Marriage and the Family

An Ideological Battleground

An excerpt from Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996)

By Wendy McElroy

To the sexually correct feminist, marriage oppresses women and the family breeds patriarchy. Both result from capitalism. Happily married women are considered pathological and traitorous. To justify this blast of enmity, they point to the soaring rate of domestic violence, even though violence against women -- as measured by the murder rate -- has not increased except in proportion to population growth. Although the gender feminist view of marriage borders on the absurd --eg. housework as 'surplus value' -- it is key to understanding the depth of hatred they aim at heterosexual sex and men. This, in turn, is key to understanding the emotions that fuel sexual correctness.

What is the Family?: the Conservative and Gender View

Conservatives believe that the traditional family is the basic building block of society's institutions; it weaves the very fabric of cultural values.

Gender feminists agree. Past this threshold of agreement, however, an ideological brawl has broken out between these two opposing voices over the institutions of marriage and the family.

On their side of the divide, conservatives champion the family as indispensable to civilization. Only families can offer the long-term emotional stability and commitment that child rearing requires. Only families can ensure reproduction and the proper socialization of children. Beyond this, families provide an emotional and sexual support system for married couples, who need a shelter against the buffets of a hostile world. Without the family, conservatives predict the break down of moral values and an upsurge of social anarchy.

From the opposite end of the political spectrum, gender feminists roundly reject the family for much the same reasons that conservatives embrace it. It is a bastion of traditional values and a training ground for society's institutions. In short, the family is the foundation of patriarchal capitalism, which gender feminists claim is the source of women's oppression.

The conflict over the American family is further complicated by how quickly this institution is redefining itself. In the 1950's, the typical family consisted of a husband and wife, with two or three children. The wife stayed at home, while the husband worked in the outside world to provide for his family.

Today, there seem to be no typical families, no stereotype of a nuclear unit. Divorced parents, unwed mothers and adopting homosexuals have changed the portrait of parenthood. Domestic life has been transformed by economic realities that force most mothers into the work place and out of the kitchen.

In her essay "The Changing Role of the Family", Laura Levin explains:

"In 1950 only 18% of wives with children under eighteen were employed. By 1980 that figure had risen to 54%...While our traditional stereotype of the American Family has included an employed father and an unemployed only 12% of American households fit that model..."
This transformation in the 'family' presents something of a problem for gender feminists. It is difficult to consider something that takes as many forms as the modern family to be uniformly unjust in every instance. Yet gender feminists see a common denominator within all marriages: namely, the oppression of its female members.

This is true even of a family that consists entirely of females, a family with only a single mother and a daughter, for example. This type of family is oppressed by men because its interactions are a reflection of the injustice of patriarchy that both females encounter in the workplace and the political system. Because they are females, their family unit will be economically poorer and have fewer opportunities than a comparable family unit that is male, such as a man and his son.

The fight over the family and marriage is an ideological one. When conservatives and gender feminists view the same institutions, they draw dramatically different conclusions. Conservatives see a natural and smooth functioning unit, whose negative characteristics -- such as domestic violence -- are aberrations. Gender feminists look at families and see Diary of a Mad Housewife -- a late-sixties novel by Sue Kaufman, who chronicled the angst of an upper middle class urban housewife. Abuses, such as domestic violence, are considered to be unfiltered expressions of the married state.

Feminist Views of Marriage and the Family

Within feminism, the discussion of marriage has shifted over the past few decades.

Virtually all feminists share a belief that men and women experience the family in totally different ways. This is not a biological truism; it is a statement of political and economic fact. For centuries, marriage laws favored men to such a degree that a wife could often be involuntarily committed to a mental institution on her husband's signature. Even after marriage laws had been reformed, the institution itself seemed to favor men, for example, in the distribution of housework.

But liberal feminists view marriage as salvageable, as an institution that needs reform rather than elimination.

