Over Word: Marriage is a…political institution?

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For the enjoyable podcast that my friend and I did last night, I must thank Susan Moller Okin (rest in peace,) for calling out this idea that I’d never really given much thought before.

The premise of Okin’s paper that I read for my political theory class (I do not, in fact, read theories of liberalism for my own pleasure) is that we cannot claim that liberalism is humanistic, that is, pertaining to the good of humans, because we constantly neglect half of the human race. And although I’m very familiar with feminist rhetoric and have myself spewed some myself, I had never laid out as interesting an argument as she did. And I’d certainly never paused to consider the political implications of all the social nors that I love discussing.

All liberalist theories assumes that there exist separate spheres of public and private life, that ought to be regulated differently. That’s a constitutive feature of liberal thought, and liberal theories could not debate the separation of such spheres without the assumption that they exist. Generally there is a consensus that the private life belongs to the individual and the public must adhere to the rules of the governing body. Of course, the latter is heavily debated, but the idea of separation exists.

However, Okin aruges that because informal institutions like gender roles, family values, and marriage prevent women from transitioning between the public and private sphere, these institutions must be considered political, and therefore the government must be aware of and maybe even take a stance on it.

On our broadcast last night, my friend and I focused on marriage, because we agreed that that seemed the most immediately obvious institution of society. And of course, that we could talk about gender roles and their effects for hours, and certainly not come to any conclusions during our short broadcast. We began our conversation by discussing Okin’s stipulation that marriage should be made a political matter.

It’s political because it’s designed to leave one half of the population strictly regulated to the private sphere, denying them voice in the government and important economic sectors, and limiting them strictly to unpaid labor.

The conclusion we came to: there are certain constructed norms created by and reinforced in society, that the government did not necessarily manufacture. So perhaps Okin’s argument can be countered in this way: that the governing body’s current stance on women’s rights and marriage, which she argues is now detrimental to women, is really just the result of harmful societal norms.

The recurring question: should the government’s beliefs come from the bottom-up? Or should it serve as a guiding force?

Do the people dictate what the government believes, and what stance it takes on issues? Or should the government at time go against popular ideas in the name of pursuing a “good life”? Very Aristotelian, I know.

I haven’t completely formulated my own ideas on this topic. I think in the case of something like women’s rights, it’s quite easy for me to get swept up into the camp of institutional change because it’s obviously quite personal to me, as a young woman who finds herself subtly pushed towards weddings and marriages in the grand scope of her life.

But on the other hand, to say that the government make take a stance for or against certain societal norms quite obviously blurs the line between the public and private spheres of life. It’s dangerous to give the governing body agency to interfere in the private sphere on one issue, because it quickly becomes normative for them to do so on any issue that a majority, or even a vocal minority, feels passionate about. In this case, society is no longer liberal, but rather caters to the wants and needs of whoever speaks the loudest.

And what can we say about the sacred institution of marriage that has been around for so many years? Has it become so integrated into our world that we cannot see a functional society without it? Can I, or other women, feel like we are good people and worthy contributions to society without also becoming a wife, and then a mother? For that is the economic output that women are expected to generate. And that’s why Okin called marriage a political instituion: it includes the regulation of one half of the population to the sector of unpaid labor.

I would bet anything that she was labeled an angry feminist, one fed up with marriage because she’d had one that failed, and that her ideas were taken as too contrary to what society deems good to be taken seriously. It’s a problem that in itself limits discourse: men don’t want their own roles in society limited, and so they maintain positions of power for men who agree with them to this fact. And one generation after another, the pattern is established and maintained, and burrowed deeper into our thought patterns.

The question all but disappears: do you want what you want? or have you been conditioned to want it?

I personally can’t see myself getting married anytime soon because in my head, that’s still reserved for adults. And that doesn’t mean that I’m waiting for a certain age, at which I will start to consider it as a viable option. I’ve met 16 year-olds who have seemed to me adults, and I have met people my parents’ age who don’t have even my level of maturity. I’ll view myself as an adult when I feel self-sufficient. When even on my down days, I still feel like I am myself, or whatever version of myself I am at that point, and that I don’t need any external things to feel whole. I’m not sure if that makes sense, and really not sure if anyone ever feels like that. I certainly only have for weeks at a time at most.

What is the practical purpose of marriage? It’s a reasonable option, of course. You can declare your taxes together, so it makes sense from a financial end. But as my friend and podcast co-host pointed out to me, it might not make sense from a legal end, especially now. Why would you bind yourself, your person and your property, to another person, and why would you especially vow to do so forever?

On the one hand, my lovely, idealistic friend has said on multiple occasions that she wants to get married someday because she finds the concept of the promise of eternal love to be truly something beautiful and worth institutionalizing. And on the other, my more cynical friend has said to me: Why would anyone ever get married? That’s like dating, but even worse because you can’t break up with them.

How much is the desire to marry for women a result of societal norms and not something they truly want? Perhaps it’s impossible to separate the two. I speak of women specifically not to exclude men, for they are also subject to the expectation to “settle down,” but because the article I read dealt primarily with the political implications put on women in the institution of marriage, and also because of personal reasons.

It seems like the political implications of marriage are, for women, reinforced by societal norms. The role of “mom” reinforced in the media, in our culture, and in both our traditional and modern thought, tells women that there are moral implications for their decisions regarding marriage. And further to that, there are expectations of women after marriage, regarding their children. That is another piece in the making. Suffice it to say for now that I’ve had a lot to think about, after reading Okin’s piece, and I question whether even the romantic notions surrounding marriage are truly genuine, or in fact a farce to create compatible companions for the truly valuable public citizens of our society.

So there you go. What started as a hopefully intellectual piece about political theory became my personal ramblings. That’s the beauty of Medium, I guess. Hopefully some pieces of my thoughts will resonate with someone — in that case, respond! My ideas are by no means formed; I am eternally grateful to anyone who has anything to say, either affirming or contradicting what I’ve written here, because it helps me to gain more perspecitve. I urge you all to help me grow over word.