Melissa Harris-Lacewell on marriage

Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell has an amazing piece up at the Nation about marriage. If you don’t know Harris-Lacewell’s work, you should. Check out our recent interview with her.
As someone who also feels critical of the institution of marriage, it makes me really happy to see a straight feminist ally so thoughtfully reflect many of my feelings about the work ahead of us.
You can read the entire piece here.

So what are we to make of marriage? It is both a deeply personal relationship for which people will make almost unthinkable sacrifices, and it is a declining social institution offering little security for most who enter it.
As a black, feminist, marriage-equality advocate I reside at an important intersection in this struggle. This movement must acknowledge the unique history of racial oppression, while still revealing the interconnections of all marriage exclusion. This work must reflect the feminist critique of marriage, while still acknowledging the ancient, cross cultural, human attachment to marriage. This work must be staunchly supportive of same-sex marriage, while rejecting a marriage-normative framework that silences the contributions of queer life.
Typically advocates of marriage equality try to reassure the voting public the same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself. “Don’t worry,” we say, “allowing gay men and lesbians to marry will not threaten the established norms; it will simply assimilate new groups into old practices.”
This is a pragmatic, political strategy, but I hope it is not true. I hope same-sex marriage changes marriage itself. I hope it changes marriage the way that no-fault divorce changed it. I hope it changes marriage the way that allowing women to own their own property and seek their own credit changed marriage. I hope it changes marriage the way laws against spousal abuse and child neglect changed marriage. I hope marriage equality results more equal marriages. I also hope it offers more opportunities for building meaningful adult lives outside of marriage.
I know from personal experience that a bad marriage is enough to rid you of the fear of death. But this experiences allows me suspect that a good marriage must be among the most powerful, life-affirming, emotionally fulfilling experiences available to human beings. I support marriage equality not only because it is unfair, in a legal sense, to deny people the privileges of marriage based on their identity; but also because it also seems immoral to forbid some human beings from opting into this emotional experience.
We must do more than simply integrate new groups into an old system. Let’s use this moment to re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.

Join the Conversation

  • Ann

    I really, really love this piece.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    good piece. I think we’ve got a long road ahead of us. I don’t like marriage, it’s not for me. I don’t know about American marriages, but it always frustrated me when my cousins in India would enter arranged marriages with Indian American (and British Asian) males and they had to uproot their whole lives from India and move to a strange, foreign land wwere they didn’t know anyone besides their new husbands. That was a huge factor in shaping my disdain for marriage.
    but I do support same sex marriage. Gays and lesbians should have the right to ruin their lives by getting married ;-)

  • DeafBrownTrash

    *where, not wwere. Sorry for the typo.

  • drfantastic

    No defense of your homegirl JV? For shame.

  • Jessica

    I don’t think a defense is necessary – MHL wasn’t attacking me, but the way the NYT chose to cover the wedding! I actually had a really nice chat w/her about the weird process of being covered the Times and what they chose to write about and what they left out. So I thought it was a great piece. :)

  • Miriam

    I didn’t see Harris-Lacewell’s article as attacking Jessica, so I didn’t see a need to defend her. H-L used Jessica’s experience (and coverage in the NYTimes) as context to take about feminist critiques of marriage, but didn’t attack her.

  • Gretel

    I really love that she includes marriage-free options in that last paragraph. People should check out the Alternatives to Marriage project ( for their resources.

  • Philosimphy

    Marriage = OMG I am so sick of you why are you still here, what have I done to deserve this hell on earth, oh please, just go away, it’s not you it’s me but still, just go.
    IMO/IME anyway.

  • notemily

    I thought the most interesting part was the story of your first date, especially the part about you being a woman he couldn’t say “no” to. It seemed like they were trying for a [strong, opinionated woman / shy, nervous guy] romantic-comedy narrative. Like “of course, only a pushover would choose to be with an opinionated feminist!” Maybe I was just reading too much into it, though. Anyway, I loved the photos they included.
    Uh, not to derail this thread or anything.

  • Mrs.s

    I really appreciate this article. In a social climate that’s starting to become increasingly anti-marriage, it’s refreshing to see a critical thinking piece that offers a well-informed perspective without the usual institution bashing. Well done, and thank you to the editors for posting this.

  • drfantastic

    I’m open to correction. I thought the NYT article was fine while using some typical stereotypes about feminists, but thought the H-L article didn’t need to use JV as an example. That is how it struck me – but I only read it once. If I have time I’ll go back to the H-L article and see if it strikes me another differently after reading these comments.