The liberal feminist critique of the family began in the 60's, with Betty Friedan's pivotal work The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan argued that American women of that era were enslaved by domesticity and defined by their roles as mother and wife. Although she called the family a 'comfortable concentration camp', Friedan's goal was not to eliminate marriage. She merely wanted women to insist on more from life, for them to reach outside of marriage for fulfillment.

Years later, when some feminists used Friedan's theories to argue for abolishing the family, however, she wrote a second work The Second Stage (1981). Here, she explained that her theories had been misunderstood. Gender feminists were taking her criticisms much farther than she had intended them to go. Friedan asked for a reconsideration of marriage. She pleaded for feminists to move away from anti-family rhetoric and back to a dialogue that addressed the needs of most women, who were wives and mothers. She called for a humanistic evolution that would enrich the institution of the family by including the needs and desires of men in the picture. Betty Friedan represents the liberal feminist point of view.

Interestingly, another pioneer in woman's liberation has felt the need to publish a second book to defend the concept of 'family: namely, Germaine Greer. In the '70s, Greer, with her outrageous behavior and shocking language, declared a guerrilla war against dependency on men.

Greer called for the revolutionary breakdown of sex roles. She encouraged women to be promiscuous and otherwise sexually adventurous. She claimed that women have no idea of how much men hate them. Greer recounted stories of gang rape and brutality, and seemed to consider such violence to be the norm between men and women. Her solution: women should refuse to marry. If they do marry, they should refuse be monogamous or to accept the 'trappings' of marriage such as the husband's last name, a shared tax return, a wedding ring.... Equally, women should reject their role as consumers in a capitalist society.

Despite this gender rhetoric, however, Greer was not clear in her condemnation of the family. Nor was she unsympathetic to men, whom she considered to be fellow victims of the system. Instead, Greer wanted to replace the status quo with what she called an 'organic family'.

In a later book, however, Greer forthrightly defends a more traditional version of the family. She accepts the idea that a husband, wife and children constitute the basic familial unit.

The liberal ideal of 'equal marriage' -- in which men and women equally share responsibilities, including housework -- has been dismissed by gender feminists. In her essay "The Many Faces of Backlash", Florence Rush jettisons the concept of 'human liberation' on the grounds that male liberation has no historical basis. Rush considers liberals who espouse such ideals to be traitors. Their support...

" deceptive and far more insidious, and has taken an enormous toll. Many women find it hard to resist the promise of a caring, equal relationship with a sympathetic man."
The truly radical assault on the family began with Kate Millett's book Sexual Politics (1970). Although Millett's views were extreme, she presented them in a dispassionate and well researched manner that lent her credibility. In dealing with male/female relations ('sexual politics'), Millett dwelt almost obsessively on pornography and sado-masochistic literature, rather than on love, motherhood or successful marriages. To her, pornography seemed to epitomize the male/female relationship. And in attacking sexual politics, Millett attacked the entire structure of power in society; that is, patriarchy. Marriage was the agency that maintained the traditional pattern of man's power over woman.

Millett's theories were followed up and fleshed out by such extreme voices as Shulamith Firestone, Susan Brownmiller, and Ti Atkinson. As the edifice of gender ideology was constructed, it began to have an impact on the mainstream of feminism. Gender feminist Catharine MacKinnon described the shift from liberalism to the anti-marriage point of view. This was a change from desiring equality to demanding equity:

"Then [after liberal feminism], there was a women's movement that criticized...war as male ejaculation. It criticized marriage and the family as institutional crucibles of male privilege....Some criticized sex, including the institution of intercourse, as a strategy and practice in subordination."
The titles of popular feminist books from the early movement underscore the schism between gender feminists and women who chose domesticity. A partial list reads: Jill Johnston's Lesbian Nation (1973), which called heterosexual females 'traitors'; Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970), which redefined heterosexual sex as a power struggle; Kathrin Perutz's Marriage is Hell (1972); and Ellen Peck's The Baby Trap (1971), which argued that babies block liberation. The ideological message was clear: the personal is political, marriage is legalized prostitution; heterosexual intercourse is rape; men are the enemy; families are prisons.

