womanwarrior ([personal profile] womanwarrior) wrote2009-10-03 08:22 pm
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Marriage: Romantic or Legal?

So marriage in America is formalized as a legal contract, which the state and federal government both have several laws and procedures to deal with.

Yet the overwhelming focus on marriage in society is as a romantic act, about the love and commitment between the two people and the building of their life together as a new family unit. To pretty much the exclusion of any discussion about the legal aspects - at least until the gay marriage controversy burst onto the scene and forced us to talk at least some about the legal rights and responsibilities which come with marriage. (And even so, the focus is on two people who love each other and want to make the "ultimate" commitment.)

It doesn't bother me that we talk so extensively about the romance of marriage(*), but it's really bizarre to me that here we have this legal contract "marriage" and we rarely talk about exactly what that entails. The laws are also different from state to state, which confuses the matter even more. If you're entering into a contract with someone else, wouldn't you want to know what that contract explicitly and legally means, according to the state and federal laws?

Well, I think so. I went looking for a class on how marriage will legally affect me if I choose to get married, and what options I had for changing what marriage legally meant, but I couldn't find anything. The Cambridge Center for Adult Education had two classes on weddings, however.

I'm not surprised. In America we focus on weddings to the exclusion of everything else that goes into a marriage. We have whole magazines devoted to weddings or brides. Whole magazines devoted to one day in your life (well, these days, more likely 2 or 3 days). Weddings are the culmination of the cultural script of romance, the "happily ever after", and all the symbols involved in weddings are hyped up to a ridiculous extent. All of the wedding fervor centers the discussion of marriage firmly in the realm of romance, and removes it from the realm of law and contracts, despite the fact that a marriage occupies both realms. Last I checked, pre-nuptials were viewed with suspicion - you weren't supposed to hedge your bets when you think you've found "The One"(**), because that shows a lack of trust or faith in the Love Of Your Life.

When the gay marriage debate was raging(***), I encountered many people who wanted to circumvent opining on gay marriage by simply declaring that they think the government should get out of legislating marriage entirely. Well, maybe it should, or maybe it shouldn't, but I think at the very least we should be talking about exactly what our government is legislating.

After some googling, I finally found a website, FindLaw, that seems to have a good summary of the legal aspects of marriage. Are there other books, websites, classes out there on this? If you know of any, or find any, please send them my way!

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(*) Ok, maybe it does, but that's another post.
(**) No, not Keanu Reaves.
(***) Since I live in MA I can say that in the past tense.

[identity profile] orbitalmechanic.livejournal.com 2009-10-27 02:00 pm (UTC)(link)
I took a class on feminist theory that had a whole unit on marriage and weddings. It's not quite today's-legal-primer but it did include some legal stuff--a legal history over the last couple hundred years and some discussion of how legal marriage interacts with social services, thus how marriage functions differently for poor couples (mostly) than for middle-class couples. I'll try to track those references down.

The pro-marriage-equality websites also tend to do a good job of listing the legal details. Try GLAD (http://www.glad.org/), or maybe Lambda Legal (http://www.lambdalegal.org/issues/marriage-relationships-family/).

(Anonymous) 2009-11-01 08:55 pm (UTC)(link)
Okay, one book I could lend you is Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation--history with a strong focus on the legal issues. We already read (but I've already loaned out) Chrys Ingraham's White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, a pretty glossy sort of book. And there's a lot about marriage in Gwendolyn Mink's Welfare's End, which I could also lend you if you're interested.

I can't quite reconstruct the whole economics/marriage argument, but I remember an anecdote that always stayed with me: during the same session of Congress that required single mothers to take unpaid jobs to "earn" welfare (thus requiring them to pay someone less-than-welfare wages to look after their children), legislation also allowed married women who did not earn an income to contribute to tax-free IRAs (with their husband's earnings, presumably, even though an IRA normally has to come from wages). Which basically says: if you're poor, childcare isn't work, but if you're middle-class, it is. Stuck with me!

[identity profile] orbitalmechanic.livejournal.com 2009-11-01 08:57 pm (UTC)(link)
Whoops, that was me.