U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why People Who GayMarry Need Feminism (Guest post by Claire Potter)

It was feminists, not queers, who first made the argument that marriage promoted inequality.

It was feminists, not queers, who first made the argument that marriage promoted inequality.

[Note to readers: the following essay is a guest post from Claire Potter, Professor of History at the New School for Public Engagement. See her previous guest essay on gay marriage here.]

Several weeks ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop with M, a veteran of New York Radical Women, discussing the gay marriage case pending before the Supreme Court. We agreed that neither of us, as feminists, would have foreseen the emergence of marriage as a post-feminist civil rights issue. Our talk then turned to J, a prominent lesbian feminist who was rumored to have slept with nearly every radical feminist in the East back in the day.

M, a slim and bright-eyed married woman in her seventies, laughed. “J wanted me to leave my husband and run away with her,” she said with a smile that indicated she had been tempted. “I asked: `Are you ready to do equal child-care like he does?’ That ended that.”

My point is that the history of ideas about marriage is intertwined with a feminist intellectual past, but after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges last Friday, it seemed that had been forgotten. The lingering, and often bitter, divisions among LGBT people about whether conventional forms of monogamy and marriage should convey special rights have their roots in this past. Like many radical feminists, anti-marriage queers reject marriage, and the increased state authority over private lives it represents, as oppressive. Conversely, like many liberal feminists, LGBT marriage advocates have viewed the right to wed as a sphere for conveying equality, as well as protection against multiple institutions — the state, schools, families of birth, financial institutions and hospitals — to name a few. Still other LGBT people wade between pro- and anti-marriage positions as most heterosexuals do, choosing marriage to advance their interests and please other people, while disregarding aspects of marriage ideology that they consider to be dated, ethically wrong or inconvenient.

The LGBT marriage wars have existed for at least two decades, but they erupted on queer academic social media after Obergefell. “Love wins!!” many crowed, as their queer Facebook friends rushed to the courthouse and posted marriage updates. For the anti-marriage crowd, “UGH!” was one of the more lighthearted responses: some critics were particularly angered by the tone of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion, a document that idealized love, romance, coupledom and the importance of two-parent childrearing. Some in the queer anti-marriage camp reported being “sickened,” “despondent,” and “angry” after reading Kennedy’s words. Others, like Timothy Stewart-Winter, asked the organizations that achieved this milestone celebrate their victory by embracing the larger social justice agenda of an unfinished civil rights movement.


U-Haul tweeted its congratulations by riffing off the old joke about what lesbians do on the second date.

People who are not insiders to queer academia may be shocked by the animus marriage can provoke in LGBT circles. Both pro- and anti-marriage positions were activated in the 1980s, as newly radicalized queers confronted the limits of sexual liberation and identity politics. If AIDS, and the numerous vulnerabilities and inequalities it revealed, played a critical role in galvanizing the campaign on behalf of marriage, it impelled others to ask why citizenship rights were being withheld from those who refused to form “normal” monogamous families.

Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal (1999), the cover of which was decorated with little plastic grooms, argued that “homonormativity” not only undermined a queer social justice agenda, but presented a larger ethical problem for progressives by presenting marriage and other forms of normalization as a route to proper citizenship. One of many excellent books to come out of this intellectual moment was Elizabeth Freeman’s The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture (2002), which pointed to the numerous social longings and investments beyond the couple itself that marriage celebrations have satisfied over time. Yet too often academic critics of marriage have simply not spoken to the more progressive political and imaginative purposes that marriage has supported, particularly as a vehicle for supporting fragile citizenship. One feminist text that received very little attention by queer theorists, for example, was Ann DuCille’s The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction (1993). Here, duCille argued that marriage has not been a “a transhistorical ideal or a linear literary convention, but a sign of the times that shifts with the times, the place and the people.” (4)

Returning to my conversation with M in the coffee shop: although gay marriage, its proponents and its opponents, have dominated social media and the news, it is the intellectual history of feminism that may offer insights to LGBT people about how to enact this newly-won citizenship right. Calls for marriage rights, marriage reform, marriage resistance and women’s self-determination outside marriage were first articulated by public intellectuals like Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Victoria Woodhull, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger. As Leigh Ann Wheeler has pointed out in How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (2104), the ideas and practice of free love among American Civil Liberties Union founders, both women and men, laid the basis for embedding principles of free sexual expression, as well as sexual and gender liberation, into twentieth century civil rights law and social activism.

Af Betty Friedan noted, the ideal bourgeois marriage after World War II was full of well-chosen products, with wives as consumers-in-chief.