When domesticity was not being torn to political shreds, it was ignored. For example, the popular anthology Sisterhood is Powerful contains 74 essays. Only one had anything to do with motherhood. Apparently this was not an issue that uniquely concerns women.

Background of Gender Feminism's Analysis of Marriage

Gender Feminist Catharine MacKinnon describes the shift from the liberal view marriage, family and heterosexual sex:  Gender feminists' scorn for marriage and the family has not only distanced them from liberals, but from the majority of women who have chosen marriage and motherhood.

What are the specifics of gender feminism's theory of marriage?

Gender feminists consider marriage to be an involuntary state, in which women have the status of chattel. To them, marriage and the family are inextricably bound up with private property, the class structure, and the mode of production. In other words, the family is an aspect of capitalism. Much of this analysis rests on Marxist theory, especially the work of Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto.

He argued that the oppression of women sprang from the nuclear family. But Engels -- much quoted by Kate Millett, a pioneer of gender theory -- was contemptuous of the notion that the family had subordinated women throughout history. Instead he placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of capitalism, which had destroyed the prestige of women within the family. Engels wrote:

"That woman was the slave of man at the commencement of society is one of the most absurd notions...Women were not only free, but they held a highly respected position in the early stages of civilization and were the great power among the clans."
Thus, gender feminists romanticize pre-industrial times. On the family farm, it is claimed, the spheres of men's and women's work were indistinct. Although critics might question whether 18th century men really did more cooking, cleaning or diaper changing than their 20th century counterparts, gender feminists insist that the prestige of woman's work used to equal that of man's.

In the 19th century, industrialization was said to bring a 'separation between home and productive work'. It caused a transfer of men's labor from the home to the factory, while women remained at the hearth. Men came to dominate the public realm; women the private. Women accepted such an unfavorable arrangement -- including monogamy -- because it offered security from the growing complexity of life. (Susan Brownmiller later claimed it offered safety from rape by other men.)

Thus, the nuclear family did not evolve as a matter of biology, but as the result of industrialization. In other words, men left the home to become wage earners in the outside world; women assumed care of the family within the home. Women's labor became an essential, but subordinate, aspect of freeing men to make a wage.

Gender feminists cannot ignore the blatant fact that industrialization offered women an unprecedented opportunity to make wages outside the home: that is, to be economically independent. But, they argue, such freedom was illusory. Women were paid lower wages and shut out of many jobs.

Under capitalism, women assumed the role of breeders, housewives and buyers of consumer goods. Women maintained the work force by providing laundry, food and cleaning services for men...all without pay. Moreover, mothers provided the next generation of laborers for capitalist exploitation, complete with the appropriate socialization.

Karl Marx claimed, "The reproduction of the working class implies at the same time the transmission and accumulation of skills from one generation to another."

In their pamphlet, Counter-Planning from the Kitchen, Wages for Housework, Nicole Cox and Silvia Federici explain the benefits provided to capitalism by mothers and housewives. They argue that such domesticated women perpetuate the cycle of capitalism:

" servicing the wage earner physically, emotionally, sexually, getting him ready to work day after day for the wage. It is taking care of our children...and ensuring that they too perform in ways expected of them under capitalism."
But gender feminists had a problem with Engels and Marx, who assumed that men as a sex had no stake in exerting power over women. In other words, they rejected gender as the basis of class analysis. The important factor in class analysis was one's relationship to the mode of production: that is, are you a worker or a capitalist. Marx believed that, once they entered the work force, women would became the equal of men. In other words, Engels and Marx denied that women, as a sex, formed a 'class' with unique interests and needs.

To explain that women have gender interests distinct from and antagonist to those of men, gender feminists had to reach beyond Marxism. They evolved a theory of patriarchy, of male capitalism, in which women were oppressed as much by male culture as they were by the economic system. These twin evils supported each other on the collective back of women.

As for the women who wanted to become housewives, gender feminists made no effort to woo them toward a more liberated view. Quite the contrary. Such women were insulted as 'sexual spittoons' and their attachment to their families were seen as a sign of pathology.

