Feminism and marriage

Somewhere in the 231 comments on Bitch, PhD’s post about feminism, her marriage, and Kidding Oneself, someone asked her to explain what she thought constituted a good feminist marriage.  I’d also be interested in reading Bitch’s take on the subject, but thought I’d throw in my two cents on the matter.

I think Jenell at the Paris Project has it right, that what makes a marriage egalitarian isn’t the roles you play, but the distribution of power, and the assumption of equal personhood.  So I wouldn’t necessarily look at who earns the money in a family, but at who gets to make decisions about how to spend it.  Not how many hours are spent with the children, but who makes plans without arranging for child care.

But what makes a marriage feminist is the recognition that no couple is making their choices in a vacuum, that there are societal forces shaping those decisions, a lot of history hanging over you.  And as a result, it’s easy to drift into patterns that perpetuate inequality, so you need to keep paying attention if you want to keep things in balance.

The tricky part is figuring out how to pay attention to these things without it degenerating into petty scorekeeping, where every last dirty sock or wet towel left on the floor is recorded for history.  Perhaps the definition of a good marriage is one in which each party thinks that the other is doing more than their share of the work.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

11 Responses to “Feminism and marriage”

  1. Cecily Says:

    Interesting post as always.
    I’m sure I could come up with a lot of things to say about this. I feel like I’m in a true partnership in my marriage; but I’ve had to let go of some of the ideas that I believed were feminist in order to make it work. And one of the big ones was money.
    I always thought that I had to completely control my money in order to stay a feminist in marriage. You know, seperate bank accounts, even division of bills, etc. But the longer I stayed married, two things became clear.
    One, my husband is a freelancer. This works out well for us not only because he feels suicidal when he works in offices (and I’d rather not have him dead) but also because it allows him to take care of his mother (who has Alzheimer’s) and will allow him to stay home with our child (should it ever get born).
    However, it means that his pay is irregular. Mine is not. Should I withhold my money and only pay for half of everything even though his clients have stiffed him again? Obviously not. And developing a system of “IOU’s” seemed pretty silly after a while. So we merged our money.
    The second issue is that I absolutely SUCK at managing money. I was a poor kid, and have always lived paycheck to paycheck, so I don’t have any concept of savings or planning or anything like that. I’ve tried to learn, I really have, but it makes me crazy. My husband, on the other hand, is a meticulous money manger and planner. So for a long time we worked together on the bills, sitting down a couple of times a week to go over everything.
    But eventually it became obvious that it wasn’t working. We were fighting a lot, and it was always about money. So after much thought, I finally made the decision to just let him handle the money. I made two requests: one, he always pays our living expenses before paying bills, and two, I don’t have to discuss money with him anymore. He asked only that I believe him if we can’t make a big purchase at a certain time.
    And, oh, my, the relief. The fights ended. We never have periods where we are so broke we can’t get groceries without putting them on a credit card. It’s been about two years now, and it’s been lovely.
    Does this mean that I’m a bad feminist? I don’t know. If something were to happen to my husband, I’d know how to deal with the bills. So that’s not it. I just know my marriage is a happier place because I defer to his better skills–even if that means we fall into traditional gender roles.
    This is similar to my vacuuming story (I don’t let him vacuum cause he sucks at it), but on a bigger scale.
    Sorry if that was long. Just got me thinking is all.

  2. Sandy Says:

    I think it was Faulkner Fox’s book (Dispatches from Not-So-Perfect Life) that had a chapter called “The Joint Project” – where she started scorekeeping on all kinds of domestic work, and at one point even had a spreadsheet going. Pretty funny reading.

  3. Moxie Says:

    Greta post.
    I know we’re getting into a bad place when we start thinking about keeping score. It’s our signal to pull back and start doing some community-building stuff before we look at the workload again. The keeping score is sooo tempting, though.

  4. jen Says:

    I know scorekeeping is petty, bodes ill, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day some part of equality has to be about workload. And workload is where things really fall apart for me, and many married women I know.
    I have done many things I consider ultra feminist: I kept my job, I kept my career, I have control over my financial future/social security/retirement planning. My husband stays home with the kids, fer chrissakes. And yet, and yet. I’m still the one pulling the 5am – 11pm days, trying to get everything done. Trying to keep the boss happy, to manage the finances, to see the kids, to deal with my aging and sickly parents.
    It seems to me that I have done everything I was supposed to do to maintain equality. But in the end I simply care more: I have higher standards for cleanliness, I don’t consider it acceptable to miss my child’s first day of school, on and on it goes. No amount of take-home pay is going to change that.

  5. Christine Says:

    Reading your comment, Cecily, really hits close to home. For years I felt the need to keep separate financial accounts in an effort to reinforce my independence. It really wasn’t a big deal until our daughter was born and I started to work part-time. I work to keep my mind stimulated and to get out of the house, not for financial need. Since my husband out-salaries me massively it was ridiculous to keep so many separate accounts. With our daughter, alot of things needed to be joint for beneficiaries, etc. Money is always a difficult issue in any family regardless of how much wealth or earnings people have. I think it has to do with who handles the bills and accounts. I grew up with my mother handling the money and she didn’t work until we were older. I always felt that she was in charge. However, due to friends who have dealt with divorce, it does scare me that the earner and account controller could just walk out and take the money. Being the stay at home member of the family does make me feel vulnerable at times. Women, ultimately, need to have a strong support system whether through family or friends.

