The question that titles this piece came about from a deep and varied internal interrogation I have been having about women claiming marriage as a life accomplishment. Earlier in the week, I posted the following on my Facebook wall;
‘Controversial’ kweshen [sic] Wednesday. I hear it said a lot that women should not regard marriage to be an accomplishment. Because marriage in and of itself is not deemed to be something particularly ‘special’ and careerism is therefore seen as a more important marker of one’s accomplishment and success.I have personally never agreed with that line of thought. If we are promoting choice as being fundamental to women’s emancipation, I believe that women’s ability to choose what they deem to be their personal successes and accomplishments is key.
Of course, I understand the historical and present patriarchal symbolism of marriage. But I also see many women navigating those spaces and defining their joy for themselves, as many women also do in patriarchal work environments. So the kweshen [sic] I pose is this. If a woman has made an informed decision to marry, has desired this for a large part of her life, has found a partner who is ready to navigate roles and responsibilities progressively with her partner, is delighted in herself with this choice and sees it as her accomplishment. Are we to define that as retrogressive and patriarchally oriented?I am not married so perhaps my questioning is uninformed. But please treat this post as a conversation point. Discussion for and against, or points of ambivalence, are equally welcomed in a civil and respectful fashion.
The question arose from a line of thought I have held, in part, because my feminist politics is ultimately informed by the principle of choice. By choice, I mean that every person has the right to choose to define themselves for themselves, and live within whatever definitions they create to suit their interests and aspirations. In her essay titled ‘Self-Definition and My Poetry’, esteemed feminist scholar Audre Lorde states,
I know however, that if I, Audre Lorde, do not define myself, the outer world certainly will, and as each one of you will discover, probably will define each one of us to our detriment, singly or in groups.
This quote resonates deeply with me in the context of the question I posed because I believe strongly in women defining themselves for themselves, and more specifically, in women defining their own goals, achievements and successes. And so if having a public career with its attendant connotations of breaking glass ceilings is what one desires, I say go for it. But also, if having a private career and redefining what domesticity looks like in the 21st century is what one aspire towards, then by all means I say go for that too. And if one desires presence in both domains, again this is what my feminism promotes. Ultimately, choice underscores the centrality of self-definition. And self-definition is an important mechanism for survival in a world that continues to do its best to define us all on our collective and individual behalves, stripping us of our agency and identities.
I was glad to receive the range of complex responses to the question I posed, and I will share them below, in the interests of furthering this conversation and understanding more deeply about this often thorny subject.
What is our definition of marriage, and the accomplishment therein?
What became really interesting in the discussion was how we would want to define marriage. Was marriage the actual wedding, the intention to marry, or the process thereafter? Also, even if a marriage ended in a divorce, could the time preceding this be looked at as the achievement? A comment from one of my Facebook friends that stood out for me read as follows;
I have also always asked what the accomplishment or lack thereof is. Is it in the “getting married” (wedding day, exchange of vows, signing the certificate) or in the “staying married” because there is a huge difference.
The same commenter went on to note that it appeared that marriage – where deemed an accomplishment – is an accomplishment of many facets. And again I quote the commenter;
Finding a match in a sea of bad potentials ( assuming its a good match) ✔ 2. Managing that institution a plus if its good, an even bigger plus if its bad but you still stay✔, 3. The courage to leave if it’s bad knowing what connotations that has in the eyes of society ✔
I’d also add that sometimes couples cohabit and though they have no legally registered unions, self-define marriage and see themselves as being married. And also given that in some contexts, for instance in same sex unions, marriage is often a difficult process to undertake, what does accomplishment look like in a context where legal systems effectively make the choice of your marriageability on your behalf? It became clear that what we define as marriage is deeply personal and complex and cannot be defined from a societal perspective as a one-size-fits-all process given the various contexts in which it is undertaken, as well as the political statements that it sometimes can lend itself to making.
The ‘stigma’ of seeing domesticity as a life accomplishment
Another theme that came up in the conversation was around how we perceive the choice of defining domesticity as success. As one commenter noted;
We need to be careful and not create one stigma when trying to deconstruct another. In some sectors people who want to be housewives with all opportunities and choices available are scared to go public about it because of being seen as lacking ambition and wanting to be an economic burden/lazy. There should be a value placed on unpaid work. Back to topic I think for some, it is an achievement as achievements are personal based on goals set for one self. These are separate from targets set by society. I would not count getting married as an achievement but I accept that for some women it is. I am all for equal opportunities but these should leave room for those who see stuff like getting married and having a baby as personal achievements.
Another commenter added;
I have differed greatly with the mainstream women’s movement on that very issue. I think it is not up to some activist to declare what makes every woman happy. As long as the individual in question is content to declare marriage their biggest accomplishment, who are we, you and I, to shout them down and tell them they are wrong? For others it is motherhood.
Have we created a dynamic in our activism where women claiming motherhood and marriage as their biggest life successes is seen as taboo? Are we silencing women who would want to declare these their greatest accomplishments as we fight for more women to enter the mainstream and continue to shatter glass ceilings? At the same time, however, many activists are fighting for greater rights of women within the domestic realm – in terms of paid long-term maternity leave (which is not universal globally) and a host of other issues. Are there, therefore contradictions in our activism? And if so, how do we overcome them?
But is careerism an accomplishment either?
A comment I really enjoyed and which made me think even more deeply about this issue is given below;
I co-sign this but I’m also going to give into the temptation to complicate this a little further by saying that maybe the idea/aim shouldn’t be about the institution of marriage attaining accomplishment status simply because careers, and I suppose “education” by extension, are considered as such but rather to — while, of course, recognising the agency and varying levels of the notion/illusion of empowerment in an individual — actually stop viewing [them] as accomplishments as well precisely because, as you rightly stated in your post, careers and education via the so-called Universal and “rational” epistemologies and pedagogies are pillars of Capitalism which is inherently patriarchal and imperialist. This makes me think of Audre Lorde and what she says about using the masters’ tools. Basically, both marriage and careers are modalities used to facilitate and preserve systems of oppression and inequality such as patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism; be it by way of polarising the two things or by collapsing the so called hierarchies; so until we destroy the triumvirate of oppression, as it were, no one is really accomplishing anything.
As Audre Lorde notes, “… the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, if success or accomplishment is already a predefined set of goals we should aspire towards – in fulfilling the needs of the capitalism consumerist system – then neither careerism nor marriage are in fact successes at all, but rather sign posts on the journeys of our false consciousness; our ideas that we are successful when in fact, it is the system of oppression that is ultimately successful in defining us. What then might a world look like where neither careerism nor marriage (or any other conventionally defined successes) are not seen as accomplishments at all?
Of course there are a range of issues to consider in this debate; agency, choice; desire – or lack thereof – to marry, definitions of marriage, the politics of marriage for those to whom it is often denied and the capitalist system that we are all toiling under, attempting our best to make the best successes of our time here.
I’s be interested to hear your thoughts on this topic as well.
Main image is taken from http://www.isolezwe.co.za