On the one hand, patriarchy theory tells us that marriage is an institution designed to uphold the privilege of men as a class over women. It is therefore a key institution enforcing the sexist oppression of women.
So you might think that progressives would hold marriage to be a bad thing. However, progressive thought also holds that if gays are not allowed to marry they suffer a major loss of human rights. If gays can't marry, the argument goes, they are being excluded from a vital human institution - which then makes marriage sound like a good thing.
So we end up with a mixed message about marriage. But what would happen if a progressive was forced to confront this inconsistency?
The Rev. Elder Nori J. Rost, a pastor at a community church in Colorado Springs, has written an article discussing the issue. She begins by claiming that marriage was created as an instrument of the patriarchy:
As basically the only means of survival for women, marriage was clearly a restrictive yoke placed on them that assured the continued domination by men in society.
This was still the case at the time of the Reformation:
... marriage was still not about love ... This in itself served to continue to control the bodies of women, but the other implication was that marriage was still primarily a contractual agreement about the current property of the bride and future property of any offspring.
It was only in the mid-1800s, claims Rev. Rost, that love started to have anything to do with marriage. Nonetheless, even today marriage is an oppressive institution:
when heterosexual couples marry, they participate in a patriarchal system that has, at its foundation, control and subjugation of women and children. Moreover, they continue to enforce the perception of marriage as normative and healthy and alternative arrangements as suspect and inferior.
The Rev. Rost then asks what really motivates opposition to gay marriage. She believes that the right opposes gay marriage because it threatens the patriarchal order in three ways.
First, it would help to destroy gender roles:
Two men or two women who choose to share their lives together ... will have to figure out their unique roles ... those roles can be created without the underlying assumption of what the man's role and the woman's role is to be.
Second, it would promote the idea that sex is for pleasure not procreation:
The only purpose of sexual intimacy in gay and lesbian relationships is that of pleasure. I believe this is fearful for the right-wing element to contemplate ...
Third, gay marriage would weaken the wider structure of society:
If, however, we legitimize those relationships by sanctioning same-sex marriage the right-wing people unconsciously fear that such blatant disregard for patriarchal norms will seep over into the heterosexual community like a virus, challenging other old ways of being. In other words, perhaps the conservatives are right: same sex-marriage does threaten the fabric of society.
So to this point we have learned that the Rev. Rost believes that marriage is oppressive and that the right fears gay marriage because it represents a threat to the social order.
Does she therefore support gay marriage? At first, the answer seems to be no. After describing the ills of marriage she complains:
Yet it is this somewhat scurrilous goal that many gays and lesbians are now vociferously seeking.
You might think, having described marriage as a "scurrilous goal" that she would advise gays to stay well clear of it. Yet her final word on the matter is not so straightforward:
Which brings me to the unasked question: Should gays and lesbians be seeking marriage rights at all? ... Is marriage, in its current form with its nebulous history, the prize we should all be eying?
Clearly, there is no easy answer. Early on I was tempted to say that the struggle for marriage is one that is a fruitless waste of our energy and resources. However, I am now more inclined to see it as a step in the right direction ...
While in many ways I think we are climbing the ladder of same sex marriage only to find it is propped against the wrong wall, I also recognize that it is the ladder we seem to be facing. At the end of the day, there is much more to be done ...
Perhaps the means in which marriage is disentangled from the entitlements is by the allowing of same sex marriage and the affront to the patriarchal norms that are so entrenched in the current institution of marriage. Marriage needs to be de-constructed so it becomes iconic of "just" love ...
Her answer is confused and hesitant, but she seems to think that marriage, despite being a bad thing, should still be sought by gays because it will be undone by gay marriage and replaced by a more "just" form of love.
I won't launch at this point into a criticism of the Rev. Rost's patriarchy theory (though I would not want to be defending her claim that love was not an important aspect of marriage prior to 1850). My purpose in this article has been to show the difficulty in the progressive position on marriage: marriage is treated as both an oppressive and unnatural patriarchal construct as well as an important human right from which no-one should be excluded.