Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ideas on Marriage and Divorce

In her essay, Gayle Rubin defines marriage as a transaction of gifts (women) from one man to another. In this transaction, women do not hold a place of power as it is the men who become linked since they are partners in the exchange and the women are simply a "conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it" (21). Rubin then goes on to claim that because marriage is seen as the exchange of women, "women are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation" (21). Thus, the institution of marriage as an economic structure should hold that men have certain "rights" to women that women do not have to themselves. Men make a profit from the institution of marriage, while women cannot profit in the same way because they are the objects of the exchange and not partners in it.

In class today we talked about how marriage can be seen as an economic structure. Rubin says that "marriage transactions -- the gifts and material which circulate in the ceremonies marking a marriage -- are a rich source of data for determining exactly who has which rights rights in whom. It is not difficult to deduce from such transactions that in most cases women's rights are considerably more residual than those of men" (22). Dowries and the tradition of the bride's family paying for the wedding (a modern take on a dowry) prove that women are not the subjects of the marriage, but are in fact objects being exchanged between the father of the bride and the groom. We also discussed how divorce proves that marriage is an economic transaction.

However, I feel that divorce in itself breaks down the idea of marriage as an exchange of women. "The exchange of women is a profound perception of a system in which women do not have full rights to themselves" (22). But during a divorce, it is (usually) the woman herself who is making a physical profit from the marriage, and taking on full rights to herself. If a marriage ends in divorce, not only is the woman a subject in the deal, rather than an object, but she is also gaining material from the man to whom she was given without having to return that material to the man that gave her away. In short, any compensation that a woman gains in a divorce belongs to her and not to her family. How does this fit into the idea of marriage as an exchange of women in which women are simply the objects of a transaction?


  1. The idea presented in this blog is very interesting. To answer the concluding question, maybe divorce, though is it seen as a negative, is a liberating experience for a woman. As it is said in the blog, the woman directly gains compensation from a divorce that is not given to her family. When the woman is exchanged for marriage she is constrained by the man and the actual " exchange"; however, through the divorce the woman breaks those constraints and is indepencent of the actual terms of the exchange. Women are simply as the "objects of a transaction" until the woman decided to break away from the actual transaction of marriage, which is done through a divorce.

  2. When a woman decides to divorce, I think we can all agree that it is an evidence of women's freedom.

    But on what grounds does that allow her to get money from the man she doesn't want to share her life with anymore?
    Is it oppressive for women to accept money from a divorce?

    I can't help but feel like it's wanting your cake and eating it too; unless you have kids, in which case it is fine to accept financial help, because the money goes into a product of both partners: the children.

    But in the case of a couple without kids, automatically assuming that the woman is entitled to some money means that she still needs her husband and that she's not capable of supporting herself by getting a job.

    I may not be aware of all the subtleties of the American laws concerning divorce, so please, feel free to criticize me.

  3. Marjorie, I think you have the "subtleties" down quiet well! If you have not seen the film "The First Wives Club," I highly suggest you see it (Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton). What I feel the film portrays is that women provide a service to men in their roles as wife. In the case of Annie in the film (whose husband cheated on her), she was unemployed in the sense that her job was that she ran a household and provided support, in addition to her sexual role in the relationship (in which he was not a good contributor to). Upon divorce, she decides that she deserves some payment for her service to him. After all, he has purchased all of the things in their marriage and built up a career while his wife did her ascribed role in the marriage. She did not build skill as he did because she supported him at a different level. Thus, is it really so strange a woman ask for money when they leave a relationship for the repayment of their services in the contract?

  4. Jonathan, I loooove that you noted The First Wives Club, it is a great movie. I also agree that divorce can be liberating for women. In class we discussed how women's work is unpaid. She does all of the housework and maintains the household. I feel like you could say that the division of assets during a divorce can represent payment for all of those unpaid tasks. In a marriage the man and women have a partnership and build a household together. If they choose to end that partnership I do not think that an equal division of assets is unwarranted. It takes two to have a marriage, regardless of who earns how much.

  5. Let's keep the example of a marriage without kids and with the stay-at-home wife.

    Leah, I do agree that marriage is supposed to be a partnership, but the problem is when you talk about "an equal division of assets".

    It means that the husband only provides money and the wife provides services around the house. Fine. But explain to me where is the equal division of assets in that example?

    What does the man get from the separation? If we follow your logic to the end, the husband should pay for the services rendered by his wife, but the wife should also pay for the money her husband earned for her. Therefore, she should keep cleaning his house after the divorce for the "compensation" to be equal, don't you think?

    Then why is it that men pay and women don't in that case?

    I really think it is another bar of the cage. If women keep viewing themselves as victims, they'll keep on being oppressed. I strongly believe that it's when women themselves start behaving as men's equal peers that the wheel will turn around.

    It may sometimes be unpleasant for women (pay for dinner at the second date for example), but it's also empowering. And the whole difficulty in this is maintaining a balance between empowered women and castrating women.
    Because, let's face it, a lot of men aren't ready to live in a world where sexism doesn't exist. It takes strong mothers, but more importantly, confident-enough fathers to teach their kids how to respect each other.

  6. I think Manali was onto something, that while divorce does create freedom, it only seems to do so in a negative sense, as it is through the negation of the marriage (or the male) that the woman is able to gain freedom. It is unfortunate that the woman is seen as an object until she seemingly gains this subjective-ness out of the divorce.

  7. I agree with Cal that Manali makes valid points but correlating divorce with freedom should not be the path a woman seeks for such identity. The stream of comments on this blog all bring up valid points in the practice, divorce, that seems to have become far too common in todays society. Issues of divisions of assets and children complicate the process a great deal. But to perpetuate the complication I'd like to insert another factor.

    Adding a television example to Jonathan's excellent film example I'd like to briefly summarize a scenario from Sex and the City. Charlotte York, often referred to as the "Park Avenue Pollyana," believes that love conquers all and when she meets her seemingly perfect Trey she knows it is truly happily ever after. That is until Trey's mother Bunny hits her with a prenuptial agreement. Not only is Charlotte worth a mere half a million (which she later argues up to a full seven figures) but she discovers a clause in the contract that states she will be rewarded six figures for each male heir she produces.

    I understand the basis for prenuptial agreements in protecting ones own assets but find it morally complicated. Marriage is a union that should not be founded on a contract that states for better or until divorce. If the woman is going to be paid for her unpaid services as a keeper of the home it seems only fair to add housewife as an asset to be managed in case of divorce.

    I brought up the example earlier because it seems so ludicrous to put a price tag on a child, and restrict it to one gender. What happens to the baby Charlottes?


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