Gay or Straight, Marriage May Not Be Bliss

As Massachusetts legislators and lawyers spar over the rights of same-sex couples to marry, the premise of the debate-that marriage is best-scores a stealth victory for the government's coercive campaign to marry off poor women.

Gwendolyn Mink


“Marriage is a vital social institution.”
Marriage “enhances the welfare of the community.”
“Marital children reap a measure of family stability and economic security . . . that is largely inaccessible, or not as readily accessible, to nonmarital children.”

These are commonplace bromides fromconservative marriage moguls who view marriageas the cure for poverty and other social problems.

But these were not the words of The Heritage Foundation or of the Marriage Movement. Nor were they taken from speeches by the Massachusetts legislators who voted Monday to defend marriage by banning marriage between same-sex partners.

These words were spoken by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in its decision last fall in favor of same-sex marriage. They scored a stealth victory for the Bush Administration's marriage-promotion campaign.

The Massachusetts court argued in part that lesbian and gay couples should be able to marry because marriage is good for society. The rationale of this ostensibly liberal decision leaves individuals who choose not to marry-or to exit from an existing marriage-out in the cold. Especially stigmatizing unmarried parents-mostly mothers-the Massachusetts court's decision abetted efforts currently touted by conservatives to cajole, pressure and coerce low-income mothers to marry.

Coercive Marriage Initiative

Marriage promotion Massachusetts-style is obviously not what the Bush Administration has in mind for its $1.5 billion pro-marriage initiative. The Bush plan aims to marry off poor single mothers to men who theoretically would support them.

Marriage-promotion proposals currently under review in Congress would require states to pressure single mothers to marry in various ways. The proposals would set concrete numerical goals for increasing marriage, would fund states on a matching-grant basis to develop pro-marriage education, counseling and media programs and would invite states to devise income incentives for welfare participants to marry.

The Massachusetts court did not actually espouse these coercive measures, but it did claim that the government has a legitimate interest in facilitating and spreading marriage. (Marriage is good for society, so-by implication-the more marriages the better.) The Massachusetts court went so far as to endorse the idea that children do better when they are raised by a married couple, even though many scholars argue that marital status, in itself, has no bearing on child welfare. Happy, stable families benefit children; but such families need not be marital families. Economically secure families can provide children steady resources; but higher wages and better social supports for both single-mother and two-parent families are the predicate for economic security, regardless whether parents are married.

Legal and Ceremonial Importance

The palpable joy of newly married same-sex couples in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and New Paltz, N.Y., attests to the importance of marriage as a ceremonial moment and as a legal institution.

Winning access to an institution said to lie at the core of society is surely a huge victory. But though heterosexist barriers have been dealt a blow, the prize is access to a fundamentally inequitable institution. Marriage, after all, is the historical core institution of patriarchy; the wellspring of men's subordination of women; the justification for women's second-class citizenship.

Husbands may no longer control wives' property just because they are husbands and they may no longer beat their wives with protection from the law.

But marital inequality for women persists today. Typically it is the woman who is at an economic disadvantage in marriage and more vulnerable at divorce. In a few states, husbands still can use a marital exemption to avoid criminal charges when they sexually assault their wives. These kinds of disabilities, acquired under law in marriage, make many women's exit from marriage very difficult and very costly in both personal and material terms.

Some women avoid these disabilities by choosing not to marry; others escape them through divorce; still others may want to marry but also want to choose their partner on their own terms.

The right of each woman to make independent decisions about intimate life is one of the great legacies of feminist struggle. The Bush Administration takes aim at that legacy in its funding policies toward poor mothers. Striking at the right of poor mothers to parent alone and undermining their families' well-being, Bush welfare policy would divert funds from economic assistance and supports to pay for initiatives that teach misleading, inaccurate, and sometimes even dangerous advice encouraging women's subordinate role in marriage and discouraging divorce.

Pushing Marriage for Some, Barring It for Others

At the same time, President Bush wants to use the Constitution to forbid same-sex couples from marrying. By promoting marriages for some while prohibiting it for others, the Bush government aims to use federal power to regulate our intimate decisions. If successful, the two-pronged approach-favoring marriage for straights and opposing it for gays and lesbians-would be a major setback for women generally as well as for lesbians and gay men.

This politicization of marriage distracts public attention from today's economic problems, not the least of which is the loss of living-wage jobs, the decline in real wages and the racialized gender wage gap for those who are employed. (In 2001, Latinas and African American women made 54 cents and 66.8 cents to the white male dollar, respectively; white women made 75 cents.) By claiming that poverty is caused by a lack of marriage among the poor, the Bush Administration is finding yet another way to blame the victim.

Same-sex marriage proponents and critics of marriage promotion-especially low-income single mothers who are the targets of marriage promotion-have much to offer each other in the campaign to defeat the Massachusetts' legislature's proposed ban on same-sex marriage and in the campaign to halt the federal government's initiatives to promote heterosexual marriage.

But same-sex marriage proponents need to make clear that theirs is a struggle for equality, not a campaign to celebrate marriage. Legal recognition for same-sex marriage would be a victory for equality. But it would be a defeat for liberty if same-sex marriage rights are couched in the expectation that same-sex partners should marry, especially if they are parents. The fight for marital freedom must not be about the virtues of married, two-parent families.

We should not be finding new ways to enhance the power of marriage to divide society into the worthy and the blameworthy.

No American should have to enter a government-sponsored sexual partnership to enjoy the dignity and sustenance of citizenship.

Gwendolyn Mink is the author of “Welfare's End” and co-editor of “Welfare: A Documentary History of U.S. Policy and Politics.” She teaches social policy at Smith College. Anna Marie Smith is the author of the forthcoming “Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation.” She teaches political theory at Cornell University.

For more information:

Cornell-No Promotion of Marriage in TANF:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-
“Strengthening Healthy Marriages, a Compendium of Approaches”
(Microsoft Word document):