In her essay Taking Our Eyes Off the Guys, Sonia Johnson explained the reasoning behind such shock tactics:

"Women have been seasoned as slaves and prostitutes...But no matter how we're seasoned -- as prostitute or as wife, which is the same thing -- we're seasoned in the patriarchal family almost exclusively to serve sexual functions."
These opinions were backed up with action. For example, the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) disrupted a 1969 fashion show for brides by chanting to the tune of the Wedding March: 'Here come the slaves/Off to their graves.'

Gender feminism's view of the family has divided women into hostile camps. Most women -- however much they might want to reform marriage -- do not want to abolish their husbands and children. Yet gender feminists seem to demand nothing less.

When dealing with the protestations of women who wished to become wives and mothers, gender feminist groups, such as the Southern Women's Writing Collective, treated these women like Pavlovian dogs who had been conditioned by male culture. In short, they can be retrained.

In a joint essay, "Sex Resistance in Heterosexual Arrangements", the Writing Collective expressed both its militant inflexibility and disregard for domesticated women:

"...the desires that were socially incarnated in us in order to effect our subordination to men can be named and disowned. After all, if we can teach pigeons to play ping-pong...perhaps we can teach ourselves to prefer a nonsexualized woman-identification..."
Recently, gender feminists have been edging away from outright condemnations of marriage and the family. Perhaps they perceive how unpopular this stand is making them among a majority of women.

In the face of such a backlash, gender feminists are more muted about marriage and motherhood. But the goal remains the same: a revolution to sweep away patriarchy.

The Conflict over Housework

The conflict between gender and liberal feminists can be illustrated through the issue of housework. Both ideologies begin by assuming that there is something inherently oppressive about housework. Past this point, agreement breaks down.

Liberals generally view housework as a problem in the division of labor. That is, they see an imbalance in the amount of domestic chores performed by women as opposed to those performed by men. The solutions offered by liberals are often individual and private, rather than public or political. For example, couples are encouraged to work out schedules that more fairly divide the labor. Men are encouraged to share the load equally.

Gender feminists take a more extreme stance. First of all, housework is not viewed as an imbalance to be corrected. It is a direct expression of man's oppression of woman, which cannot be reformed by a schedule, but must be swept away. Men cannot be convinced to assume their fair share, because such fairness goes against their class interests. In her essay "The Dynamics of Marriage and Motherhood", Beverly Jones outlines this conflict, which can have no individual or personal solutions. Jones finds that

"A relationship between a man and a woman is no more or less personal a relationship than...a master and his slave, a teacher and his student. Of course, there are personal, individual qualities to a particular relationship...but they are so overshadowed by the class nature of the relationship."
As for the beneficiary of housework...gender feminists are clear: men as a class and capitalism as a system are the beneficiaries. Thus, there are two layers of exploitation: men and capitalism, which combine to form patriarchy.

Gender feminists explain the benefits of housework to capitalism. Capitalism is the process by which those who own the means of production pay wages to workers who produce goods worth more than the wages they are paid. This 'excess' is called the surplus value of labor and it is absorbed by capitalists as profit.

Where does the housewife fit in? According to gender feminists such as Dallas Costa, housework also produces surplus value which is absorbed by capitalism. The surplus value of housework is that it enables men's labor.

The fact that individual men sometimes perform domestic work does not alter this scenario, because men -- as a class -- do not share the economic dependence of women.

Housework is said to have a direct impact on the wages and job opportunities offered to women in the work place. Because of the precedent of housework, employers can pay women less than they are worth. Moreover, by encouraging women to stay at home, men can reduce the competition for money and power. Gender feminist Del Martin explained this latter benefit to men:

"...if society succeeds in pressuring women to remain home, the labor market is cut in half, and competition for jobs, money, and power is thereby cut in half. Capitalism thrives on competition, but when too many qualified competitors go after the same goal, the system begins to get clogged up."
Exactly how capitalism can benefit from restricting the pool of labor and talent from which it can draw is not fully explained. Indeed, an excess of qualified workers undercutting each other would seem -- by gender feminism's standards -- to be a capitalistic dream.

