Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why a feminist opposes marriage

Jessica Valenti is a well-known American feminist. She has written a brief post called "The Marriage Con" explaining her opposition to marriage.

She begins by noting that conservatives have defended marriage by arguing that it helps to channel male aggression and sexuality in socially productive ways and that it has emotional benefits for women.

She doesn't bother to rebut these claims. She just states that:
The truth is that this desperate nostalgia for traditional marriage and antiquated gender roles will never be stronger than women’s will to be free from constraining norms.

That's the liberal autonomy theory again. Jessica Valenti has decided that the primary good in life is to be autonomous (to be self-determining). She therefore doesn't like traditional marriage as it includes gender roles which are, to a certain extent anyway, not self-determined but predetermined.

Jessica Valenti has elsewhere said that:
My parents have a wonderful marriage, but they have been together since my mother was 12, married when they were just teenagers and are barely ever separated. They even work together. As a result, I have always thought of marriage as involving the loss of a certain amount of autonomy.

Note how the autonomy principle trumps everything else. It doesn't matter if the decline of marriage sends young men off the rails; it doesn't matter if the decline of marriage leaves many women lonely and sad; nor does it matter if her parents enjoyed a wonderful marriage based on a strong sense of fidelity.

The fact remains that traditional marriage has the potential to curb her autonomy; therefore she rejects it as antiquated.

This story has another interesting angle, though. Back in 2009 Jessica Valenti met the man of her dreams and got married. When trying to justify how she reconciled her anti-marriage feminism and her personal decision to marry she said:
“You come to a point where you give up on holding yourself to a perfect feminist ideal — it just feels stifling."

Is that not some kind of unprincipled exception? The reality is that most people do not always and every time put autonomy first. There are other great goods in life that also deserve a look in. One of them is the desire to marry and form a family. This necessarily is a "constraining norm". It means that we commit ourselves to one other person to the exclusion of others. It means that we accept parental responsibilities that can be onerous at times. But we do it for the sake of a greater good.

Jessica Valenti's wedding - yet politically she is against marriage

Jessica Valenti can't bring herself to admit this, as it would put a dent in her belief in autonomy as the overriding good in life, and so she justifies her marriage by saying that she was tired of always holding herself to an ideal.


  1. That is the most traditional wedding photo I have every seen. Everything form the country setting to the swooning bride pressed against her imposing groom.

    1. Yes, if you just saw the photo you would never imagine that she is a feminist who makes a living criticising marriage.

  2. The first Valenti quote is quite a specimen of progressive rhetoric, isn't it?

    "The truth is that this desperate nostalgia for traditional marriage and antiquated gender roles will never be stronger than women’s will to be free from constraining norms."

    I know they always say we are motivated by "nostalgia," which is a sort of feeblemindedness, but "desperate nostalgia" makes us sound really pathetic. We live in a world of childish fantasies, it would seem, but we also know these fantasies are fantasies and yet do everything possible to preserve them. Wouldn't it be wonderful to read a progressive who admitted that we traditionalists had "beliefs," and that we assented to these beliefs for "reasons," and that we defended our opinions with "arguments." Naturally, they would have to say that these beliefs were false, these reasons faulty, these arguments fallacious, but they would not, at least, represent us as total fools.

    Then there is the word "antiquated." Progressives like to use this word as an argument when the question under discussion is whether or not X is, indeed, antiquated. We, of course, maintain that gender roles are natural facts, not historical facts, so they cannot actually be antiquated.

    Finally, it strikes me that a woman's "will to be free from a constraining norm" is itself a "constraining norm," as Ms. Valenti discovered when she decided to get married. It just happens to be the "constraining norm" that she preaches, but does not practice.

    1. She doubles up on the nostalgia claim by writing that we have a "desperate nostalgia" for "something that never really existed".

  3. I will bet she has a child by now - in which case (in her mind) she is holding up a biological sign that says "Mission Accomplished!". Unfortunately, her husband should be expecting (if he already hasn't received it) the ultimatum to shape up or ship out. 4, 3, 2 ...

  4. Replies
    1. The hypocrisy becomes a kind of "test" for young women. Young women are "supposed" to agree formally with the politics, but to have the social skills to know to make exceptions to it in their personal lives. As Jessica Valenti must know, though, not every woman is going to negotiate this successfully.

  5. It is all about the autonomy. If she were fully autonomous she would have to use a stick to keep off wolves in the forest. I'm not sure for how long she would succeed, though.
    A human being cannot be autonomous and free from everything. It's just a ludicrous and destructive idea. And what is more important - why does she want to be autonomous for? What the ultimate goal of this liberation?

    1. Eugene, I agree that the goal of full autonomy is an illusory one. Why do liberals seek it? My own theory is that liberals place a great emphasis on "creative spirit" by which I don't mean artistic pursuits but rather a creative unfolding of self and the use of human reason and will to shape the organisation of society and the course of history. I don't think this is an entirely false orientation; it does reflect a deeply embedded aspect of human nature. However, the mistake made by liberals is to want no limits to the creative spirit, i.e. for it to operate in a kind of vacuum, detached from the constraints of a pre-created nature. Traditionalists ought to bridge both things: we ought to be open to the creative spirit as I have described it, but to see it as working positively within a certain framework that gives a larger meaning not just to the act of creativity but to the actual content of what it is that we create. For instance, if we are born male, then our creative unfolding of self is not to reject masculinity as a constraint, but rather to express it impressively as a meaningful aspect of being.

    2. This makes sense. However, as I understand we all have different understanding of what the framework is and what constraints are natural and what constraints are artificial. How can we find and prove the distinction between these two types of constraints?