Feminism Enabled Gay Marriage

Feminism enabled gay marriage, and that’s a good thing.
Last week we heard the Catholic bishops parroting the tired old line about marriage being “between a man and a woman”, and that the secular government was somehow redefining the concept for the rest of us. This argument sounds more and more pathetic every time I hear it.
Marriage has often been redefined! In the Old Testament we had polygamy, a practice that continues in many parts of the world to this day. When that fell out of favour, the bond of marriage was still very much a transaction in which the girl had no input. This practice, of a father arranging a marriage on his daughter’s behalf, is still very popular in many parts of the world and many British citizens still submit to it. The idea of romantic love leading to marriage is also a new innovation (at least, new when compared to the idea of marriage itself). Literature, from Tristan & Isolde, to Romeo & Juliet, to the Jane Austen œvre, is full of stories of romantic love colliding with the more traditional view of marriage as a financial arrangement.

I might also mention that the divorce laws were only liberalised in the 20th Century, allowing women as much access to the dissolution of marriage at their husbands.
And even with love in place, and the divorce laws fit for purpose, the idea of marriage as a partnership of two equals is surely a modern innovation. It was only in the post-war period that we challenged the idea that the husband should be the Breadwinner and Man of the House, and that he should be served by a wife that he ‘kept’. This is something that today’s young adults are still trying to reconcile with the more traditional færy tales they heard as kids.
Crucially, each step away from the primordial ‘alpha-male-many-females’ model was a feminist step, giving more weight to the thoughts, feelings and worth of the woman. Each feminist step has brought us closer to today’s concept of marriage – a loving, equal partnership.
It is only when this final development occurred – equality between partners – that the idea of homosexual marriage could be countenanced. When marriage was still assumed to be between dominant partner and and a subservient partner, between the breadwinner and the homebound, a marriage between two of the same ‘type’ would have seemed wrong. (Yes, I know there were outliers and a progressive vanguard, but I am just talking about society’s norms and stereotypes).
So, because of feminist developments in marriage, people now recognise that it is the love and the partnership that is of value to society, not the pairing-off with someone of the opposite gender. The negative reaction to same-sex partnership no longer occurs. If you presented the phrase “a loving, equal partnership” as a definition to the populous today, most would unhesitatingly describe it as “marriage”. Our politicians have recognised this, and the fact that they are planning to legislate on it now is an act of following an established consensus, not radical social-engineering.
If one considers the introduction of gay marriage as a triumph of feminism, one gains an insight into why the all-male Catholic Church Heirarchy might take issue with it. They are hostile to women’s bodies and their right to choose, and even to the very idea that women could become spiritual leaders. No wonder they cannot admit the “equal partnership” definition of marriage. Their recent manœverings over the weekend risk alienating their congregation and bring their slide into irrelevance all the closer.

5 Replies to “Feminism Enabled Gay Marriage”

  1. I don’t feel too strongly about this, but I do wonder, when same-sex partnerships already have equivalent legal status and rights to heterosexual partnerships, isn’t the need to call it ‘marriage’ akin to that chap in Life of Brian who was protesting for his *right* to have babies?
    I think it’s sad that same-sex partnerships would want to deny their difference, when presumably the gender of their partner is as important to them and their identity as the gender of heterosexuals’ partners is to theirs, and it’s abusive that they would want to deny heterosexual couples’ difference. You can have equality while still acknowledging difference. Otherwise I’d be demanding to be called male. If I did, I think it’d be perfectly reasonable for men to object to that. Equality is what we should all be demanding, and you can’t have equality if the reality of difference is being erased.

