Please note that this article mainly focuses on heterosexual marriage. It aims to uncover the marital institution’s historical context. In the past, marriage was limited to heterosexual norms.
Marriage is a hotly contended topic in the feminist community. Modern marriage has become synonymous with a loving union. While we recognize the gendered inequalities that heterosexual relationships used to exhibit, we like to convince ourselves that we have moved past those ideas. More importantly, we want to believe that these issues are unrelated to marriage itself. Some feminists even go as far as to encourage women to get married in order to reclaim the institution. But is that a fair request, given marriage’s history?
The history of marriage
Everyone but the bride seems to benefit from marriage. Originally, families worked together to wed their children, not for sentimental reasons, but economic ones. It allowed them to set up liaisons with important trading partners. As society’s perception of women shifted, it became the traditional act of a man giving his daughter away to another man. We still see this represented by the father walking his daughter down the aisle, officially handing his ‘property’ to the husband-to-be.
Many of our common wedding traditions are remnants of its sexist past. Women tend to opt for a white gown. This symbolizes innocence and purity. It is a reminder that the woman is still a virgin and not ‘spoilt goods,’ as one who had already had sex was considered to be.
Taking the husband’s name is another symptom of patriarchy. Surnames were – and still are – used as a tool to brand women. Switching a woman’s last name from her father’s to her husband’s shows the transferral of ownership.
Besides this, marriages are often not a safe space for women. Marital rape only became illegal in the UK and the US in the 1990s. It is still legal in 47 countries, including Singapore, China, Nigeria, and Vietnam.
Wives are subject to constant sexist stereotypes and are all too often the butt of marriage jokes. We constantly see depictions of the nagging, complaining wife on TV. She offers nothing but an attitude and annoyance to her husband. However, studies find that all the emotional labor women bring to marriages is often what upholds them. Women tend to plan dates, organize therapy sessions, and manage the household.
Women do the largest portion of the housework in a marriage, regardless of which partner is working how much. Researchers suggest that marriage offers a foundation for us to perform gender more actively than we would in other environments. This is because society values the idea of a ‘good wife’ so highly.
The backdrop of women’s oppression
Marriage has been the backdrop of women’s oppression for centuries. It still perpetuates male privilege in many ways, including forced marriages, child brides, and male-only polygamy. The subjugation of women and girls has gone hand-in-hand with marriage for ages.
That being said, women’s individual choices are not a political playground. There is nothing wrong with a woman getting married. But even as marriage is shifting and becoming more inclusive, it seems difficult to imagine it as something feminists can reclaim. Marriage was never ours to begin with. It was set up to be a strategic move, benefiting mainly the men involved, not a true symbol of equality in a loving partnership. It is important for us to be cognizant of the type of institution we are signing our relationship over to before committing to it.