Marriage: A Sexist Affair

Marriage, by its very (traditional) definition, is a sexist affair: it involves one of each sex, one male and one female.  And I suppose this is because, traditionally, the purpose of marriage was family: to start a family, to have and raise children.

This view is fraught with questionable assumptions, glaring inconsistencies, and blatant errors.  I’ll give one of each: the connection between having and raising children is not at all necessary, hence the ‘one male and one female’ is not at all necessary; if the purpose of marriage is to have a family, why do couples who do not intend to have children nevertheless marry – and why don’t couples routinely divorce once the children are raised; the marriage contract goes well beyond family concerns – indeed, it barely approaches family concerns – one pledges to love and honour one’s spouse, not one’s children.

Notwithstanding the very mistaken connection between marriage and family, I’d like to suggest another reason for the sexism in marriage.  Assuming that marriage entails love, and love entails ‘looking after’, sexism makes things ‘easier’.

Consider this: needing to be looked after suggests one is a child or perhaps an invalid; if both people are looking after each other, well, how can a child look after – another child?  (Makes marriages rather like the blind leading the blind.)  (Not an entirely unapt analogy.)  There has to be a difference, some sort of distinction.  The distinction is, surprise, sex: the husband is the father, he looks after his wife with respect to the male domain – he fixes things for her, he tells her stuff, he makes the money; the wife is the mother, she looks after her husband with respect to the female domain – she feeds him, clothes him, reminds him. 

 This sexist division also avoids a second problem: without it, they’d each feel, as indeed they are, treated like a child.  How does a wife feel when her husband lets her know what colours go together?  How does a husband feel when his wife changes the spark plugs?  Inadequate, insulted, put down.  No doubt responding with an eight-year-old’s “I know that!” or “I can do it!”  The sexist division of labour justifies ignorance and incompetence within a certain domain; it therefore allows people to remain children, without embarrassment, within a certain domain.  And this enables the other to take care of them, in that domain, without offense.  (I suspect, therefore, the more whole a person is, the less feminine or masculine, the worse they fare in a marriage.  And if women tend to be more whole than men, well, that would explain why men need marriage more than women do – I’m thinking of happiness/suicide studies – aren’t unmarried men the worst off?)

Now of course I wonder how same sex couples look after each other.  Do they all negotiate some sort of butch/femme split?  Or – and wouldn’t this be simpler, wouldn’t it be healthier – does their concept of love between adults not entail, not require, such nurture? 

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One Response to “Marriage: A Sexist Affair”

  1. JE Says:

    I certainly saw that in my parent’s generation and I still have a copy of an Utne Reader from the late 90’s with an article about the sexual politics of housework.

    Maybe my marriage is atypical but I don’t think we’d be put out if one did something that was usually the others domain. Astonished, yes. I doubt the woman I married would never have anything to do with rebuilding the vacuum pump in her car, but if she decided she wanted to, then I’d do my best to show her how to do it.

    Nevertheless, our division of labor does split pretty much along traditional lines. We laugh at being un-traditionally traditional.


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