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Not The Marrying KindReview - Not The Marrying Kind
A Feminist Critique of Same-Sex Marriage
by Nicola Barker
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
Review by Shaun Miller
Nov 12th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 46)

Feminist issues often correlate with same-sex issues, especially pertaining to relationship status and marriage.  Nicola Barker's book, Not the Marrying Kind: A Feminist Critique of Same-Sex Marriage offers a critique of same-sex marriage through the lens of second-wave feminism combined with queer theory.

Barker analyzes the institution of marriage by arguing that a certain model of marriage (dubbed "the marriage model") has been the litmus test on whether the relationship is legitimate for relationship recognition.  Because same-sex marriage is part of the marriage model, this still leaves out certain types of relationships as "not authentic": queer relationships, for example.  Therefore, Barker argues for a new model, "one that rejects the marriage model and takes seriously the critiques of marriage from both feminism and queer theory" (2).  The critique of marriage from second-wave feminism--which has associated marriage with patriarchy--needs to be revised to address same-sex marriage.  I will briefly go through each chapter.

In chapter one, Barker analyzes the marriage model by showing how the law has codified marriage to have essential qualities by stating what is marriage, what are the legal consequences of marriage, and what are the parameters of marriage.  However, the claims behind the legalities of marriage were not trying to define marriage; rather, they were defending marriage, specifically one full of ideological undertones.  This stems from the Hyde case in the UK since this is the origin of what marriage purports to be.  Barker makes a good point that relationships follow into a model that is marriage-like, meaning that the relationship must be "monogamous, sexual, domestic, economically interdependent, and long-term" (39). 

In chapter two, Barker looks at various kinds of same-sex relationships.  Since the main feature of marriage is set up by the state, separate provisions are seen as legitimate only if they go through the requirements.  However, Barker still argues that marriage has always been the model, and any separate provisions of marriage have been within the parameters of the marriage model.  It is as if marriage is the foundational standard in which other (legal) relationships must emulate to gain benefits from the state.      

Chapter three investigates the litigation of same-sex marriage.  There are many broad themes for the legal arguments for same-sex marriage such as equality, access to legal benefits, symbolic importance, and how same-sex marriage would support the marriage institution.  Barker mainly focuses on the litigation noting how it was done through the court system or through the state legislative body.  The upshot was that same-sex couples could still fit within the marriage model instead of challenging it.  Thus, the marriage tent expanded, but the formal institution remained the same. 

Chapter four starts the theoretical ground by investigating the arguments for same-sex marriage.  Barker analyzes the arguments, but argues that they fail to adequately respond to the feminist critique.  I cannot adequately cover all the arguments, so I will cover the ones which may interest the reader, and which Barker focuses the most amount of time on.

The first argument states that same-sex marriage could give political reform to the institution of marriage as a way to change it as a whole.  By increasing visibility of same-sex relationships, this would undermine the patriarchal system of marriage, thus endorsing an egalitarian relationship.  By allowing same-sex marriage, lesbians and gays can work within the system and thereby transform the institution of marriage by making it less oppressive and more democratic.  However, Barker worries that this still allows for the institution of marriage to stand.  Moreover, this position does not really alter the institution of marriage by simply allowing same-sex marriage.  Barker argues against this first argument in more detail in chapter five.

The second main argument suggests that allowing same-sex marriage would disrupt heterosexuality by making same-sex relationships visible.  Because weddings are public and non-violent, this political move ensures that same-sex relationships will not be quiet nor invisible. 

Barker's problem is that this still makes lesbian and gay families as part of the heteronormative criteria of what is considered a "normal" family.  The second main argument concludes that same-sex marriage could change the marriage institution as a whole.  Barker, however, argues that the marriage model could change the relationships, and she shows how in chapter six. 

Chapter five is Barker's focus on second-wave radical and socialist feminists to critique same-sex marriage.  Women both work and take on the primary responsibilities of the household and children.  This reinforces household work as unpaid and privatized, and it has increased with the rise of neoliberalism.

Sexual division was part of class division of labor and relations of production.  To free women, she should enter the workforce, thereby ending the sexual division of labor.  Otherwise, women staying at home will reinforce capitalism since she is excluded from paid work.  Yet she is working at the home which produces "surplus value".  Marriage supports this "capitalist patriarchy" because "the employment contract presupposes the marriage contract" (139) by assuming that the (male) worker has a wife to provide caretaking and housework. 

Besides the theoretical work from socialist feminists, Barker also uses empirical sociological evidence to support that the division of labor within the family has not changed: women are still expected to work outside the home on the same terms as men and take primary responsibilities for housework and childcare.  By having a woman at home, this increases the man's power since she does the "gritty work" while he can go out to have paid work and even leisure time, at the expense of the wife's time.  This increased earning power gives men more control of the household income and more power within the marriage.  "This strong influence of occupation suggests that there remains a link between both gender and capitalism and household division of labor" (199).