  2. I see your point, though I think the Life of Brian doesn’t quite hold because the chap couldn’t have babies because of a biological fact. Marriage is a human invention, a social construct, and feature of law and society that does not exist independently of human minds. It is therefore malleable in a way child bearing is palpably not.
    I don’t think homosexuals try to deny their own genders, and I don’t think calling their partnership “marriage” says anything about the genders of the people involved. This is because, as I try to track in the OP, the commonly understood definition of marriage has become shorn of its gender implications. “Marriage” becomes a generic term for a particular type of partnership that society recognises, and if one does want to describe it further you might qualify it with “gay marriage” or “Church marriage” or “civil marriage” or even “marriage of convenience” if you want to be pejorative.
    On the point about civil partnerships and marriage being exactly the same thing: They’re not. Civil partnerships are the legal bit of marriage, but without the tradition and social approval that goes with it – precisely the thing that many modern gay couples desire and believe to be their right. In time, this view of civil marriage as socially less than marriage may change, as more and more people have them. Somehow I doubt it though – I have a hunch that the reason the churches accept the compromise of civil partnerships is precisely because it withholds that social approval – not just approval from within the Catholic communion, but approval from society at large as well. And the churches want to keep it that way – a permenant belittling of the commitment two citizens have made to each other.
    If marriage is actually all about social signalling and psychology – and it clearly is, because you don’t need to be married in order to procreate, or to be sexually intimate, or to co-habit – then I think it is odd and wrong to deny those who seek access to that social approval and psychological benefits at the eleventh hour, by forcing a different, socially and psychologically weak definition upon them.

  3. Thanks Rob. It’s a very interesting connundrum, particuarly within my field. What it boils down to I think, is how strongly one weights the man-woman aspect of marriage in one’s concept of it. I think for many people, the concept has not become shorn of its gender implications – otherwise we wouldn’t keep getting the man-woman objection that you mention. I think for some people, the man-woman aspect is a fundamental (or, in the classical model of concepts, is a defining, rather than merely characteristic) feature of what marriage is. The thing is, you can’t change people’s concepts by force (that isn’t how the brain works), and you can’t expect people not to object to any such attempt.
    Your point about marriage being a social construct is interesting also. While there are a number of differences in how we think about artefacts versus natural kinds, very often social categories are treated, cognitively, as natural kinds. In particular, people tend to be essentialist about natural kinds – ie membership in the category is treated as fixed, all-or-nothing, and caused by some unchangable ‘essence’ inherent to the object, rather than by consensus among the linguistic community – as artefact concepts are.
    By definition, however, since marriage is a social construct, it does not admit of right and wrong, so just because some people don’t think of marriage as being gender-constrained, that doesn’t make them right. And vice versa.
    As regards civil partnerships, thanks for the clarification. But I would say, if social approval is all that is missing, then it is like the chap in Life of Brian. For two reasons. Firstly, you can’t force people to approve of something that they don’t approve of. It’s also a bit offensive and Orwellian to try. You can have the right to be socially accepted, but you can’t magic it to happen. It doesn’t work like that. And secondly, you can’t make something not be a minority when it is. I’m very happy for homosexual people to have the right not to be a minority, but I’m not going to pretend they’re not when they are. One also can’t pretend there’s a tradition of gay marriage when there blatantly isn’t, by virtue of the fact that that’s the very thing they are protesting about.
    I certainly think it would be odd and wrong to deny civil partnerships and the legal status that they confer. But I think it’s odd and wrong to try to force a social acceptance that clearly isn’t felt. Certainly, I feel that this is the wrong way to go about it. If it were me, I’d want to look at the reasons why it isn’t felt – over-ruling, or riding roughshod over strongly held beliefs (however objectionable) doesn’t tend to be a terribly effective strategy, and tends to lead to backlash (and understandably so).

    1. Thanks for this. You’re right that you can’t force people to adopt or change social concepts and constructs. My point is that society’s view on this has changed anyway. The catholic church can cling – yes, cling – to it’s older definitions. But in doing so it is left behind by the rest of society and it’s own congregation. If a church or other institution becomes out of touch with its constituency, I don’t see why it, or its views on sex and gender, need protection.
      I will also say I do think there are cases where a bit of legislation, clarifying or defining terms, can nudge society along! Anti-discrimination laws, and helpful words from politicians, surely help society become less discriminatory. That’s not a bad thing (though progressives and conservatives probably differ on the degree to which it is useful to use that particular policy ‘lever’).

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