Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 March 2010
Feminist critics of the institution of marriage point to its tendency to reproduce and solidify a gendered division of labor, norms of dependency and protection, and mandated monogamy. While I support the feminist call for a decoupling of state benefits, such as rights to health care and legal proxy, from the institution of marriage in light of discrimination against same-sex couples who are denied the right to marry, in this essay I draw attention to a separate but related issue. I focus here on what I consider one of the most troubling aspects of marriage for feminists, one highlighted by Simone de Beauvoir in her classic and still timely critique of marriage in The Second Sex (1952): the fact that marriage automatically confers bourgeois respectability on its participants. Even as we oppose antigay marriage legislation and recognize that marriage can protect vulnerable parties by guaranteeing health care, equity upon divorce, tax benefits, and so forth, feminists must continue to refuse the bourgeois respectability that is so deeply linked with the institution of marriage. Having the state accord legitimacy to some kinds of intimate relationships and consensual sex, but not others, goes against basic ideas of feminist freedom articulated most convincingly, I argue, by Beauvoir. While arguing this position, however, I will also ask whether only the relatively privileged are able to refuse the bourgeois respectability that marriage promises.