Vol. 15 No.4 (April 2005), pp.286-288
JUST MARRIAGE, by Mary Lyndon Shanley (Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman, eds). New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 128pp. Hardback. £27.50 / $45.00. ISBN: 0-19-517625-1. Paper. £7.99 / $12.95. ISBN: 0-19-517626-X.
Reviewed by Rebecca Mae Salokar, Department of Political Science, Florida International University. Email: email@example.com .
The institution of marriage has come under increasing scrutiny by the scholarly community, political leaders and the public because of the push for same-sex marriages. Typically, this debate focuses on questions of equality and access: should same-sex couples enjoy state recognition of their committed relationships and receive the public benefits conferred with that recognition. However, the discourse has also called attention to a larger issue that has long been a concern to those who study gender relationships, the family unit, and poverty in America. Should marriage, as currently constructed, remain the optimal and privileged arrangement in defining our committed relationships, whether they be same-sex, opposite-sex or other affairs of the heart?
One of the more recent entries into this debate is JUST MARRIAGE. Originally assembled for the New Democracy Forum of the BOSTON REVIEW (Summer 2003), JUST MARRIAGE does not fit the classic mold of a single-authored work or edited book. It is, instead, a three-part work that consists of a 27-page monograph by Mary Lyndon Shanley, followed by short (3-5 page) commentaries by 13 prominent thinkers. Written by Shanley nearly a year after the series first appeared, the final section serves as a revision to her earlier thoughts on marriage in American society.
The thesis of Shanley’s opening essay is that marriage is necessary and valuable to civil society but must be modified to make the institution more just and accessible. She attempts to navigate between the extremes of conservatives and contractualists. The former view marriage as rooted in tradition, nature or religion, imbued with gendered roles and obligations, and inherently privileged by the state; while the latter argue that liberty and equality demand that marriage not be state sponsored or privileged, but should simply be a private contract between two consenting adults who enjoy the liberty of personal choice. Citing the dual goals of liberty and equality, Shanley attempts to craft a middle position (“the equal status view”) that would retain marriage as privileged, but make it more widely accessible while promoting equality within the marital relationship (p.6).
Tracing the development of marriage laws in the United States from their inception through two waves of reform, Shanley posits that individual liberty and personal choice should be central to future reforms. Thus, marriage should be accessible to same-sex couples. However, in exploring whether plural marriages would also be recognized by the state based on the same principle of liberty, she is less certain that the principle of equality would be achieved in those relationships, something that is [*287] essential to her notion of marriage reform. Shanley’s ensuing discussion of equality draws from the feminist literature documenting the inequities inherent in the marital relationship, the institutionalization of gender roles in work and care giving, and the imposition of economic policies that undermine the marital relationships of the poor.
In addition to making marriage more accessible, Shanley proposes that state action must promote “spousal equality” by ending practices and traditions that reinforce gender norms in employment and in the home (p.20). She calls for economic reforms that include revising employment practices and extending employment benefits, insuring equal pay, providing childcare and parental leave programs that are affordable and gender neutral, and revising the manner in which wages are treated in divorce settlements (p.25).
The thirteen commentaries, comprising the middle of this work, range from constructively critical of Shanley’s thesis to pursuits of further inquiry and application. The assembled scholars hail from law, political science, history, and women’s studies, and some are prominent in both the public press as well as the academy. The book lacks a view from the right; none of the commentators advocates the continued entrenchment of traditional, heterosexual marriage with its inherently unequal gender roles for care, obedience and economic provision. In short, the consensus is that marriage ought to be liberally transformed, supplemented or eliminated.
Amitai Etzioni, for example, crafts a communitarian response, arguing that establishing a parallel system of civil unions for same-sex couples will serve as a mechanism to allow “people of different basic values to live together without one set of values ‘trumping’ the other” (p.65). Cass Sunstein notes the value of federalism in testing new ideas and encouraging diversity and suggests that Shanley’s emphasis on equality may more rightly be described as working towards an “anticaste principle” (p.44). Nancy Cott points to the weaknesses in the essay regarding the “public” good of marriage (p.36), while Martha Albertson Fineman and Joan Tronto raise questions regarding the proper role of the state in the sexual relationship versus the caretaker-dependent relationship (pp.40, 50).
David Cruz and William Eskridge, Jr., bring their work on same-sex relationships to bear in their assessment of Shanley’s work. Cruz notes the dilemma of defining the marital relationship as an “entity” and suggests that the liberal state ought to remain neutral by not preferring marriage to other relationships. Eskridge, on the other hand, makes the case for marriage’s inclusion of same-sex couples by pointing to research suggesting that gay couples can benefit from marriage and that some may even prove to be “better role models” for marriage than many of their heterosexual counterparts (p.60).
Drucilla Cornell, Wendy Brown, Brenda Cossman, and Tamara Metz extend Shanley’s essay in suggesting the importance of relationships beyond the traditional heterosexual dyad. Cornell uses queer theory to note that marriage is restrictive and binding, and that true liberation demands the end of these [*288] constraints. She proposes “the right of the imaginary domain” as a vehicle for each individual to define his or her relationships (p.83). Brown suggests that the focus on marriage relegates other valuable relationships like kinship to second-class status; while Cossman focuses on the dilemma of defining the marital relationship at all, arguing that the law should embrace a range of relationships not solely dependent upon the intimate dyad. Finally, Metz argues that only by ending all civil marriage and replacing it with civil unions will justice prevail.
The book concludes with Shanley’s reconsideration of her thesis in the wake of the San Francisco and Massachusetts same-sex marriage “events” and the passage of state laws restricting marriage to the heterosexual dyad. Recognizing the religiously laden rhetoric surrounding marriage, Shanley revises her thesis. She argues that the state ought to get out of the “marriage” business completely, leaving it to religious and non-civil institutions, and instead confer its legal status upon civil unions—for all couples. In doing so, she acknowledges the limits of her earlier argument as well as the contributions of the commentators to the development of her thinking. But Shanley maintains her position that committed relationships ought to be recognized by the state. Ultimately, Shanley joins others in recognizing that there are no easy answers or solutions to the future development of marriage in the United States.
JUST MARRIAGE should be of particular interest to those who teach and work in the areas of democratic theory, family law, women’s studies and gender politics. The text is accessible reading for undergraduate and graduate students, alike. It would be particularly valuable in a democratic theory course as a vehicle for showing students a modern application of liberal thought. The work also has potential as a teaching tool for critical thinking skills and as an example of how to engage in constructive criticism. That the more conservative views on marriage are not included in the commentaries is its singular weakness.
© Copyright 2005 by the author, Rebecca Mae Salokar.
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