Saturday, March 16, 2013

How gay marriage can help straight women achieve marriage equality

What is traditional marriage?

Yesterday Ohio senator, Rob Portman, a conservative Republican who had previously spoken out against gay marriage, came out in support of it on the grounds that conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. In addition, he argued that conservatives believe the family is the building block of society, thus supporting gay marriage is a way to support people making long-term commitments to each other.

Portman's supporters hail his change of heart as a victory for gay rights. His detractors claim that he's made an emotional decision to support his gay son while abandoning conservative principles.

On both sides of the debate over gay marriage the term 'traditional marriage' is invoked. Those who seek legal guarantees of marriage equality say that they want to have the right to a traditional marriage. Those who are against gay marriage cast themselves as defenders of traditional marriage. There is an assumption on both sides about what traditional marriage means. Both marriage equality supporters and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) supporters speak of traditional marriage as a positive value. There is little to no discussion about whether or not this is actually true.

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi
on their wedding day
Many of those who are the most vocal in this debate, groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, President Barak Obama, blogger Andrew Sullivan, Senator Rick Santorum, NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and former pope Benedict XVI are men. I'm not dismissing the contributions of Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, Rachel Maddow, Michelle Bachman, and other women on this issue. It should be noted that Ellen DeGeneres is a vocal advocate not just of gay marriage, but of gay rights. She has pushed the national conversation about gay bullying, gay suicide, and the welfare of gay children by speaking of these issues on her television shows and in interviews.

But on the whole, women are not driving the debate over traditional marriage. Part of the reason is that men who engage in this debate are often in positions of political or religious power - careers often closed to women. Another reason might be that though women are more likely to accept a gay child/friend/co-worker than men, they are far less likely to be gay themselves. According to the Kinsey Institute, 75% of homosexuals are male while only 25% are female.

Traditional marriage is a vague term. It can mean whatever people want it to mean: a man and a woman, two people who make a loving commitment to each other, two people legally bound to each other, one man and several women, equal partners, strict gender roles, a sacred bond, a ball and chain, a master and servant, etc. Whose traditions are we invoking when we use the term traditional marriage and, more importantly, who benefits from the tradition invoked?

Is traditional marriage good for women?

Photo of child brides and their husbands from
Cynthia Gorney's piece for National Geographic
"Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides"
Currently, for millions of women in the developing world, traditional marriage means being forced to marry before the age of seventeen to a man much older. It means having child after child with no recourse to birth control. It means always being sexually available to their husband, being denied formal education, and having limited access to health care. For the majority of women in the world, traditional marriage means becoming the property of a man who is expected to provide for his wife and children, but who is not censured by society if he fails to do this. On the other hand, wives of these men often face brutal repercussions for not fulfilling society's expectations of them to be submissive, uncritical, and monogamous.

In the United States, traditional marriage means divorce for 53% of couples. Studies show that divorced women are far less financially stable than married women or divorced men. A recent Pew study asked Americans what was better for children, a working mother, a stay-at-home mother, or a mother who worked part time. When Pew was justifiably criticized for not asking the same question about fathers, they answered, "next time." Pew is a progressive institution and even its researchers assumed that it was mothers who determined the well-being of children by their career choices. By framing the question this way, Pew is confirming what many in the U.S. believe to be true: men should pursue their careers with autonomy and a father's career choices do not have any bearing on the well-being of children. Pew's survey completely ignored how a woman's career choices impact the well-being of women. It's as if the mother's well-being is completely irrelevant in a traditional marriage.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count program, as of 2011, 35% of American children are being raised in single-parent households and 75% of those households are father-less. In the African-American community, the number of children being raised by mothers alone is a staggering 72%. For various reasons, an increasing number of women with children are not in traditional marriages.

Studies show that married men live longer and report higher overall happiness than single men. However, married women are much more likely to be killed by their husband than a stranger. Is this the model for traditional marriage that is so valued by advocates of marriage equality and male/female only marriage?

What about the Biblical definition of marriage?

Some might respond that the statistics above are symptoms of the breakdown of traditional marriage rather than characteristics of it. Religious conservatives, in particular, like to talk about how the Bible defines traditional marriage. Neither the Tanak nor the Christian Scriptures contains a dictionary-like definition of marriage. They do, however have lots of stories about married people, laws about marriage, and teachings about marriage. The Biblical "definition" of marriage is assumed to be one man and one woman who act out gender roles proscribed by a supernatural power who is strictly male. Biblical marriages are most often forced or at least arranged without the consent of the woman. Many Biblical marriages are polygamous. In most Biblical marriages, female infidelity is forbidden while male infidelity is encouraged. Biblical law allows for selling one's daughter into marriage and divorcing one's wife for a variety of petty offenses. Biblical marriage does not allow for women to initiate divorce. Biblical marriage reduces women to chattel and men to their masters. Biblical marriage does not support even the smallest degree of female autonomy when it comes to marriage.

