A personal essay in the recent Newsweek has pinched a serious nerve among defenders of marriage. In the piece, Bonnie Eslinger explains why she has chosen to have a commitment ceremony instead of a wedding with her partner, Jeff. Her objections to marriage include not needing a "piece of paper" to define or protect her relationship, not needing a white dress "to feel pretty" and not wanting to participate in an institution that excludes gay people.
Her article doesn't seem terribly radical -- it's something that could have been written decades ago in Off Our Backs and pales next to the anti-marriage writing of 17th century feminist Anne-Marie-Louise D'Orleans Montpensier. But talk about stirring up a marital shit storm! Outraged readers call Eslinger about every name in the book -- pompous, selfish, clueless, condescending, adolescent, rigid, unconvincing, infuriating, weak, ignorant, annoying, presumptuous and stupid -- to repeat but a few.
Full disclosure: My beliefs about marriage don't diverge much from Eslinger's, though I'm a certified/fiable Mrs. For something so exclusionary and heavy with misogynist baggage, I reason, shouldn't this legal/spiritual/love bond at least perform better as a bonding substance than our 50 percent divorce rates suggest? Decades ago my performance artist boyfriend even did a monologue called "Boycott Marriage," suggesting heterosexuals should reject nuptials the same way any self-respecting American would refuse membership to a club that excluded blacks or Jews. Years later, after being invited to several gay weddings with white dresses and all, that boyfriend became my Mr. We got married for all the wrong reasons, I suppose: to mollify his 94-year-old grandmother, who worried about a "blue dress in her closet" that she might die before getting a chance to wear, to get our fundamentalist landlords to quit asking about our "future plans," to make sure that my conservative in-laws fully understood our commitment and quit excluding me from family photos. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Can you say hymen-pocrisy three times fast?)
In the end, I decided if individuals actually believe in marriage, it's a beautiful thing. But for me, marriage was more about other people's ideas, legal protections and extended family traditions -- I stumbled through the rite of passage with the same dazed ambivalence felt by many people when buying their first home. My husband and I are still together, loving and fighting and laughing the same way we were when we were livin' in sin. Ironically, the only meaningful benefit to being married for me would come if the marriage self-destructed and I suddenly needed protection from divorce laws.
So I'm not the best person to understand how Eslinger's adamant rejection of marriage might enrage those who keep the matrimonial faith alive. Still, the vitriolic response to her decision to define her personal relationships on her own terms also suggests how threatening the idea of not embracing marriage continues to be. One angry reader pointed out: "Even Gloria Steinem got married!" If feminists get hitched, does that mean debates over marriage's meaning and validity should be relegated to the herstory dustbins?