Af Betty Friedan noted, the ideal bourgeois marriage after World War II was full of well-chosen products, with wives as consumers-in-chief.

Second wave feminism targeted marriage for reform and revolution in its earliest days. Betty Friedan, who helped to found the National Organization for Women in 1966, is a classic example of a feminist marriage reformer who viewed sexism and gender roles within marriage, not the institution itself, as the central problem facing women in the United States. Although Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) critiqued marriage — its commercialism, its claims to romantic and sexual fulfillment that real women could never meet, and its function as an arena for unpaid labor — she saw these characteristics as reformable. In The Second Stage (1981), for example, Friedan argued that the nuclear family was “the new feminist frontier,” scrutinizing shifts of power that would make marriage and motherhood a realm for female fulfillment within heterosexuality. One might also look to early collections such as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), where numerous essays argue that it is sexism, not marriage, that prevented women from self-actualization in a loving relationship.

But many feminists, like many queers today, did not see marriage, heterosexuality or monogamy as reformable. For many, like Kate Millett, Charlotte Bunche, and Robin Morgan, leaving a marriage to become a lesbian became the ultimate feminist act. In Cheryl Clarke argued that lesbianism was “an act of resistance” to racism, capitalism and hetero-patriarchy. Many straight women in radical feminism, like Susan Brownmiller, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Florence Kennedy, never married. Like political scientist and feminist theorist Jo Freeman, these second wave radical feminists saw marriage as an institution defined by unequal sex roles (something that is far from inconceivable in a same-sex marriage.)

For many radical feminists, to live outside of marriage and resist parenting was a fundamental step towards women’s liberation. Freeman’s “BITCH Manifesto,” written in the fall of 1968, declared that BITCH, a mythical organization was composed of “bitches” who “seek their identity strictly through themselves and what they do. They are subjects, not objects. They may have a relationship with a person or organization, but they never marry anyone or anything; man, mansion, or movement.” Like today’s radical queer critics, bitches embraced their role as “marginal beings in this society. They have no proper place and wouldn’t stay in it if they did.” Similarly, in Lesbian Nation: the Feminist Solution (1974), journalist Jill Johnston renounced her marriage and custody of her children as diametrically opposed to female self-actualization.

This sampling of ideas about marriage makes a larger point: that feminism was the starting point for queer critiques of marriage, and we might want to return to feminist theory as well as queer theory if LGBT people imagine that they will inhabit the institution differently and with better outcomes for adults and children. Obergefell offers a significant step forward for civil rights without being the endpoint of any history of women’s rights, gender equality or social justice agenda that is necessarily progressive or without contradiction. So now that the dust has settled, let’s celebrate equal rights without celebrating marriage as establishing gender or sexual equality; and without framing the LGBT pro-marriage coalition as particularly culpable for the promotion of social inequality. At this moment when marriage, and the legal right to parent, is expanding exponentially, we may or may not need more queer theory — but we need feminism more than ever.

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for the post, Claire. Maybe an answer is that feminist theory, with the help of some theology, can help people imagine new solidarities inclusive of marriage as an option that excludes patriarchy. I don’t think the answer lies in Kennedy’s idea of taking. But perhaps something from the history of radical feminist theology, on self-giving, might help build something more inclusive. I nudge toward the notion of solidarity/ies because that’s how political unions become effective, and you need those to effect practical change. – TL

    • I am not sure that marriage can ever be understood apart from patriarchy, but religion can be reinvented and evolve. Some of those reinventions have strengthened its patriarchal quality (Latter Day Saints); others have evolved to take feminist critiques seriously (reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism.) What is interesting about same-sex marriage in this regard is the question of whether people will map old gender roles onto similarly sexed bodies; or whether people will reinvent the institution. There is actually research that says same-sex partners are far more likely to be consciously egalitarian in their relations to each other — this might even be an opportunity for scriptural reinterpretation that displaces patriarchy.

  2. Thanks so much for this illuminating and rich essay.

    One productive way to contextualize these reflections, I think, is within the broader development of what should probably be called “fourth wave” radicalism in the US (I know that the language of waves is controversial…)

    Among the most intriguing features of this new moment is the specific character of intergenerational conflict at its center. There’s nothing new, of course, about left antagonisms between elders and youngers, but there is something distinctive about the current political conjuncture. For example, younger feminists engage in regular battle with older feminists they call SWERFs and TERFs (sex-worker and trans-exclusionary radical feminists)–so much so that pushing back against the SWERF/TERF line is an important part of younger feminists’ radicalization these days. Similarly, while the labor/Marxist Left has long been marked by its genrontocratic tendencies, there is a significant amount of self-activity among younger members of the traditional Left against the New Left legacy (including the great anger felt towards figures like Todd Gitlin and Michael Waltzer). We see, too, in the refusal of young African American activists of the “leadership” of Al Sharpton or co-optation by the older civil rights infrastructure a reflection of this intergenerational tension.

