My queer radical feminist peers are aghast that I want to marry

I'm only 21 but I'm itching to get hitched!

Published June 8, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

For slightly over a year I have been in a serious relationship with the best human being I have ever met. He's principled, loyal, wickedly funny and just the right kind of twisted. We have friends and pastimes in common. We get along with each other's families. We fight productively and civilly, have a cat together, banter, and crack each other up. I could go on and on, but you're just going to have to trust me on this one -- we're solid.

We're best friends, and we've started talking about getting engaged within the coming year or so.

The inevitable wrinkle: I'm 21.

I know that a few decades ago I would be prime marrying age and a while before that I'd have been considered a spinster, but these days nobody gets married at 21.

Or, let me rephrase that. Liberal upper-middle-class university-educated alt-culture feminist intellectual daughters of feminists and intellectuals don't get married at 21.

My friends have uniformly responded to any mention of marriage with either abject horror or resigned sorrow. (My best friend and honorary gay husband is a notable exception. He loves my partner and has cheerfully agreed to be my future best man.) My social circle at school is made up mostly of queer, radical feminist, and/or polyamorous hippies living in the most left-wing city in Canada. Discussions about marriage tend to focus on its insidious role as a tool of social control in the hands of patriarchs, religious extremists, capitalist whores, the family-values gang, right-wingers and other shadowy demons of the first order. Walking into the "Womyn's Centre" with an engagement ring on to visit a friend (a room my partner's Y chromosome disqualifies him from entering) would be a profound act of social suicide. My older friends, mostly 30- to 40-year-old teachers, poets and activists, are too enamored of my youthful freedom to bear talk about settling down. Even my mother, who is gagging for grandchildren, said she couldn't believe I was her daughter when I said I'd give the hypothetical rugrats my partner's last name.

Feminism aside, there's the age issue. Another leap of faith I'm going to have to ask you to take is to believe that I'm not your average 21-year-old. Growing up as the daughter of two black sheep who called their parents on alcoholism and childhood abuse has left me with a very strong understanding of what it means to create and maintain healthy families as well as a lot of emotional and communicative skills learned from therapists and my incredible parents. I'm still changing, but I know myself. I've lived alone for three years, I've traveled, I've pursued education in an area I love passionately. My partner is a new and wonderful part of my life, not the end of it. But people talk like I'm going to join a nunnery or sacrifice my sense of self on the altar of matrimony to become a brood mare. OK, exaggeration. They tell me I'll regret it. But it still makes me angry.

My partner, being male and 33 with no previous relationships and no children, is facing opposite pressure. After having been treated as somehow broken or defective for years, having a steady girlfriend has done nothing but help his social standing. He lives in a world of couples, and he's no longer the odd man out. His family, god love 'em, and especially his twice-married younger sister, are prone to making thinly veiled comments about us getting married and popping out spawn. As you can imagine, pressure to have kids is totally new to me, and hard to handle.

I guess my question isn't whether or not I should get married. I'm pretty solid on that -- I love him more than I knew I was capable of, and marriage fits into my values, my religion, my needs, my lifestyle. It doesn't feel like a choice, it feels like an unimaginable blessing. My question is how to handle the pressure coming from all angles. Is there a way to filter the other voices and keep some clarity about the matter?

Or, if you're feeling more adventurous: Is there a way to reconcile feminism and young marriage? A way that sounds snappy and can be used as a comeback the next time someone sneers, "I never thought I'd hear you talking like that"? How about a nice way to close the topic when his sister says, "Well, for at least one more year I can say I've made all the grandchildren in the family"? Is it possible to have the community involvement implicit in a public ritual like marriage without all of the judging, bitching and wheedling, or should I suck it up and get used to it?

Nesting Up North

Dear Nesting,

I can't think of anything more radically feminist than doing what you want. What else, fundamentally, have feminist women worked so hard for? Was it the dream of feminists that one day any woman who thought to make choices on her own would be scorned and shamed by other feminist women? Was that the idea?

I thought the idea was that women could gain the freedom to make their own decisions -- on their own, when they want, regardless of age, social background or possible economic repercussions.

Social movements arise because of individual suffering. It is individual suffering multiplied many times, but it is individual and profound. When many people suffering in their own personal way recognize a set of external causes, then it is possible for them to work together to change the circumstances of their lives to benefit all of them. The civil rights movement and the feminist movement arose because individual people felt deep personal suffering and found the proximal causes of their suffering in social, economic and legal circumstances. They worked together to change those circumstances.

Working together requires individuals to sacrifice their individuality for the benefit of the group. But that is a practical necessity, not an ideal. The ideal is that social movements make it possible for individuals to do what will make them happy.

It doesn't sound like your peers really understand that. It sounds like you are encountering the kind of in-group social pressure that arises after an oppositional movement becomes the status quo.

You may be too young to remember this, but there was a time when there were no mohawk haircuts in suburbia. Then one day some enterprising young man made it possible. He assembled the tools and materials and made himself a mohawk haircut in suburbia.

A bridge had been crossed.

That bridge has been crossed many times now. Young suburban men who wear mohawks are like docents in a museum, kindly reminding us of our heritage.

Similarly, certain orthodoxies that arose out of women's struggles for freedom and equality were at one time materially significant issues. Women put off marriage and childbearing and in doing so broke new ground for other women. They changed society's expectations. But now those new expectations have become entrenched as a new orthodoxy.

You may delay childbearing if you wish. That is an important freedom. But you do not have to.

It's more complicated than that, I realize. Social struggle does not end with victory and a parade. But how can we be expected to make symbolic actions of self-denial when happiness stands grinning on our doorstep, jangling the keys?

In my book, any social movement that does not recognize that needs to do a little more criticism/self-criticism.

Somebody needs some consciousness-raising!

Um, so, go for it. Marry the dude. Have a ball. Sisterhood is powerful. So is love.

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