Feminists and marriage: a qualitative analysis

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Virginia Tech


Feminist critiques have demonstrated the problematic nature of marital and family life for women. Feminism has deconstructed traditional marriage and made apparent the potential overwhelming cost to women in financial, emotional, and physical dimensions. However, the experience of feminists who choose heterosexual marriage has not been addressed through research. What is not known is the extent to which such feminists are transforming marriage into a relationship that values both spouses.

This study examined the influence feminism had on the marriage of heterosexual partners who were both self-identified feminists at the time of the study and prior to marriage. The guiding focus of the research asked what happens when feminists, dedicated to equality and the valuing of both spouses, choose to marry. Thus, the following research questions were posed: How do couples describe the impact of their feminist beliefs on their marriages? To what extent do couples talk about having a double consciousness of marriage, i.e., a realization of choosing a relationship that can lead to the devaluation of the woman? How do couples describe and interpret equality and inequality in their marriages? How does gender organize the couples' marriages and lives?

The conceptual framework informing this study was a combination of feminist and general systems perspectives, A general systems perspective provided concepts such as system, process, and context while a feminist perspective elaborated on these concepts to illuminate the sociohistorical and cultural contexts in which women and men live and the power differentials within marriages. A feminist postmodern perspective highlighted the social construction of relationships and gender and the diversity of women's experience while also proposing a political agenda, i.e., criteria of what is liberating for women and a critique of the gendered nature of power differentials.

Qualitative interviewing was the main method of data collection. Participants were recruited through referrals and advertisements placed in regional newspapers and regional and state newsletters of the National Organization for Women. Ten couples participated in the study. Criteria for inclusion in the study included the following: both the woman and the man assumed the label feminist prior to marriage; they believed women had historically and culturally been devalued and they worked against that devaluation in their own relationship; they were married for at least 5 years; and they were willing to be interviewed jointly and individually. The 20 participants (10 couples) were white, highly educated, and middle- to upper middle-class. They ranged in age from 30 to 77 years old. Length of marriage ranged from 5 to 22 years; the average was 11 and 1/2 years.

A mixture of being raised by parents exhibiting behaviors typically associated with the other gender, the impact of the second wave of feminism as it hit college campuses in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the observation or direct experience of discrimination either in the classroom or in the workplace created a fertile soil in which the origins of feminist beliefs were encouraged to take root. Sharing similar world views was crucial in the couples' development of a relationship in which the woman felt safe to critique direct and observed instances of gender injustice. Men also initiated and participated in this criticism, thereby indicating their support of feminism.

The blend of traditional and feminist ideological roots produced a reclamation of marriage. Couples described feminism as influencing their beliefs about equality within marriage by providing standards for interaction and motivating women to demand appropriate treatment and men to demand more from themselves in terms of relationship work. They discussed the double consciousness of married heterosexual feminists by relating their strategies for interacting with one another and the larger society. Through the process of communication, the couples built equality, but at times, i.e. through discourse, they also concealed inequality. Participants’ lives were organized by the gendered experiences of feminism as life-saving for women and life-enhancing for men.

Moments of subordination and moments of empowerment were present in these marriages. The women described their attempts at going beyond the false dichotomy of children or career and the stereotype of the super woman to a form of marriage that required a second adult in the home who was willing to take on parenting and household responsibilities. These attempts were easy for some couples and more of a struggle for others. However, in all of these marriages, evidence existed of women's and men's dedication to equality and choices for women, awareness of the privileged status of men in society, and arrangement of their relationships to benefit women as well as men. Feminism provided the ideological and practical guidance to couples for this reclamation of marriage.