Nevertheless, Del Martin's analysis of housework does illustrate an important connection within gender feminist theory. Martin's comments are one aspect of her book entitled Battered Wives. For gender feminists, housework and wife assault are two points on the same continuum of woman's oppression.

Domestic Violence: The Naked Face of Patriarchy

"Patriarchy requires violence or the subliminal threat of violence in order to maintain itself... The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home."  -- Gloria Steinem
In the last few years, the issue of domestic violence has stirred up a furor of concern among women of all ages and ideologies. Domestic violence is particularly frightening because it occurs where women are supposed to safe, when they are at home behind locked doors and shielded from strangers. Yet statistics indicate that women are more likely to be assaulted by a 'loved one' than by a stranger and that domestic assault usually is more violent than street attacks. For women, domestic violence reconfirms a fear that borders on paranoia: the fear that they are safe nowhere and from no one.

In general, three major approaches underlie current discussions of domestic violence. The first two tend to come from liberal feminists:

1. a socio-cultural approach, which examines the reasons that aggression against women is tolerated by our society; and,

2. a psychological approach, which examines the emotional reasons why men are abusive and why women accept it.

The third approach -- the one favored by gender feminists -- takes an entirely political view:

3. a class analysis approach, by which men are said to beat women to retain their place in the patriarchal power structure.

In her book Heroes of their Own Lives, Linda Gordon expresses the gist of gender feminism's analysis:

"The basis of wife-beating is male dominance -- not superior physical strength or violent temperament...but social, economic, political, and psychological power...Wife-beating is the chronic battering of a person of inferior power who for that reason cannot effectively resist."
There can be no argument: domestic violence is a crime that demands the attention of every feminist. Every woman has the absolute right not to be beaten. But there are at least two major problems with the gender feminist position on domestic violence.

First, gender feminists consider wife assault to be a socio-economic crime that must be confronted in the political arena. Since domestic violence is viewed as the clash of two antagonistic 'classes' -- men and women -- individual solutions are dismissed or downplayed as ineffective. (These dismissed solutions include, for example, teaching women the art of self-defense and the use of fire arms.)

But in considering men as a class to be guilty of domestic violence, gender feminists ignores the fact that most men do not beat their wives. Whatever statistics are accepted, all of them agree that fewer than 50% of husbands beat their wives. Thus, statistics show that men, as a class, are non-wife beaters. Domestic violence actually is the aberration that conservatives claim it to be.

But such a conclusion would not further the cause of socio-economic revolution. Instead, gender feminists attempt to fuel a gender war that feeds the fears of women.

Second, gender feminists are grafting the issue of domestic violence onto their own political agenda: the pain of battered women is being used to further political goals.

Across the nation, women are marching to 'take back the night', to end violence against women. On almost every campus, an increasing number of female students report a growing concern about being attacked. It is difficult to remember a time when women felt more threatened by men.

Is this fear justified?

Statistics are being thrown around with wild abandon: one in four women will be raped; between 80 and 90% of women have been sexually harassed at work; 12% of women experienced sexual abuse as a child. Many of these statistics and studies contradict each other. Studies that do not conform to the politically/sexually correct position on rape or domestic violence tend to be buried. The 'proper' studies are loudly repeated by those who have a vested interest in their findings. Few of these advocates cite their sources and even fewer critically investigate the studies by asking, for example, 'how did the researchers define their terms? (One reporter who asked this question discovered that strictly verbal 'lover's quarrels' were considered to be sexual abuse.)

All of which raises a question: Are these statistics believable? Take one example. Maclean's magazine -- Canada's version of Time -- recently ran a story entitled 'Women in Fear', which purported to chronicle men's reign of terror against women. With rare honesty, the article admitted that it was drawing broad conclusions from the 'handful of official records and credible estimates.'