  6. Julie Says:

    This has been a terrific conversation for me because it goes right to the core of my major marital struggle (most of which is internal only). I admit it, I am a scorekeeper. I can’t help it. I am just so afraid of losing my life to a second shift when I have children that I am trying to get my husband to prove to me that he’ll do his 50% around the house (and he doesn’t leave his dirty socks anywhere, so I am already very fortunate) before I get pregnant. Thus far, his solution to the problem, because we are fortunate enough to be able to afford it, is to hire housecleaners. That certainly does make my life easier and has reduced our strife completely, but it doesn’t make me any less afraid that my life, as I know it now, will end when a baby arrives. And then, I hate myself for being so selfish and for genuinely considering not having children because I don’t want to have to work from 5AM to 11PM. What kind of mother will I be if this is my major pre-pregnancy fear?

  7. smokey Says:

    >>>But what makes a marriage feminist is the recognition that no couple is making their choices in a vacuum, that there are societal forces shaping those decisions, a lot of history hanging over you.
    This quote says it all for me has always been my feeling about marriage/parenthood and who does what. DH and I can say what we want about how we divide things up, but we’re living in a society that makes a whole different set of assumptions. It really doesn’t make any difference how much we both profess to try to work out an egalitarian system. The societal pressures are enormous (e.g. family members from both sides always contact me regarding our social plans, advertising for cleaning products is never geared towards my husband wanting his home to smell ‘bright and fresh’ [big grin of happiness (why, almost an orgasm!) about cleanliness!]).
    We try to carve out a relationship that best reflects our family’s needs at the moment, is flexible enough to respond to the changes that occur in our needs and isn’t based on a ‘point system.’ I make it sound far more rational (and heavenly) than it is. There are definitely gender-based decisions on who does what (back to that issue of we don’t live in a vacuum), but there is also the freedom to examine decisions that don’t seem to be working and are, maybe, a bit too reflexive.
    As I read over my post, I am reminded of what hard work marriage and parenthood is. Rewarding, certainly, but not easy.

  8. amy Says:

    Julie, no guilt necessary. You’re right. Your life as you know it would end, and if your time (and sleep, and relative freedom from every virus to sweep the schools and daycares) is important to you, you’ll be in for massive frustration as a parent. I was up again at 4:30 this morning with a toddler crying, “Mama, I cannot breathe very well!” (Stuffy nose + thumb in mouth = not breathing very well.) The world’s got lots of people already, don’t sweat it. If you get dissatisfied with the focus on yourself, husband, work, family, friends & decide it’s time for a kid, great; otherwise, no reason not to keep going, imo. I say enjoy the honorary-man status while you can get it.

  9. Christine Says:

    I was just thinking that the term feminist marriage seems like an oxymoron in the context of this discussion. I agree with Smokey that outside forces (family) tend to influence or try to influence marriage. History, which is mentioned, is a huge part of this theme. Someone told me this story recently (a few weeks ago) and it still stuns me to this day. Two friends of mine recently were married, both around 30 and work full-time. The wife works more than the husband due to mandatory overtime and I suspect brings home a little more money. These people are careerists in law and business. The husband’s mother complained about having to cook because her son comes over to dinner 4 nights a week. She can’t wait until her daughter-in-law learns to cook. The woman works from 9 am until late and doesn’t get home due to commute until 9 or later in the evening. Both salaries are needed for basic necessities. Initially I thought why doesn’t HE learn to cook or take-out food? Why is mommy still cooking for a grown adult? Friends suggested she cook all weekend and freeze food for leftovers…so on top of working she should forget about free time and submerge herself into domesticity. What irks me is that many Baby Boomers have a very different outlook on domestic situations and are still influencing these issues immensely. Not every older women was changed by Friedan and Steinem. In extended social circles men feel they have earned their right to relax after work and not help out with domestic duties. Women work and still are expected to have full responsibility of the home. Another observation still stays with me; one that reflects a generational difference. I attended a civic association meeting for a local community run and attended by senior citizens. When everyone entered the center the women set up the food (coffee and cakes) and served while the men sat around, socialized and ran the meeting. I thought to myself – this is hilarious! Is it bad manners or liberation not to relapse into traditional female tasks? I was just shocked at how different each generation handles gender roles. Thankfully in my immediate family everything is a joint effort.

  10. Stone Court Says:

    This World and Another

    As she often does, Elizabeth at Half-Changed World has spurred me to write down thoughts that have been rattling around inside my head. She writes this about the nature of feminist marriage:

  11. Sarah Says:

    I am recently married and very much struggling with how to be a feminist and a wife at the same time. My husband makes 4 times the amount of money that I do, though we both work full time jobs. His salary pays for nearly everything: the mortgage, any trips we take, big purchases for the house. I feel guilty about this- as he is contributing a lot more than I am. It doesn’t bother him but he grew up in a household in which his mother quit her job the day she got married and never worked again. It seems normal to my husband for me to depend on him financially but it really bothers me and I am having internal struggles with whether a feminist like myself is cut out for marriage. Any advice?

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