Sexual politics and the philosophy of marriageHeather was the kind of student I could always pick out of the hundreds who blended into one another in the sea of expressionless faces floating before me, mostly oblivious to the pearls of wisdom I was delivering about the gender gap in public opinion or the inequities between women’s and men’s earning potential. Heather sizzled with curiosity.
For twenty-five years I taught women’s studies at a major public university in California. In my classes on the history of sexual politics we investigated the origins of the marriage contract, always raising some eyebrows, and more than a few doubts, about the institution of matrimony. I’m not talking about analyzing diatribes produced by some 1960s feminist. Forget about Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex. I assigned Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill.
Wollstonecraft’s eighteenth century lament that women were trained to advantage themselves through marriage, sacrificing their time and their persons to become “legally prostituted,” and Mill’s nineteenth century lambaste of marriage as a form of legal slavery could always get students riled up. Such classics raised enough consciousness that by the time we got to the twentieth century, N.O.W.’s equal rights manifesto looked pretty tame. Imagine my surprise, then, when at the end of the semester, Heather, my most outspoken, radical woman student, asked me to officiate at her wedding.An acerbic wit, an accomplished kick-boxer and lead editor on the student newspaper, she distinguished herself by organizing several groups in my Sex, Power, and Politics course that fall to support her for president of the student government. She was a quick study, most definitely headed for law school and, of this I was certain, a career in sex discrimination jurisprudence. I nicknamed her Gloria Allred II. The last thing I expected was to bless her union in holy matrimony to Tony, her computer geek boyfriend.
“I’m honored to be asked,” I said. “But why me?”
“Because you’ve helped me see how to make ‘old’ institutions fit into ‘new’ times. Like in my constitutional law class we learned about ‘living law.’ So I figure why not ‘living institutions.’ Tony and I want to revitalize marriage on Mill’s principles—well, with my modifications—of civil equality. That’ll make it perfectly compatible with third wave feminist action. And who better to make ours ‘legal’ than you!”
“Yes, well, there’s the tiny problem of my lack of credentials. A Ph.D. in Political Science does not a legal officiant make. As much as I’d love to perform your ceremony I’m afraid that’s impossible. But I’m willing to be a smiling, enthusiastic guest.”
“Gee, if anyone could find a way to subvert that paradigm I thought you could.”
"Unfortunately, this is one of those times when the state…"