Marriage: Not all it’s Cracked up to be
From a young age girls are led to believe that their wedding day will be one of the most important and happiest days of their lives. Getting married means women have found their ‘soulmate’ who they will love forever and can have children and a house with ; what ‘everyone’ wants.” This view of marriage though is naive and untrue. Marriage is a socially constructed union that is used to enforce racism, perpetuate the patriarchy, is a symbol of status showing economic stability but also promotes psychological health.
Something not commonly known is that one of the many systems used to enforce racism is marriage. While this is a new idea for many who believe marriage to be all about showing love for your significant other professors Dean Spade and Craig Willse from Seattle University School of Law and George Mason University respectively argue that is not true. Spade and Willse argue that “after emancipation, the government scrambled to control Black people, coercing them into marriage among newly freed Black people and criminalizing them for adultery as one pathway of recapturing them into the convict lease system.”(Spade, Willse 1) The convict lease system was a system of penal labor that involved convicts being ‘leased’ out to labor, often on a plantation. This was in essence slavery because until they had served their time they had to do labor on a plantation. The crime that Spade and Willse mention is not truly crime as it is something white people did all the time, breaking marriage vows and having sexual intercourse with another, other than your spouse. If Black people had not been encouraged to get married it would have been harder to get them back on the plantations to work, and through the convict lease system the plantation owners did not have to pay for labor like when they had slaves. The encouragement by white people for Black persons to get married made it easier to get people back onto the plantations to do labor and continued slavery through the use of marriage. Another instance of marriage being used as a form of racism is when both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama used ‘Health Marriage Promotion’ to “encourage low-income women to marry, at times through cash incentives.”(Spade, Willse 2) There is a large number of Black women in poverty in comparison to white women in poverty so these initiatives are geared towards Black women and continues the idea that marriage is a form of racism. These incentives demonize women who decide to remain single and tells them to get married because the government will give you a reward for getting married. Getting married primarily for Black people shows that they have conditioned to believe that is it in their best interest while in fact it is a sign of racism. This is because of why people of color are -and were- encouraged to get married, for racist reasons that help the people higher up in society.
Similar to how marriage reinforces racism it was created to ensure male dominance marriage and ensure the continuation of patriarchy. A woman getting walked down the aisle by her father and being handed off to her husband-to-be is an image that all girls have put in their head to envision on their wedding day. The meaning of this is actually based in the idea that men are the dominant gender. Getting handed off by your father to husband-to-be is the exchange of property, no longer a burden or piece of property for your father but now the responsibility and property of your husband. This idea is all about male domination in society, the woman needs a man to function. In Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage, A History she explores the myths that are associated with marriage and cites one, ‘the oppressive theory’ as one of the most prominent. This theory states that men used women for their own personal gain and coerced them into marriage by “abduction, gang rape or wife beating to enforce their will.” (Coontz 42) These practices would allow a man to gain a wife and ensure that he would be seen as the dominant person and be in charge of his wife. The man being able to show power over a woman ensures that his masculinity is not at stake. A common fear for men is being emasculated which can roughly translate as his wife telling him what to do or the husband doing household chores like dishes and cleaning. By keeping the patriarchy in place men are able to feel strong and ‘in-charge.’ Another aspect of how marriage ensures the continuation of the patriarchy is seen in Native American societies that hunted buffalo. Traditionally hunting buffalo involved the entire tribe, men women and children, after Europeans introduced horses and guns to the Natives hunting became something men did on their own. (Coontz 43) With the ability to kill more buffalo than before men needed more than just one wife to process the meat and hide. Men started to take more than one wife to be able to trade more with the white men. This increase in the number of wives shows that women, although valued for the work they did in processing the meat and hide of a buffalo, were considered wealth because a man with more wives could do more business with the Europeans. Being able to do more business with the Europeans meant that you could afford more than one wife and wives were considered property because of what they could do to help their husbands and fathers. In both examples, marriage perpetuates the continuation of the patriarchy in our male dominated society.
To many people marriage is all about love and commitment to each other. This belief has been drilled into people since they were born. For a woman marriage is a loss of autonomy. In many cultures it is expected for a woman to take her husband’s last name. While this is see as ‘cute’ because it shows her commitment to her husband and her marriage it really means she belongs to him. Someone’s last name is an identifier for who they are and by changing it to match one’s husband it enforces the belief that men should be dominant over women. This belief is the basis of patriarchy and marriage reinforces this belief on all people even if they do not realize it.
Another important part of marriage is how it shows the higher social standing and economic stability of a couple. It is no question that a marriage costs a large sum of money, many people nowadays have a long engagement in order to save money for the cost of their wedding. While the cost of a wedding is a huge drain on the family, in most cases, it is a sign of social climbing. In his article The Deinstitutionalization of Marriage Andrew Cherlin says that “[h]aving the wherewithal to throw a ‘big’ wedding is a vivid display that the couple has achieved enough financial security to do more than live from paycheck to paycheck.’’ (Cherlin 10) Financial security has always been a key factor for marriage; for these couples having a large wedding and reception proves to their friends and family that they, the couple, is smart enough to manage money and are prepared to raise a family. The large wedding proves that these people have a higher social status because they can afford a nice wedding and that is associated with people of the higher social classes. Celebrities almost always have large ‘white weddings’ and that is something that other people of lower classes aspire to get to because it shows they have money to burn. Marriage with the ceremony and reception produces a large bill and being able to pay for all of it proves the higher social status of the couple to others.
Even though marriage is socially constructed it provides important psychological benefits to those who enter into the union. In a study done by Catherine Ross, a sociology professor at Ohio State University at the time of this study, Ross examines the psychological affects marriage has on people. In her article she states that “compared to people who are married, those who are single, divorced, and widowed have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress.”(Ross 129) Ross shows that being married provides an emotional support system that helps people cope with problems they experience in life. As most people can vouch for having someone to listen to your problems and offer advice for you is really nice. Essentially being married is like that. It means that you have someone to talk to and help you when you are having problems. This in-turn as Ross points out in her article, leads to lower depression and anxiety this is because of the companionship that a spouse or partner offers to the person. Even though marriage is socially constructed the psychological benefits are an important part of life.
Marriage is something that all little girls will view as an important part of their lives. Even though marriage is a system that enforces racism due to its original purpose to put African Americans back into slavery. Also that it enforces the patriarchy through its intention of male dominance in a relationship. In addition marriage is something that advances social standing because of what it means you have achieved in your life. Finally marriage is a powerful tool to improve psychological well being of those who enter into the union. While marriage is not as important to people today as it once was it still is viewed as an important piece of everyone’s lives and will continue to be for a long time to come.
Cherlin, Andrew J. “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage.” Journal of Marriage and
Family 66 (November 2004): 848–861. Print.
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin,
Ross, Catherine E. “Reconceptualizing Marriage Status As a Continuum of Social Status.” Journal of Marriage and the Family. 57.1 (1995): 129-40. Print.
Spade, Dean and Craig Willse. “Marriage Will Never Set Us Free.” Organizing Upgrade:
Engaging Left Organizers in Strategic Dialogue. Organizing Upgrade, 6 Sept. 2013. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.