Last week, Minnesota became one of several states to achieve marriage equality, but I hope this is not the end of the state-wide (nation-wide) conversation on marriage.
Last year Minnesotans fought a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage (although it was already technically banned). During the marriage amendment debate in Minnesota, I did some independent research for a paper I was writing on whether community wide “conversations” would change how people feel about gay marriage.
An interesting side observation that emerged from this research was a resistance from both sides to “redefining” what marriage fundamentally means. The pro-amendment (anti-gay marriage) side talked about a fear that allowing same sex couples to marry might fundamentally change what marriage means in our society. Interestingly, the anti-amendment (pro-gay marriage) side did everything they could to make sure people knew that they were not trying to change the definition of marriage; they were just trying to broaden who was allowed into the institution.
Neither side wanted to “redefine” marriage; the actual “definition” or meaning of marriage was rarely brought into question.
As we legally open the institution of marriage to same sex couples, I hope I am not alone in asking that we talk about changing the social definition of marriage as well.
Let’s face it–marriage has historically been an oppressive institution. Marriage has been about childbearing, maintaining racial supremacy, dividing labor along gender lines, trading women as property, or passing moral judgment on who should or should not be in love.
Contemporary marriage is not completely free from the vestiges of those past traditions and beliefs.
As recent as 2008, the University of Michigan released a study showing that when women marry men their hours spent on household chores increases by 7 hours a week, and they save their husbands one hour of chore time. Fathers still frequently “give away” their daughters to men, and I have been asked countless times why I am not taking my partners last name while he has not been asked once why he is not changing his name. Of course, my father and partner do not think of me as property and I do not place much importance of changing a name (or not), but the persistence of these traditions indicates the need for a larger conversation about what marriage means to our generation. How can we (feminist men and women) be both liberated and married?
Right now we have a great opportunity to push for conversations that redefine marriage for our generation. What does it mean to be in a legal partnership as equals? What does it mean to serve your partner and yourself in a marriage? What does it mean to be liberated within the institution of marriage? And what does it mean to be in a partnership independent of childbearing and making money?
I believe recent marriage equality movements present an opportunity to spark these conversations in our communities.
A mentor of mine once told me about how she feels her marriage is fundamentally different. She and her wife cannot fall back on traditional gender roles; they are forced to discuss their roles and responsibilities from an equal footing. They have had conversations that I think many heterosexual couples avoid.
The early research on same sex marriage backs up this anecdote. Same sex marriages tend to be more egalitarian and have more equal and productive arguments.
While writing this I am thinking about the marriage vows I will make to my future husband in less than one month. Of all the wedding planning activities this is the one that has kept me up at night. It seems daunting to write down vows to my partner when there is no single definition of marriage I can abide by.
Yet I do not feel that I am joining an oppressive institution. I am making a choice to redefine our marriage as liberating for both my partner and I. We are choosing to use our marriage as a foundation to build upon and support one another rather than shackles on our own personal dreams. I hope to reflect this sentiment in the vows I will write to my partner even if this runs counter to more traditional notions of what marriage is or should be.
But, marriage is not just a contract between two people. Marriage is at its heart a social institution. That is, after all, why it is so important to us to make our vows in front of community, and it is why I hope our definition of marriage will contribute to a larger social discussion of what marriage means.
What is your definition of marriage? Please share your thoughts, ideas, or vows you made–or will make– to spark the conversation.