Marriage and the State

Professor Clare Chambers makes a case against state recognition of marriage

CW: Sexual assault/rape

Professor Clare Chambers, a Reader in Political Philosophy and a Fellow of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge, presented a lecture at Reed last Friday, April 5. Chambers’s presentation focused on understanding the concept of marriage in the U.K. from a political theory perspective. More specifically, she provided a convincing argument of why the government should not legally recognize marriage.

One of Chambers’s arguments focused on the legacy of marriage as a patriarchal and heteronormative practice. Throughout history, a major purpose of marriage was defining to which man a woman belonged to: when women got married, they not only had to cede all their property and (potential) children to the man they married, but were also forced to give up their bodily autonomy to their husbands. Marital rape was not legally recognized as a crime in the United States until the 1970s.

Even if we reform marriage laws to recognize both partners in a marriage as equals, Chambers suggests, sociological disparities remain. Gender divisions of labor are more pronounced in married straight couples than in those who are living together but are unmarried. Symbolically, too, marriage holds a different place in society for women than it does for men. Women are socialized to believe that marriage is their ultimate purpose, and to be unmarried past a certain age is considered horrible. Men, on the other hand, are taught that bachelorhood is freeing.

The recognition of marriage by the state has also been heterosexist in the very recent past. It was less than four years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that marriage rights must be extended to gay couples in all 50 states. Before that, the discrepancy in marriage laws between states — some where same-sex couples were allowed to marry, some where they were not allowed, and some where they could get civil unions but not marry — created a kind of tiered system in which the government was extending different rights to different citizens based on something that they could not change.

Chambers argued that the “redefinition” of marriage to cover gay couples does not go far enough in promoting equality among citizens. There is still a hierarchy of opportunity, she said. Not between straight and gay couples as much, but between married and unmarried people in families. Marriage awards couples “bundles” of government benefits. But not everyone wants to get married, and no matter how inclusive marriage laws are made, it is impossible that all long-term couples living together in a marriage-like household will be legally married. Because of this, Chambers suggests that the best thing to do to promote equality of opportunity for all citizens is to abolish the legal recognition of marriage altogether.

In Chambers’s ideal “marriage-free state,” marriage isn’t outlawed, it’s just not recognized by the state. This means that, instead of “bundling” tons of government benefits and granting them all to married couples, the benefits would be granted specifically based on circumstance. For example, benefits relating to children would be granted to all couples with children — a kind of “piecemeal regulation” in which the government only asks questions specifically related to the benefit you are requesting.

Chambers argued, from a U.K. perspective, that the state should stop recognizing marriage in order to unbundle government benefits and account for a gap in equality between married and unmarried people. It follows that a similar argument could be made for marriage in the United States as well.

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