    I bring all this up in relation to your post because I think there is a lot at stake, today, in offering historical review as context. This is a moment, I think, where a younger reader encountering these genealogies might be as likely to say: “oh, that’s where Katha Pollitt gets her weird defensiveness re: the SWERF/TERF lines from” or, “oh, that explains why so many people I thought were on my side tweeted enthusiastically about that horrible NY Times op-ed against Caitlin Jenner,” as to incorporate this history into a narrative of their own intellectual heritage. I suppose what this all boils down to, as always, is the question of the “useable past”–and what to my eyes at least appears a new generational aversion to that instrumentalist conception of the history of radicalism.

  3. i sure am glad that the only “ism” my wife follows is “people-ism.” labels and dogma sure do complicate things. let’s keep it simple and treat each other with dignity and respect and not be consumed by anger.


  4. So much for academic objectivity – what does this have to do intellectual history? As a gay man it is a bit insulting to be lectured to by the same academic “radicals” who denounced same sex marriage and almost every political strategy short of a revolutionary queer anarchism as reactionary assimilation. No matter that the overwhelming majority of gays, excuse me, LGBTs, wanted nothing to do with revolutionary politics – what did they know? They obviously need to re-educated in the mysteries of Queer theory or whatever is the latest humanities fad.

  5. What a shallow and intellectually dishonest piece. In lieu of historical evidence in support of an argument, Ms. Potter treats us to a sermon consisting of cringe-inducing tautologies (“anti-marriage queers reject marriage”), unproven factual assertions, often phrased as vaguely as possible, and moral scolding sans moral authority.

    But the most dishonest aspect is in the form of what is not said. Ms. Potter can’t bear to admit what really happened in the so-called “marriage wars.” In truth, there was no war. It was an exposé. “Queer” academics and activists – who pretended to speak in the name of “liberation”and for “authentic” LGB people – laid down the law. Marriage was a “heteronormative” institution, and gay people should not seek to join it. And marriage equality certainly should not be a priority for our movement. People who pursue marriage equality are of impure heart. They are “assimilationist” and “homonormative.” To be good, you must not be like them; you must be like Claire Potter and want the things that she wants.

    These decrees were issued year after year. In 2006, the “queers” even made a concerted effort to derail the equality effort. But a funny thing happened. Lesbians and gays stopped listening to the “queer” high priests and priestesses like Ms. Potter. Poll after poll of LGBs consistently showed marriage equality to be LGB’s top priority. So, to the impotent fury of people like Ms. Potter, LGBs proceeded to do the opposite of what the “queers” commanded. They formed the most potent force to come out of the gay rights movement. And they won.

    And now that Ms. Potter and her narrow-minded compatriots have been humiliated and exposed as self-appointed generals with no army, they come forward to instruct us on what the victory really means and what “we” need (as in, “Hey, let’s just pretend like you didn’t repudiate us and that we are still in charge!”).

    Thanks, Ms. Potter, but there is no “we” here. Anyone who is “sickened” by the SCOTUS decision does not have the best interests of LGB people at heart. Your quasi-cult is a destructive, anti-gay, and disrespectful to the dignity of the individual. We’ll pass on any further sermons.

  6. I just came bck to thise comments because a friend wrote me about it — but I am a bit puzzled by comments 3-5 which seem to presume that this is an anti-marriage polemic. I am never surprised by how incautiously people read on the internet, but this takes the (wedding) cake. At no point do I express my *own* views about gay marriage, and the arguments I cite address numerous positions about marriage as an institution, pro, con, and in between. I do argue by inference in my opening story, and in my citation to Bambara, that there is something we might call a “feminist marriage” that queer marriage ritics do not take into account; and my citation to DuCille argues that marriage is an institution that is not “a transhistorical ideal or a linear literary convention, but a sign of the times that shifts with the times, the place and the people.”

    So I’m a little puzzled that the commenters have somehow mistaken me for some other lesbian, perhaps one who writes for Bully Bloggers? As a final note: my partner of 30 years and I were married on April 12, 2016.

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