Sexual politics and the philosophy of marriage
Heather 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…"
"Yeah, I know, when the state comes in and limits your choice to one or another avenue leading right back to the status quo. That sucks.”
Two weeks later I was standing in the mailroom recounting this story to a colleague and getting a pretty good chuckle out of the irony.
“But there is a way for you to perform the ceremony. You can become a minister in the Universal Life Church. That’s what I did when a friend asked me to officiate at her wedding.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
"Not at all. Totally legitimate. I’ll get you the information sheet citing case law; it tells you how to file an application.”
Three days after I paid a nominal fee to the Church’s headquarters in Modesto, California, a certificate arrived authenticating my ministry. Along with the calligraphied document, “suitable for framing,” I received an order form for business cards and assorted ministerial paraphernalia. I was set. I told Heather I could now legitimately preside over her wedding.
“Awesome. Turns out the minister Tony and I asked had to cancel. What should we do next?”
I hadn’t a clue. I’d been so busy concentrating on how to authenticate the contract that I’d forgotten about the ritual behind it. The more I considered my ministerial duties, the more I worried my prejudices would get in the way.
It wasn’t only because my own two experiences in the institution of marriage hadn’t been either egalitarian or empowering. To add to the irony, I’m in a loving, long-term relationship with Amy, my life partner, excluding me categorically from the institution I’d been ordained to bless. What the hell had motivated me to want to sanctify this heterosexist, patriarchal symbol of my second-class status? I must either be a hypocrite or a traitor. Or just crazy.
“You hoo, Professor Jones, what’s next?” While doubts rattled my brain, Heather had been waiting patiently for my answer. I recalled that day she’d come to my office bubbling with enthusiasm about how marriage could become a “living institution.” I’d had one of those experiences then, less rare than you might think, when the professor learns more from the student.
“What’s next is we meet with Tony to discuss your ideas for the ceremony.”
I suppose other ministers pray for inspiration to whatever deity they worship, but I’m no theist. Philosophy’s my muse and, oddly enough, when I sought a way to explain what I was doing, I found the principles to guide me among the pages of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.
Hannah Arendt’s no wedding maven, but she offered an interesting theory about why humans have such a passionate drive to enter into what our ancestors called covenants. When I read her again I recognized her as my matrimonial muse.
It appears, Arendt said, that we make promises to get a handle on fear. Since no one can guarantee who she will be tomorrow or foretell what will happen, being human turns out to be pretty frightening. Arendt thought uncertainty was a small price to pay for freedom. Making promises was one way we could look fear in the face and get on with it.
A promise creates what Arendt called “a little island of certainty in an ocean of unpredictability,” miraculously enlarging us by connecting us to someone else who agrees to be bound by the same terms. Here’s the tricky part: A promise only works if we both agree to stay open to whatever the future brings. If one of us uses it to threaten the other or to try to control the course of events, the promise becomes void.
Wow, I thought. That sounds like a philosophy of living marriage to me. If marriage is a promise made between equals in love, expressing their willingness to risk the future together, then marriage can be a living institution. Despite the future’s unpredictability, a couple promises to continue to love, and they do this in public so witnesses hear them and can remind them of what they have said. To make this kind of promise, to engage this soulful, gutsy, free-spirited act of mind and body, soul and heart, well, I could imagine a feminist choosing to do that.
The following Thursday I met Heather and Tony at their condo overlooking the glistening blue San Diego bay. I felt pretty confident in the process I’d worked out. I called it pre-marital mentoring. First I talked with them as a couple and asked them to tell me about how they’d met, what they liked and didn’t like about each other, how they connected to each other’s family. I wanted each to become comfortable articulating what they really felt. It would be good practice, I said, for exchanging their vows in public. Next I met with them individually, in private. Finally, we reviewed the ceremony together.
"Now, are there any concerns either one of you has about demands being made on your wedding?”
"We’ve got to get God in there somewhere,” Heather said. “My grandmother will never speak to me again if we don’t.”
“No problem. Think of it as your gift to her. Honoring who she is, not who you want her to be.”
A few weeks later I gave them a draft of what I’d written. They’d wanted the ceremony to express the promise each would make to help the other continue to grow within the couple. I excerpted some lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay. “No, I will go alone…Yes, of course I love you…I will come back to you, I swear I will; And you will know me still.” With music selected by Heather’s sister, the ceremony was ready.
"Do you know what, Kathy?” Heather asked as she reviewed the final program. “I’d like you to wear your doctoral robes. So things will look, you know…”
"Sort of traditional?”
"Yeah, is that O.K.?”
“Of course; I’ll get to show off my CUNY colors.”
I flew to the Bay area the afternoon before the wedding and met Heather and Tony and their families and friends for a rehearsal at the chapel of the University of the Pacific. A moment of panic seized me when the sacristan asked me to explain the order of events, but I drew on my theatrical experience, blocking everyone’s position, and we settled into a comfortable run-through. Heather was relaxed, making jokes, and Tony whistled, which was what he did, he told me later, whenever he wanted to cry.
On her wedding day, Heather looked gorgeous. As soon as Tony saw her, his eyes misted up. Grandma beamed at the line in the ceremony where we thanked God for blessing the day and everyone had a fabulous time at the party. I even made appointments with three of Heather’s friends who wanted me to officiate at their weddings. Later that night I called Amy and promised again to love and cherish her forever.
When I think about the first ceremony I ever performed, I remember feeling awkward as I pronounced the couple married. Who am I to have such authority? But over the years, I’ve grown into the role.
Who am I? I am an ordained member of the community of faith in the durable elasticity of love. Our community was formed and reformed over centuries by those who’ve tried to make sense of the fact that each one of us is born, equal and free, to begin something new. If you’re lucky enough to find someone to love and decide to promise to share your capacity to astonish the ordinary course of daily life with the unique two-in-one you’ll become, you might want to stand in front of a crowd or just a few close friends and tell the world about it. If you ask me to officiate at your wedding, the state will authenticate it and give you a certificate that says no matter where you go, you can be confident. You’re legally married.
The odd thing is, no one can do that for me.