Maclean's also reported that 'the number of women being killed -- 234 in Canada in 1990 -- has grown in recent decades roughly in line with the population increase...What is different is that women are vocally insisting, with great determination and growing political force, that the carnage end.'

In his column entitled 'Media Watch', George Bain pointed to statistics on female homicides in Canada:

"...female homicide victims in Canada went from 208 in 1980 to 253 in 1985, and down to 234 in 1990, precisely in lockstep with the number of male homicides, for which the comparable figures were 385, 451 and 422."
From this Bain concluded two things: (1) in the last decades, murder rates, in general, rose and then fell; and, (2) the figures reflect a widespread problem with violence in society, unrelated to gender.

U.S. statistics agree. According to the latest National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, sexual assaults on women declined 20 per cent from 1992 to 1993.

The leading researchers on domestic violence -- Richard J. Gelles and Murray A Straus -- also agree. In two national surveys, they found that women were as likely to engage in domestic violence as men were. Their 1985 Second National Family Violence Survey also found a significant decrease in domestic violence had occurred between the years 1975-1985.

In other words, violence against women -- as measured by the murder rate -- has not increased except in proportion to population growth. What has increased is the willingness of women to report and protest against such violence.

Yet anyone who suggests that domestic violence may be no worse today than it has been for decades are accosted by howls of outrage from gender feminists, who have a political investment in presenting women as in a state of crisis.

The New Feminist Jurisprudence

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which Congress approved last year as part of the Omnibus Crime Act, advances the gender feminist goal of redistributing power from the ruling class (men) to the oppressed class (women). VAWA defines 'gender-motivated crimes' as federal civil-rights violations, thus converting domestic violence into a hate crime. Under these circumstances, the law recognizes men and women as antagonistic classes to be governed by different standards of law.

The success of the 'battered woman syndrome' as a defense in murder cases also illustrates how standards of justice have been warped by the politicization of violence against women. Gender feminist Lenore Walker -- director of the Domestic Violence Institute -- has been instrumental in promoting the battered woman syndrome. Her ideology is clear:

"A feminist political gender analysis has reframed the problem of violence against women as one of misuse of power by men who have been socialized into believing they have the right to control the women in their lives, even through violent means..."
Walker defines what constitutes a battered woman:
"A battered woman is a woman who is repeatedly subjected to any forceful physical or psychological behavior by a man in order to coerce her to do something he wants..."
Even without physical violence, a woman can be deemed 'battered' if, for example, her husband neglects her in favor of work.

Walker's view of women as helpless victims who can be devastated by such 'abuses' as neglect is being translated into legal precedents. Walker argues that 'battered wives' become so demoralized that they lose the capacity to leave the abusive marriage. When such a wife strikes out at her husband, the violence is considered to be self defense. This is true, even if the wife has never been physically threatened or harmed, and even if she uses deadly force.

Traditionally, the self-defense plea required that the accused had been in 'clear and present danger'. Now Walker claims that physical danger is not necessary for women to avail themselves of this defense. The Battered Woman Syndrome appeared as a defense in murder cases in the late 1970s. It has gained in acceptance.

In Canada, the battered woman defense was originally introduced as a means of reducing a charge from murder to manslaughter. It has been extended to obtain complete acquittals, even in cases where the man had no history of physical violence.

Similar court cases are beginning to occur in the United States. In 1987, for example, Marlene Wagshall shot her sleeping husband in a fit of jealousy. He survived, after surgery which removed large parts of his stomach, liver and upper intestine. Elizabeth Holtzman -- a feminist D.A. for Brooklyn, N.Y. -- had the charge reduced from attempted murder to second-degree assault. The grounds: Wagshall uncorroborated claim of prior battery. She served one day in jail, with five years' probation.

Solution: State Control of the Private Realm

During the last two decades, the slogan "The personal is political" has been edging out, in popularity, the former feminist touchstone of "a woman's body, a woman's right." After all, if gender feminists are correct, then the choices a woman makes with her own body do not concern her alone, but impact directly on all women as a class. Women as a class have a right to participate in her decisions. Indeed, it could be argued that women do not truly have individual decisions or private interests. They only have interests as a class.

