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The Boston Phoenix Well Wed

Marriage is good for you

By David Valdes Greenwood

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

What Is Marriage For? by E.J. Graff (Beacon Press), 302 pages, $25.

"Is marriage a worthy or useful goal -- or a way of forcing people to squeeze their lives and dreams into too-small boxes?" This provocative question sets the tone for Boston author E.J. Graff's new book, What Is Marriage For? Although the book has been marketed as a feminist critique of the institution of marriage, it is, in fact, a full-throttle argument in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry, and in favor of the institution of marriage itself. Though she recognizes the main contention of others who have written on this topic -- that the economic and legal privileges of marriage should be available to all couples -- she also embraces a notion that will push buttons on the left and the right: marriage is good for the individual, even the gay individual. By saying that gays and lesbians should not only have the option but want it, Graff's thesis goes further than earlier works on this topic, notably The Case for Same-Sex Marriage, by William N. Eskridge Jr. (Free Press, 1996), Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, A Reader, edited by Andrew Sullivan (Vintage, 1997), and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, by John Boswell (Villard, 1994).

A lesbian feminist who writes that her "younger self would have been horrified to imagine writing a book in favor of marriage" yet who eventually had a wedding of her own with her lesbian partner, Graff has structured her book with six sections that address the topics often used to define marriage's purpose: "Money," "Sex," "Babies," "Kin," "Order," and "Heart." These elements factor into most contemporary polemics on this topic, of course, but Graff also uses her list to provide a good map of historical constructs around marriage, from a time when it was an arranged social contract to an era when it is a personal emotional choice. Along the way, she does a good (if occasionally repetitive) job of proving that the history of marriage is about flux, not tradition -- and that flux allows for forward motion.

Graff demonstrates this well in the section on sex. She takes delight in recounting the foibles of history, boiling down opposing ancient attitudes (covered in Boswell's controversial but densely thorough tome), and pointing out with amusement that Christians originally pushed celibacy over marriage. Closer to the present, she quotes an Atlantic Monthly writer from the 1920s who carped about how contraception was keeping family size to a "miserly minimum."

Taking on cultural harpies who mythologize nuclear families, she summarizes psychological studies to show that the actions, not the gender, of a parent are most telling. (Excerpts of some of those studies may be found in Sullivan's book.) With the wit that enlivens the entire work, Graff deconstructs examples of flawed logic in the debate, including the chestnut that only women can effectively meet the day-to-day needs of child care. She tells of a male couple who brought their "clean and well-behaved" child to preschool every day, unwittingly infuriating several mothers: the women were not mad at the gay dads, but at their own husbands, who, the women now realized, were equally capable of such tasks but had -- safely steeped in gender tradition -- refused the responsibility.

Graff deconstructs the economic history of marriage just as neatly. She uses historical records to paint an unflattering picture of the original matrimonial bonds, with engagement acting as a purchase order and marriage being the delivery of goods. Especially strong is her tracking of major cultural transformations from the 18th century (when marriage was strongly influenced by economics) through the industrial revolution and the civil-rights movement to the late 20th century (when marriage, at least rhetorically, is celebrated as an affair of the heart).

Still, although Westerners no longer tally up dowries, Graff does not ignore the importance of financial concerns in the personal unions she describes. She says the difference between domestic partnership and marriage is comparable to the difference between "a skateboard and a jet." She notes the places the authorities and institutions that treat the term "married" with special seriousness: "banks, insurers, courts, employers, schools, hospitals, cemeteries, rental car companies, frequent flyer programs," making a case that is both convincingly pragmatic (marriage can provide basic health care) and unsettlingly mercenary (marriage can provide cheap airline tickets).

Here, Graff is on ground well covered in Eskridge's book. Eskridge is less elegant with language but does a better job of mapping out the precise differences between domestic partnership and marriage, providing bulleted lists of marriage rights and responsibilities as defined by law (which, he notes, are available to pedophiles, rapists, and -- in 40 states -- 14-year-olds). He clarifies complex legal issues and intelligibly outlines the current legal situation for the average layperson.

By contrast, legal matters are the major shortfall of Graff's book. Much of the text is devoted to colorful but slightly too exhaustive pre-20th-century historical detail, which at times gives the work the feel of a keener doctoral thesis; when the court battles and legal specifics of our own time are dealt with briefly and limply, the book feels slightly unbalanced. Graff seems to have assumed that readers have a basic knowledge of the legal issues, and has instead focused on the philosophy behind -- as opposed to the letter of -- the law.

Her ideological zeal comes to light most clearly in the section titled "Kin," which is likely to be a flashpoint in the ongoing marriage debate within the gay and lesbian community. As she traces the history and practice of sexual coupling, she upends the common liberal wisdom of monogamy as a conservative tool. Citing both the polygamous marriage of the early Mormon era and the polygamous sexuality celebrated by many in gay male culture, Graff asserts that monogamy is a radical act historically, one that equalizes, not oppresses. She calls proponents of sexual pluralism "utopians," a carefully chosen term that implies a likable ideal but also a hard historical fact: utopian societies always self-destruct. Furthermore, she argues that such lifestyles are utopian only for those who have power, that the weak end up abused and unprotected by a lack of accountability in their relationships.

Graff concludes that "marriage rules are necessary to bring justice to human commitments." In other words, should two people choose to pool their time, money, resources, and energy into a shared life, marriage provides a framework to help ensure that each contribution is recognized inside and outside that union. (Interestingly, she never addresses a common question from the left: is it a good thing for a society to make certain privileges unavailable to single people or to that rare ménage à trois that turns into a lasting family?)

The idea of coveting marriage for its own merits is enough to make this book a lightning rod in some circles, but Graff practically invites yelping from the subset of urban gay male culture that exalts sex above all else; she castigates this "bacchanalian life" as not radical at all, but rather a form of mindless acquiescence to the corporate mantra of "consume, consume, consume." She specifically knocks author Edmund White's use of terms like "dreary" and "airlock" to define marriage, declaring archly that such perceptions come only from people who have never been exposed to "long-monogamous" non-urban couples who "do live in 'middle-class respectability.' "

It is in this that Graff may find herself unhappily lumped together with conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, who (as quoted in his anthology) suggests that, if allowed, same-sex marriages would be modeled on heterosexual marriages. Like Eskridge, who cheerily announces that gays who want to marry are "nice people who share America's values," Graff allows her sharp arguments to be blunted with her foray into suburban idealism. Invoking pastoral settings and middle-class existence, she limits the appeal of gay marriage instead of universalizing it, and ignores the many who desire such unions but fall beyond homogenous demographics. (Graff makes several similarly broad claims, including one that lesbians, unlike other couples, don't let money affect power issues in a relationship.)

Toward the end of the book, Graff returns to top form, persuasively arguing that by cloaking sexism in the ironclad rule that a woman must marry a man, the battle for same-sex marriage is "a fight-by-proxy over one of the last strongholds of gender supremacy." A culture that recognizes and fully rewards the union of two women, without the permission or presence of a man, is going to be infinitely closer to gender equity. This assertion again upends common wisdom -- instead of reinforcing the patriarchy, same-sex marriage could further women's legal rights.

Graff suggests that the time is right for such strides. Weaving together the threads of history that run through the book, she distills the essence of this national moment: our courts now recognize that sex is a matter of choice, marriage is no longer inextricably linked to procreation, and individual liberty is a supreme ideal of both main political parties. In other words, the nation itself, like Graff and countless others, is primed for same-sex marriage.

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