She begins by asking whether marriage is "worth it for women who value their personal autonomy." Straight from the beginning you can see that she has adopted the liberal ideal that the highest good in life is personal autonomy. Feminism, therefore, becomes the attempt to maximise personal autonomy for women (it is assumed by feminists that men already have this precious commodity).
So why does marriage harm women's personal autonomy? Laurie Penny gives an unusual answer: she claims that it involves unpaid emotional labour. The idea seems to be that women are being exploited by undertaking emotional labour within marriage that is not remunerated.
I don't want to dwell on this as it's not the most significant aspect of Laurie Penny's article. I will just point out that it is very odd for someone like Penny who is supposedly anti-capitalist to conceptualise something as intimate as marriage in terms of the market. It is also blinkered for Penny not to recognise that husbands also "perform unpaid emotional labour" in a marriage; in fact, on men's sites there are complaints that men do too great a share of this within modern relationships (which happens to be my experience.)
What Laurie Penny writes next is reasonably important:
Not so long ago, marriage was most women’s only option if they wanted financial security, children who would be considered legitimate, social status and semi-regular sex. Our foremothers fought for the right to all of those things outside the confines of partnership, and today the benefits of marriage and monogamy are increasingly outweighed by the costs.
Feminists wanted women to be autonomous and to have the goods that women traditionally obtained within marriage without having to be married. In doing so, marriage inevitably took a mighty hit - Laurie Penny herself believes that in taking away the goods of marriage feminists have made the costs of marriage greater than the benefits for women.
But the key part of Laurie Penny's column comes next. What is the next step for feminism in liberating women? Well, according to Penny there still remains one little problem. When women shun marriage they might well have access to welfare, but they don't have access to a husband's earnings and so are not as well off as married women financially:
there's still a price to pay for choosing not to pair up...It’s also about the money. Over half of Americans earning minimum wage or below are single women – and single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as married ones. This has been taken as proof that marriage is better for women – when it should, in fact, be a sign that society must do more, and better, to support women’s choices
And here is where Laurie Penny is unusually honest. She says outright what others would might try to obscure. She approvingly quotes another feminist writer to the effect that the state should be expected to act as the husband of single women, guaranteeing the same sort of income that married women might expect:
Traister is relaxed about the prospect of single women asking that the support a husband might once have provided be publicly available. “In looking to the government to support their ambitions, choices and independence through better policy,” she writes, “Single women are asserting themselves as citizens in ways that American men have for generations.”
Now, it has to be said that this would only be one more step along the same feminist path that we have already travelled a long way along. The state already acts as husband to sole mothers. It already enacts laws allowing women to divorce husbands and continue to live off their husband's earnings. So no wonder that Laurie Penny thinks she is on a winner.
But if marriage is already teetering, then this would surely finish it off - which is Laurie Penny's stated intention. She writes that she believes "in dismantling the social and economic institutions of marriage and family".
Like the feminists of the early 1900s, she believes that by dismantling marriage you would then have "pure" relationships between men and women, equal relationships based on love alone.
I believe in all of that not despite my squishy, tender heart, but because of it. I’m a romantic. I think love needs to be freed from the confines of the traditional, monogamous, nuclear family – and so do women...In the real world, love is perhaps the one truly infinite, renewable resource we have – and it’s beyond time that we had more options. I want more options for myself, and I want them for all of us, not just as a feminist, but as a romantic, too – because it’s the only chance we have of one day, at last, meeting and mating as true equals.
She is deluded, just like the first-wave feminists. The reality is that when you don't need anything from the opposite sex, you don't form "pure" attachments, you become fussy, demanding, ungrateful and unrealistic toward the opposite sex. If Laurie Penny's policy were really to get off the ground, then you could expect women to treat men worse, not better. Women would probably find themselves even less willing to commit to relationships and confused about the reasons why - but probably believing that the available men were just not quite good enough for them.
The moral of the story? If we want to have a successful culture of family life then we need to reject the idea that personal autonomy is always and everywhere the highest good in life, the one that defines freedom. We also need to maintain or even attempt to restore the goods of marriage, the goods that were carelessly subverted by the state in modern times.