Gender feminist Susan Moller Okin explains this point in her book Justice, Gender, and the Family. Referring to the slogan 'The personal is political' as 'the central message of feminist critiques' of claims to privacy, she elaborates:

"The earliest claims that the personal is political came from those gender feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who argued that, since the family was at the root of women's oppression, it must be 'smashed'."
Okin argues that the family -- the so-called personal sphere -- must be opened to political change, by force if necessary. The state should reach into the home to make it just:
"Contemporary feminism poses a significant challenge to the long-standing and still-surviving assumption of political theories that the sphere of family and personal life is sharply distinct from the rest of social and political life, that the state can and should restrain itself from intrusion into the domestic scene..."
To those who object to state control of the family, Okin contends that the state already intervenes in that it establishes the social background in which the family functions. Expanding the intervention -- by requiring payment for housework for example -- is a difference of degree not of kind.

But what about couples who wish to maintain a more traditional marriage? What of those women who want to work out the terms of their family structure for themselves, with their husbands? Okin argues that such personal desires are irrelevant: the family is too important a social institution to be abandoned to the arbitrary wishes of the individuals involved.

The terms on which a family divides up housekeeping may seem to be the business of the individuals involved, but, in reality, it is a matter of social justice. The state must dictate the terms of family life to ensure equity. Okin's specific recommendations for making families 'just' would require nothing less than a total restructuring of the economy. For example, with reference to providing a salary for housewives, Okin suggests that both spouses should have a legal entitlement to every cent coming into the house:

"The clearest and simplest way of doing this would be to have employers make out wage checks equally divided between the earner and the partner who provides all or most of his or her unpaid domestic services."
This demand is the logical and inevitable extension of the principle 'The personal is political'.

The Personal is Personal: Individualist Feminism

Fortunately, another tradition within feminism is more suspicious of the state than Okin: individualist feminism. Even the liberal tradition has offered resistance to following the principle 'the personal is political' to its logical conclusion. In her book In Women's Interest, Lisa S. Price offered some sanity:

"The state is interested in control and legitimacy. Feminism is interested in the liberation of women. These interests do not intersect and are in fact fundamentally at odds."
Price explains that, even when feminists and the state seem to be co-operating toward a common goal, each one has a different purpose in mind. And she points to the contradiction of gender feminists turning to the state as an ally.
"Catharine MacKinnon claims that 'the state is male in the feminist sense.' This means the state views the world from the male perspective. It also means the state uses its...power to...protect the interests of men as a gender-class."
Choice is the key to individualist feminism, a tradition that views every woman as a self-owner. Every woman has the inalienable right to use her own body and property in whatever peaceful manner she chooses. Regarding the issue of marriage, individualist feminism reduces to two key principles: women must retain full control of their own bodies; and, the state should have no dominion over private sexual arrangements.

These two principles are, perhaps, best illustrated by looking back into history at the story of the men and women who published the 19th century American free love periodical Lucifer, the Light Bearer (1883-1907).

The first principle upon which the Lucifer circle insisted was that women have full control of their own bodies and, particularly, of their own sexuality. This control was not diminished by marriage. Indeed, Lucifer was one of the first voices in America to claim that forced sex within marriage was rape.

On February 23rd, 1887, a federal marshal arrived in a small Kansas town to arrest the staff of Lucifer on 270 counts of obscenity. The charges resulted from the publication of three letters to the editor, all of which advocated women's sexual rights. But the controversy revolved mainly around one letter in particular: the Markland letter, published on June 18th, 1886. The author of the Markland letter quoted from correspondence he had received:

