Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My Thoughts on the New Conversation

I was reading some of the posts and resulting blog conversations following the Institute for American Values' Valentine's Day Symposium on their New Conversation on marriage, when I noticed that many of the discussions were not new at all.

Today, I give my tongue-in-cheek contribution for your consideration, brought to you by jurist William Blackstone:
"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.

Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage.


The husband (by the old law) might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehavior, the law thought it reasonable to entrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his servants or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer....

These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities, which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit. So great a favorite is the female sex of the laws of England."
To what extent should a married couple be considered one unit or one citizen?

Should a married couple get just one vote, or does each individual get their own vote?

What is the proper way for a husband to give his wife correction? Should he punish her exactly as he punishes his servants and children, or are more (or less) harsh measures necessary for her rehabilitation?

How might the diminishment of coverture in US law have led to a weakened marriage culture, a destabilization of society, and other social ills?

And finally, since coverture was "intended" to protect women as the "favorite" of English law, will men ever be able to overcome their long history of oppression at the hands of traditional marriage?

Okay, in all seriousness, I've been holding off sharing my thoughts about the IAV's New Conversation on marriage. While I probably disagree with many signatories about the extent to which marriage can, should, or is a (or "the") solution to a host of social problems, I do believe that the national conversation on same-sex marriage is oftentimes toxic, hurtful, and polarizing.

Even as I continue to support marriage equality, I am frustrated at the way mainstream LGBT organizations (which are largely dominated by gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians) seem to have a monomanic focus on marriage equality as though that's the golden ticket to our full acceptance in society. To me, this focus parallels a conservative focus on marriage generally as a solution to many social problems, at the exclusion of contemplating issues at a more systematic, nuanced, and complex level.

Once marriage equality or a stronger marriage culture are achieved, I sometimes wonder where these well-funded liberal and conservative marriage movements will leave the more vulnerable and marginalized members of our community for whom marriage is not their most pressing issue, for whom marriage is not their "solution," or who do not fit the model of Acceptable Real Family (in either its heteronormative or gay version).

LGBT people will continue to be marginalized, in ways less visible and obvious to the mainstream, after marriage equality is achieved, but marriage equality is largely perceived as being LGBT people's Big Issue. So, when we "win," will it no longer be convincing for LGBT people to claim that bigotry, harassment, or discrimination still exists-  in the way that racism, to some, apparently no longer exists in the US because we have a black President? So, part of the New Conversation maybe involves some bridge-building, helped along with means of civility and understanding, where maybe the end goal isn't to completely agree on everything, but to at least better understand one another.

Secondly, I am not sure at this point if discussing same-sex marriage is "off the table" in the IAV's New Conversation. Jonathan Rauch suggested that the Institute is breaking new ground by being a pro-family organization "recognizing that gay marriage is here to stay as a permanent feature of the American family landscape." Yet, from what I've seen so far, many posts about it seem to be a re-hashing of rather old conversations that existed prior to the same-sex marriage debate.

Heather MacDonald blames feminism. Maggie Gallagher tells us that "men and women are quite different." Lawrence Mead favors restoring some of the stigma to divorce and unwed parenting.

These are not new arguments or discussions. They are also not accepted by many feminists as being true or convincing.

So, while Ron Haskins tells us "the pro-marriage argument is powerful and potentially persuasive to young adults," a pro-marriage New Conversation comprised of these arguments, to many people (especially feminists and progressives) is going to appear as out of touch as re-considering the pros and cons of bringing coverture back.

Indeed, the New Conversation has barely made ripples in the feminist blogosphere, perhaps owing to, as feminist Jill Filipovic demonstrates, its appearance as a conservative, outdated, and simplistic approach.

After much thought and consideration, however, I have decided to sign on to the New Conversation not because I agree with the folks at the IAV, or its signatories but rather because, in large part, I know I do not and will not agree with many of them. The signatories thus far seem to be somewhat intellectually diverse, but I did not see many progressive feminist voices, voices that I believe must be represented in these types of conversations, in the conversation so far, pushing back against outdated, inaccurate notions of gender, sex, and gender roles.

I also respect what the IAV is trying to do and appreciate its commitment to civility. Several participants in the Valentine's Day Symposium also expressed a commitment to civility. I hope that's one value we can all agree on, despite our disagreements about much else.

[Cross-posted: Family Scholars Blog]

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