My feminism is dependent upon my marriage. Wait, wait! Put down the pitchforks. Let me explain.
I'm not saying that feminism is dependent upon marriage (or any relationship). I'm not even saying that I wouldn't have found a different type of feminist lifestyle had I not gotten married. What I'm saying is my feminism--the way I'm living it out right now--is dependent upon my particular marriage.
I started thinking about these things because of this interview with Richard Banks, author of Is Marriage for White People? I can't even begin to answer the question in Banks' title, and though I am interested in the social implications that Banks discusses, I also feel like marriage is one of the most personal decisions we make and it's hard for me to try to make generalizations about it for other people.
While the primary thesis of Banks' book is obviously concerned with race (and, as this Root article points out, suggests interracial marriage as a cure for the problem), he also tackles some more general ideas about marriage and relationships, especially how they intertwine with the feminist movement.
At one point in this interview, Banks even states that "A less charitable take is that it's doing a disservice to black women to manipulate their experience for the ideological ends of feminism."
When asked if equating happiness with a relationship and children is problematic, Banks responds:
The overwhelming majority of people do want to have children because they do want to nurture a young person and project themselves into the next generation. I think an even larger number of people want to have a partner. Maybe they don't when they're in college or just after college, but as they get older, most people tend to want to have an ongoing, intimate relationship with someone.This is problematic. Feminism should not be (and I don't think it is) at odds with marriage. It should not be on the opposing end of a spectrum that faces off with children and a steady relationship. (Banks also explains that "we should be clear that marriage decline is shorthand for the decline in stable, committed, intimate relationships." This ignores the fact that marriage cannot be shorthand for this for people who are not legally allowed to marry, but at least it opens up the discussion a little).
You can be married (or be in a "stable, committed, intimate relationship"), have children, and be a feminist. This is where I started thinking about my own marriage.
As a little girl, I didn't dream of getting married and starting a family. In kindergarten, I declared I wanted to be a marine biologist, a goal I held onto throughout most of high school. My primary goal was to get to college, a feat in and of itself for a troubled kid growing up in a poor, single-mother household.
At the same time, I've always been pretty skeptical of tradition for tradition's sake. Marriage doesn't seem like a necessity. People should be free to live their lives however works for them.
How, then, did I end up married at 23 and a mother at 25? Did I fail somewhere along the line? Lose sight of my goals? Give in to tradition?
My husband lived across the hall from me in our freshman year dorms. We appeared, I assume, complete opposites. He was an outgoing football player; I was a quiet bookworm. He's black; I'm white. He's from the inner-city; I grew up on a gravel road on the outskirts of a tiny town. But we bonded quickly over a love to debate and a true thirst for information. We learned of these similarities on weekends when most everyone else in our dorm would head back home and we found ourselves talking for hours. Our friendship grew not into attraction, but with it, our relationship a complex combination.
We started living together when we were 20. The statistics on such endeavors are grim, but it worked for us. And work is an important word. We were both from the first generation in our family to go to college, and neither of us had much of a financial support system to fall back on. As we began to plan for our futures, we knew we would have to work hard to build the kind of life we said we wanted. And then we did it.
We worked through undergrad and into graduate school (for me) and law school (for him). We decided which school to attend based on where we both got accepted. We supported each other through late nights of studying and rock bottom bank accounts. We made decisions together. We bought a house together and then cursed every repair together. We adopted a dog. We debated race, politics, the law, literature, and which color to paint the kitchen. We decided to have a baby, and we're learning how to parent together.
Am I too young? Some have said so (some even to my face). Do my roles as a mother and wife limit my career? If we're speaking hypothetically, they could. I am certainly limited more geographically because I have another career to think about along with my own. I do not have the freedom to take any position I want. But you can't play the what-if game without going in the other direction. It is equally or more possible that, without the love and support I've received through my marriage, I wouldn't have been able to take the opportunities I have taken. A ship's anchor might keep it from exploring distant lands, but it can also keep it safe, and we have weathered many storms.
In the end, I think about the implication that feminism stands on one end of the spectrum, glaring down at women who aspire to be wives and mothers. While, yes, limiting a woman's place in life to those roles is sexist and degrading, denying the value of those roles is equally so. While I feel the confines of sexist systems of oppression in the larger society, I feel that my own life is a space where I am safe to step outside those confines. I have the freedom to try and fail, and I have the freedom to try and succeed. My marriage helps make that possible.