is no one ‘right’ way for a woman to live her life. If you want to be a burlesque dancer? GO FOR IT. You want to get married young? RIGHT ON. As long as the choices you’re making in your life are made by you, and for you, as long as you are not making these choices under duress, as long as you have the opportunities to pursue other avenues if you wish, and as long as the choices you are making are educated ones? Then whatever choice you make, it’s a good one. That is what feminism is. Believing in the fact that individual women are capable of making the best choices for themselves.

Women are not one homogeneous mass. We’re different people, we want different things. Feminism doesn’t mean that you can’t have a man, or that wanting to get married to one is a bad thing. What it does mean is that if you don’t want to do that, you shouldn’t have to. That you’re worth more than a marriage certificate or whoever you’re dating. That your worth is not bound up in your ability to be a mother. That you are a fully fledged, three-dimensional, autonomous being who is capable of making your own choices about what you want your future to look like.  Feminism is about choice, and respecting a woman’s right to choose her own path.

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