Using the work of Christopher Carrington and Nancy Polikoff, Barker argues that same-sex marriages often supported gender hierarchy in that traditional gender roles were acted out through one partner adopting the role of the other gender.  One partner is seen as the "male/masculine role" whereas the other partner was deemed as the "female/feminine role."  In other words, same-sex marriage would endorse and reinforce heteronormativity and male patriarchy.  The discourse surrounding same-sex marriage suggests that the relationship becomes more and more heteronormatized and less radicalized.  Instead of same-sex marriage transforming the model of marriage, it seems that the model of marriage is transforming same-sex marriage. 

Chapter six discusses the different types of relationships that do not fit the marriage model.  These are the "outlaw" relationships.  Barker responds to the the claim that same-sex marriage could transgress the marriage model by challenging the heteronormative boundaries by arguing that same-sex marriage is assimilationist in that it is following the marriage-model.  Transgressing the model is limited by the boundaries provided by the legal structure of the marriage model.  Yet marriage is the only way for same-sex couples to gain recognition.  Barker argues that for recognition to be transformative, it must be accompanied by a politics of redistribution that is also transformative, rather than affirmative.  Affirmative remedies (traditional arguments for same-sex marriage have been using these) means seeking access to already existing structures without challenging the underlying framework itself.  Transgressive remedies, however, mean correcting the inequalities by restructuring the underlying framework, which is unlikely in the context of marriage.  Specifically, because marriage deals with the law, laws cannot process anything that does not fit the norm of that institution.  Laws cannot process or recognize same-sex relationships or non-traditional relationships at all unless they were analogous to marriage.  "This means that alternative discourses about ways of being intimate, or having relationships, or being single, have no place in the legal arena and are effectively silenced in legal and policy debates" (169).  Law reform may result in assimilation and they create boundaries of what can be included or excluded.

The push behind Barker's argument is that outlaw relationships would shift the boundaries of good/bad sex(ualities).  Barker argues that a backlash has happened where the boundaries have moved to a responsible/irresponsible dichotomy concerning sexual practices, which crosses hetero/homo sex boundaries.  The latter is stigmatized.  In other words, by including a group of people into the marriage tent, the laws still exclude other types of relationships from legitimate recognition.  Taking her cue from Rubin's article "Thinking Sex," Barker suggests that the discourse revolving around good/responsible sex "becomes the stable, monogamous private perhaps even (inter)dependent relationship between two adults, whereas the bad is the unstable, the fleeting sexual encounter, the non-monogamous or polyamorous, the public" (174).  The "normal gay" is integrated as a good, responsible citizen.  Sexual outsiders start to stand in for the homosexual as the bad or irresponsible sexual citizen.  "Responsible" sexual behaviors become known as stable relationships, which the law can recognize.  The bad are the single, promiscuous, and the queer who are deemed irresponsible or immature.

Barker uses two examples to illustrate this: non-monogamy or polyamory, and families we choose.  The laws enforce compulsory monogamy by privileging a primary, sexual relationship and institutionalizing coupledom, the presumed "ownership" of another individual.  And same-sex marriage reinforces the primacy of marriage in family definitions where there is the primacy of "the family" over other forms of kinship and intimacy, such as friendship.  As long as relationship recognition is based on the legal parameters of marriage, regardless if the people involved are hetersexual or homosexual, the laws will continue to be problematic for these "outlaw" relationships. 

What is the way out?  Barker argues that a politics of recognition must exist alongside one of redistribution.  "[T]he law uses recognition and non-recognition to control access to economic justice" (193).  The law rewards the adult couples through economics (tax breaks) and cultural status (by being recognized as a family), as long as the family is within certain restrictions (privatized caretaking within the family) by regulating behavior through setting the parameters of respectability and normality.  This system is set up where "access to marriage is an inherently affirmative remedy in terms of economic redistribution" (195) rather than a transgressive one.

As an example of a process that is closer to Barker's argument of relationship recognition, she illustrates the Law Commission of Canada with its report, Beyond Conjugality.  The focus would be on the functional characteristics of the relationship rather than its legal status, but it also pays attention to the equality within relationships (203).  This rejects a "one size fits all" framework that the marriage model provided, by having the relationship based on caretaking instead of sex.  This move would not only move beyond marriage, but also the marriage model.  As long as there is marriage, it seems that is the only game in town for relationship recognition.  Briefly, my only qualm is this positive reform.  Unfortunately, it is a brief one page example of what Canada is doing, and it is quite vague in terms of what it is proposing and in terms of what actions could be done to have this reform.          

Barker's book is a great contribution to the same-sex marriage debate.  She investigates the complexities behind the laws of marriage with a keen insight on how feminism can be used in the debate about same-sex marriage.  Those who are interested in same-sex relationships and same-sex marriages would find this book really insightful for her original application of critiquing same-sex marriage through a feminist lens.  With the cultural climate leaning toward supporting same-sex marriage for the purposes of equality and status recognition, Barker gives us a challenging look as to whether supporting same-sex marriage really would be beneficial, especially for those who are still excluded from marriage, and whether marriage gives certain recognition that is desired.


© 2013 Shaun Miller


Shaun Miller is a Ph. D. student in philosophy at Marquette University.  He has a BA in philosophy from Utah State University and an MA in philosophy from Texas A&M University.


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