Traditional marriage as a justification for abusing and exploiting women

Even the most ardent Christians in the U.S. tend not to subscribe to the Bible's examples of marriage. They take away the male/female bit and ignore the rest. The marriages of Evangelical Christians are no more Biblical than the marriages of their atheist neighbors. Evangelical wives are high school educated, they work, they vote, they initiate divorce, they use birth control, and they exercise legal and financial autonomy. But they, like their husbands, speak of their marriage as Biblically-based and 'traditional'. Why?

A historical view shows us that traditional marriage is a term used to justify the abuse and exploitation of women all the while couching that abuse and exploitation as God's will.

Years ago in the U.S. traditional marriage was the reason it took women suffragists so long to get Congress to legalize voting rights for women. Anti-suffragists argued that married men would have a political advantage over single men because the married men could simply tell their wives how to vote. Traditional marriage is the reason why women in the U.S. don't earn equal pay to men. It is the reason American women, though increasingly better educated than their male counterparts, do not achieve the same levels of career success. Traditional marriage is why we don't have many women CEOs and why their are so few women in Congress. Traditional marriage is why we have not been able to elect a woman president in the U.S.

Because of traditional marriage, I didn't have a credit history until I bought a car in my own name six years ago even though together with my husband I'd already bought a car and two houses. Traditional marriage meant that until 1993 in the U.S., when a husband forced his wife to have sex against her will that was not considered rape. In many nations today, wives have no recourse to the law when their husbands force them to have sex. Traditional marriage means that men will often earn more money than their wives and leave the care of children and ageing parents to their wives because they are taught via biology, theology, and history that women are "natural caregivers".

Traditional marriage is the justification for denying women birth control and abortions. It discourages women from filing charges against their abusive husbands. It shames sexually active girls while secretly high-fiving sexually active boys. "At least he's not gay," one conservative mother told me when she learned her teenage son was sexually active with his teenage girlfriend.

Why are we defending traditional marriage as a good thing? Because those most vocal in this debate on both sides are men. Traditional marriage, however you define it, offers tremendous benefits for men, far more than it does for women. In addition, traditional marriage frequently assumes a compromised autonomy for women, particularly in regards to their career choices.

How gay marriage can help straight women achieve marriage equality

I am thrilled that homosexuals are on the path to full equality with straights. However, I am also disturbed at how the discussion of gay rights, particularly when it comes to marriage, has not pushed people to re-examine what we mean when we say traditional marriage. What is it that homosexuals want when they say they want legal recognition of their commitment to person they love? Do they want the gender inequality, chattel status, and abuse that has been part of the traditional marriage package for thousands of years? I doubt it. They, like many of their conservative adversaries, seem to want the assumed dignity of the phrase without the reality that it represents for most women. I doubt gay couples want to be forced to marry at fifteen, forced to bear a child each year, and threatened with stoning for talking to a male doctor about their health problems. I doubt gay couples desire their financial and legal decisions be in the hands of only one of them, that one of them should be assumed to do most of the housework and childcare, or that one of them is paid only 77 cents for each dollar the other one makes. And do gay couples want to promise to obey their spouse, to get hassled for not taking their spouse's last name, and to be told that their children will be better off if they only work part time or not at all?

Women are always at the forefront of helping society's 'others' achieve dignity and equality, yet are too often left in the dust afterwards. Traditional marriage, whether it be Biblical, historical, or modern does not offer women the same benefits as it does men. Until women are truly equal partners in marriage both in the U.S. and around the world, I cannot support the notion of traditional marriage and I cannot imagine why gay couples would either.

Perhaps gay marriage will offer straights a chance to finally get it right when it comes to marriage. Same-sex couples may provide straight couples the role models they need to finally break away from marriage traditions that denigrate women and create barriers between men and their children. I'm all for marriage, but I'd like to see a new configuration of it. I challenge gay marriage proponents to come up with a new model of marriage and a new name for it. Let's stop holding up traditional marriage as a good thing and see it for what it has been and, for most women, what it still is: gender bondage. And let's promote gay marriage, not as a continuation of traditional marriage, but a rethinking of commitment, family, and equality.

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