By the time I was thirty, I’d been married twice, once to a woman, once to a man, both times for love and both times because of borders. Despite thinking I would never get married, to date I have flipped the saying and been always the bride and never the bridesmaid.
In the last year, I’ve been invited to no less than seven weddings by feminist friends on the radical left and my Facebook newsfeed has been clogged with many more. None of these have been visa weddings.
I’ve been invited to celebrate straight and queer love in French barns and on Greek Islands by people who until recently, I sat on the sunny back step of a house with and discussed the ways monogamy was sexist, possessive and resembled the capitalist logic of ownership. Our ideas around how to do relationships were borrowed from the feminists of ‘the second wave’ who questioned hetero marriage right down to its heart, as well as the collisions and transformations of this feminism by queer, anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics.
With these fine friends I would drink wine from chipped cups at parties, our knees pulled to our chests so that no-one could see our hearts combusting with the jealousy that often accompanies non-monogamy. Other times we’d have great experiences of multiple loves, and like Helen Garner’s non-monogamous heroine, Nora, in Monkey Grip we would think ‘Yes, I did it!’ I didn’t think any of us were the marrying kind, really, but it seems just a few years later, that we are.
So, I wonder, what happened? Why are so many radicals getting married now?
It is too easy, too boring and unkind to say that this transformation from non-marrying to marrying is a shedding of radical skin. It is too easy to say that feminists who want to get married, are expressing ‘cognitive dissonance and Stockholm syndrome’, as Catherine Deveny did, in response to the Huffington Post post ‘5 Ways I Made My Wedding Feminist’.
It is more interesting and more generous to ask, what has changed materially and transformed the desires of those on the left? Marriage, I want to suggest, is a stabilising move responding to unpredictable local conditions and wildly uncertain global terrain and it also seems to have been radicalised by the campaigns for same-sex marriage.
All those discussions against monogamy took place when we were studying, working part time, travelling a bit, here and there, drifting around, reading books and bashing off to demos. Now we have been thrust into the job market, which looks pretty different to the job market that our marriage-critical feminist foremothers faced. I know very few people who have full-time jobs, especially with contracts for over a year. I know very few people who like their jobs and I know none, literally zero, who can get by just doing what they like. I know very few people who are rich enough to buy a house in Sydney, let alone in London, or Cambridge. There are ways to put off this crisis, as I am doing, by completing a PhD, but if you’re not rich the crisis will come hard. Lynne Segal, a big figure in the British women’s liberation movement, suggests in her fantastic and very dishy autobiography Making Trouble that the position of feminists of the 1968 generation against marriage seems ‘irrelevant, even absurd’ now. Absurd because times have so thoroughly changed.
The crisis is also global. We have just been told we have twelve years to avert climate change catastrophe. The seas are rising, the displacement of people due to the climate is very real and the response of nation states to this planetary problem is woefully inadequate. We know this, our young people know this, as we have seen in school student strikes across Australia and the Pacific last week. We also feel that climate change is a huge problem, and that feeling often cascades into other feelings: fear and overwhelm. These are unpleasant and cannot be felt over long periods, without causing ongoing distress. Marriage in this context, is a steadying move. We are getting married at the end of the world (at least as we know it) precisely to prevent the feeling that the world is ending.
The same-sex marriage campaigns in Australia and elsewhere have also transformed the way radicals, both queer and straight, see marriage. In the Australian campaign – where Scott Morrison, now prime minister, publicly declared ‘it’s okay to say no’, where friends’ pride flags were ripped down, where they were homophobically abused on the tram, on the street, up the pub – it was difficult to say, ‘Yes, but …’ Lots of straight friends said, ‘I’m not getting married until my queer friends can’ – now that they can, it seems that marriage feels like a reformed, possibly even radical tradition.
I am not immune to this idea. Queers being able to marry certainly meant that I felt able to have a party to celebrate my second marriage to a man. I also wanted a beautiful dress, and a veil that said ‘no borders’. Sometimes I wear a wedding ring, the visual symbolism of which cannot be undone, no matter how wry my irony. As one friend said, ‘strangers on the 412 bus don’t know or care about your irony, my darling!’ Sad but true. What my own desires for veils, dresses, cakes and rings revealed is how difficult it is for me – or anyone – to be rational about marriage. How hard it is not to desire patriarchal traditions, even when you are aware of them.
While it is tempting to think that the hard heart of marriage has been softened, now that queers can do it too, much of the steel remains. In the archives of the Australian women’s liberation movement, where I spend my days, there is a substantial critique of heterosexual marriage. There are posters that say ‘65% of rapes occur in marriage!’ and another, challenging perceptions that women are safer inside the home than out: ‘Why have a lock on your door, when your husband has the key?’
These would have been wheat-pasted on walls where now ‘Yes for Equality’ posters remain after last year’s postal vote. Rape in marriage and domestic violence continue and this is as much of an issue for queer couples as straight. Of course this is an issue for non-married couples too, but marriage in its nature is more difficult to leave: it’s a contract and a promise in which the state is also entwined. Marriage is often the only love relationship national border authorities will recognise when people wish to, or are forced to, relocate.
Marriage, in this time of local and global crisis, steadies hands and soothes anxious hearts. It offers something permanent in shifting terrain, but historically and in the present, for many people, it also traps and ensnares. My favourite poster in the archive, says ‘After the confetti, what??’, a question as relevant for our time as it was when it was silk screened in 1977.
With thanks to the staff at the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, Ultimo.
Lead image: crop from ‘After the confetti, what?’ (via Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences)