Transforming the Marriage Talk

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

By Kelly, Special Projects Coordinator

I’m in a loving long-term relationship, and yes, I get the “when are you two getting married?” question. This question triggers painful memories of my childhood – growing up with parents who were in a really unhealthy marriage. My hesitation around marriage primarily comes from seeing how my mom was legally and socially bound to my dad despite how destructive, belittling, and violent he was. It wasn’t until recently that despite begging my mom to leave my dad, I realized that her marriage meant a sense of social belonging and normalcy, security, and hope that with time, she’ll get out of her working-class, without healthcare, without papers status. Contrary to our culture’s romanticization of marriage, my parent’s marriage has little to do with love but with marriage’s legal and social implications and impacts. They're a testament to how much marriage has to do with defining a status of inclusion, citizenship, and access.

In my previous blog post, I used Priscilla Yamin’s critique on the institution of marriage to breakdown the future talk – one that perpetuates marriage traditions and the nuclear family structure which simultaneously socially and legally excludes other relationships and families. Yamin’s question of whether or not marriage is the right place to determine rights provides a revolutionary opportunity to look outside of marriage and the traditional two-parent with biological children family structure.

Strong Families is a radical intervention that shifts the way we talk the talk. The Strong Families talks and actions are about promoting policies and shifting the way we think and feel about our families – all types of families, including single-parent, queer, immigrant, undocumented, young parent. These talks also transform and mobilize the way we think about marriage as a social obligation and a normalizing institution. Marriage isn’t only a beautiful, magical, romantic place where a couple’s relationship becomes socially and legally official – it’s also a shady contract that straddles the ideas of real love with property ownership and defining citizenship. So what does the talk look like between my mom and me now? It starts and ends with my mom telling me that maybe marriage isn’t the right place for anything.

As a conclusion to this two-part blog post, here’s a short Q&A with Priscilla Yamin, the author of American Marriage:

1. In American Marriage, you talk about how marginalized communities have used marriage to normalize themselves in the eyes of the state. How do you think that marginalized communities have used other institutions to gain access to a sense of national identity?

PY: There are ways that marriage functions like other institutions such as public education in “normalizing” marginalized communities. Other practices of normalization focus on economic independence, such as homeownership. The demand for access to education, homeownership and marriage are ways that members of marginalized groups signal a desire for acceptance and inclusion. These institutional practices organize membership, rights and obligations in civil society but also socialize people into accepting certain social, economic and political norms and patterns of beliefs and behavior. At the same time, marriage differs from other institutions. Enormous political work can be enacted through marriage because most people think of it as prior to, or more fundamental than political identities and interests. Marriage is charged with symbolic power that defines both individual life and national ideals.

2. American Marriage successfully traces how the state uses marriage in key political moments recreate hierarchies and redefine citizenship. One of the most current political issues is on what the religious rights are calling the War on Religious Liberty. How do you think this so-called war is possibly promoting traditional marriage?

PY: The War on Religious Liberty as I understand it is a call to limit government mandates around issues such as health insurance and family planning (such as abortion and contraception). One of the unstated roles of marriage for conservatives is to shift economic dependence from society to individual households. In other words to privatize these issues. However the fact is that not all individuals and families can afford healthcare or contraception without public assistance. The default is policy is marriage and so in this way the so-called war does promote traditional marriage as a social, economic and political policy.

3. As you know, Condoleezza Rice is the first black female secretary of the state under the Bush Administration. She was never married and has no children, yet there isn't too much speculation on her private life. If at all, do you think there are folks who are socially exempt from marriage?

PY: Excellent question. I would say yes because it wouldn’t be political if there were no exceptions. If you pull out someone like Rice it highlights that those with power and money are not pressured to marry as are other single African American women who are poor. In other words, marriage is about power relations. Some are encouraged to marry because they have no power and others are prevented from marriage because they have no power. The politics of marriage is not only about exclusions and inclusions but also is about creating political settlements that temporarily stabilize political questions of difference and inequality. One puzzle, among others, that I explore in the book is how some gays and lesbians are prohibited from marrying in some states while at the same time marriage promotion policies in welfare reform strongly encourages poor single mothers to marry. Meanwhile, white heterosexuals of means can marry or not.

4. Strong Families is a national initiative to change policies and shift culture around supporting all types of families - queer, immigrant, single-parent, undocumented. I know I touched upon it during my blog, but how do you see your analysis of marriage aligning with, challenging, supporting the Strong Families framework?

PY: I think there a lot of ways that understanding marriage as a political institution supports the Strong Families framework. Marriage is family policy. It is considered by individual states to be the “beginning” or the “foundation” of a family. My book shows that this is not a neutral process but a politically constructed one. The implications of this for how we think about family, what a family is, how it is determined, what rights do families get or are owed are wide ranging. If we are to challenge the notion of a nuclear, two-parent family with biological children as the norm or as natural and reveal what is at stake politically in how we define marriage, we can think about marriage and family as political positions to be challenged. Strong Families is doing very important work towards challenging norms. 

Priscilla Yamin teaches Political Science at the University of Oregon. 
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