"Today's mail brought me a letter from a dear lady friend, from which I quote and query:
'About a year ago F--- gave birth to a babe, and was severely torn by the use of instruments in incompetent hands...last night, her husband came down, forced himself into her bed and the stitches were torn from her healing flesh, leaving her in a worse condition than ever. I don't know what to do.'"
Markland continued by asking a long series of outraged questions:
"Can there be legal rape? Did this man rape his wife? Would it have been rape had he not been married to her? Does the law protect the person of woman in marriage? Does it protect her person out of marriage?...If a man stabs his wife to death with a knife, does not the law hold him for murder? If he murders her with his penis, what does the law do?...Can a Czar have more absolute power over a subject than a man has over the genitals of his wife?...Has freedom gender?..."
For publishing this and the two other letters, Moses Harman was sentenced to 5 years in a Kansas penitentiary. After serving 17 weeks, he was released on a technicality, retried without a jury on a slightly different charge and sentenced to one year. After eight months, he was again released on a technicality. In 1895, Harman was sentenced to one year in prison, which he served in its entirety. Harman's last imprisonment was in 1906. He spent a year at hard labor, often breaking rocks for eight hours a day in the Illinois snow. He was 75 at the time.

The second principle upon which the Lucifer circle insisted was that the state had no business dictating forms of sexuality or marriage to the individuals involved.

Thus, when the marshal arrived to arrest the staff of Lucifer, two members were missing -- E.C. Walker and Lillian Harman, Moses' 16 year old daughter. The couple had already been imprisoned for their non-state, non-church marriage. The purpose of the marriage had been to declare the right of individuals to form sexual partnerships on their own, without permission from the state or society.

During the marriage ceremony, Lillian had declared:

"I enter into this union with Mr. Walker of my own free will and choice...I...retain the right to act, always, as my conscience and best judgment shall dictate. I retain, also, my full maiden name, as I am sure it is my duty to do."
The ceremony ended with Moses Harman refusing to give away the bride for he wished her always to be the owner of her own person.

News of the non-state marriage drew threats of mob violence. When a relative brought a complaint against the couple, city officials arrested Lillian and Edwin. The charge was unlawfully and feloniously living together as man and wife without being married according to statute. Edwin was sentenced to 75 days in jail; Lillian to 45.

Before sentencing, the judge asked if there was any reason why the sentence should not be passed. Lillian replied:

"Nothing. Except that we have committed no crime. But we are in your power, and you can, of course, do as you please."
Gender feminists would not agree that Lillian had committed no crime. They would maintain that the state had a right and even an obligation to intervene in the terms of her sexual/marriage contract.

Indeed, gender feminists such as Carole Pateman argue that the sexual/marriage contract is not a private one at all and should not be treated as such. Sexual contracts are not simply political, they are one of the main ways that patriarchy and capitalism sustain themselves. The sexual contract allows men to form an aristocracy of political and social privilege. In her book The Sexual Contract, Pateman contends:

"Political right originates in sex-right or conjugal right. Paternal right is only one, and not the original, dimension of patriarchal power. A man's power as a father comes after he has exercised the patriarchal right of a man (a husband) over a woman (wife)."

Gender feminists and individualists view the same institution -- marriage -- and derive antagonistic conclusions. Gender feminists insist that the state must thrust justice into an inherently oppressive condition: marriage and family life. Individualists demand that the state withdraw from marriage and allow the adults involved to work out their own definition of justice in the privacy of their own homes.

To individualists, the state is already too intimate a partner in everyday life. Modern marriage contracts are not agreements between a husband and wife so much as they are three-sided arrangements between a husband, a wife and the state. That is, the state legally defines what a marriage is and how it can be dissolved. Without government approval -- in the form of a divorce decree from the court -- a marriage cannot be terminated.

In essence, the state has a controlling interest. And the state must bear a great deal of the blame for the current evils of marriage.

Individualist feminists agree that a revolution is necessary...but one that gives power to individuals and not to institutions, like the state. Women need liberation, not state control. In essence, marriage must be taken out of the political realm and fully back into the private one. The new slogan of feminism should be 'the personal is personal'.

In marriage, as in all other peaceful pursuits of life, let individuals choose.

Wendy McElroy home | | Individualist Feminist Compendium