New Formulation

February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1

Towards an Anti-Authoritarian Critique of Marriage

Review by Priscilla Yamin

Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation
By Nancy Cott
Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000
The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture

The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture
By Elizabeth Freeman
Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002

Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple
Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple
By Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller
New York: Marlowe & Company, 2002

The 2000 United States Census showed a dramatic 72 percent increase since 1990 in the number of unmarried couples, heterosexual and same-sex, living together.(1) A conservative marriage movement already active for some time, organizing in churches, communities, and at the level of state and national policy, has been emboldened by this data. With the full support of the Bush administration, conservative activists are advocating for pro-marriage policies; most notably marriage programs in welfare reform, but also the creation of the government Office of Marriage Initiatives. Thirty years ago, criticisms of marriage, raised by the feminist movement, were much more common. Today, the response of most feminists, progressives and liberals to a large degree has not been to oppose Bush on the issue of marriage, but rather to say that this institution is important for helping families, overcoming poverty, providing stability for children, and sustaining society.

Anarchists have always consistently opposed the institution of marriage, recognizing its role in the maintenance of capitalism and the nation-state, as well as its constraining effect on the possible range of loving relationships. Of course Emma Goldman is a case in point, who wrote in 1911: “The popular notion of love and marriage is that they are synonymous. . . . Like most popular notions this also rests not on actual facts, but on superstition.”(2) However, while Goldman rightly pointed out the distinction between the intimate feelings of love and the institutional power of the state, she, like other anarchists of her time did not fully articulate the degree to which the state manages relations of class, race, gender and citizenship through marriage. In light of both the right-wing attempt to coerce people to marry and the growing numbers of people actually seeking an alternative, an anti-authoritarian critique of the institution and proposal of alternatives is more important than ever.(3)

One step in that direction is understanding the significant role of marriage in American history, politics and culture, and viewing marriage policy as at the center of the constitution and maintenance of the nation-state. Marriage has a complicated political position in the United States, both marking and blurring the line between private and public life. The right to marry is recognized by law as “one of the basic civil rights of man.”(4) At the same time, it is considered “an institution, in the maintenance of which in its purity the public is deeply interested, for it is the foundation of the family and of society without which there would neither be civilization nor progress.”(5) As a right and obligation, marriage laws help shape and link personal, economic and political aspects of life. In the United States, marital status defines both an individual’s household and sexual relationship, while shaping his or her civil status. Signifying a private relationship of familial intimacy, marriage law anchors private property by establishing familial inheritance rules. It is also a public, state-managed institution. Through property-holding, citizenship, immigration and tax policy, government and legal claims determine the obligations and privileges of marriage.

The following books illustrate and analyze this tension between the rights and obligations of marriage and the more public and political role of the institution in the United States. In different ways, these books show how marriage is more than the ultimate commitment between two people, but is in fact a policy of family with ideological roots that cannot be separated from the political and cultural moments in which they exist. The first book, Public Vows by Nancy Cott, shows how marriage has changed over time; the second, The Wedding Complex by Elizabeth Freeman, discusses the different meanings and potential meanings of it in culture; and the third, Unmarried to Each Other by Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller, illustrates how to live alternatively, outside marriage. Each challenges the seemingly natural relationship between love, sex, kinship, social status, morality and inheritance that marriage represents. They reveal how marriage is intimately tied up with state policies, rights, and culture in ways that not only reproduce hierarchical relations but reinforces state power. The following books also afford an opportunity to think through the difficulties in constructing an anti-authoritarian view of marriage.

An Historical Perspective of Marriage and the Nation
In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, Nancy Cott explores the relationship between the public and private roles of marriage and argues that “the institution of marriage and the modern state have been mutually constitutive.”(6) In other words, the project of the book is to show the links between marriage and family policy and the creation of the American state. She provocatively suggests that without one you cannot have the other. Beginning with the founding of the American Republic, Cott parallels changes in the institution of marriage to the development of the nation-state. Drawing from legal cases, policy and popular rhetoric, she shows how a Christian common law model of consensual, lifelong monogamy was enforced as not only the legitimate form of family structure but as crucial to the maintenance and viability of the state. She suggests that for citizens, marriage has been as much a public vow to the nation-state as it has been a personal choice. Cott’s extensive, informative, and very readable history of the changing nature of marriage laws and customs reveals marriage as more of a political creation than a moral choice.

In a chapter called “An Archaeology of American Monogamy,” Cott unpacks monogamy as a political ideology in the United States. Since the revolutionary era, the legitimacy of the American state has been based on “marital metaphors” and it was widely believed that legal monogamy benefited the social order by harnessing sexual desires and by supplying predictable care for the young and dependent.(7) Marriage in American revolutionary rhetoric reflected emergent themes in Enlightenment political theory more generally. For instance, Montesquieu’s work helped initiate the association between polygamy and despotism and by contrast monogamy came to stand for a government of consent, moderation and political liberty. These thematic equivalencies resonated throughout the political culture of the United States during the subsequent century. Cott writes that “from the perspective of the American Republic, stark contrasts between monogamy and polygamy not only illustrated the superiority of Christian morality over the “heathen” Orient … but also staked a political claim.”(8) She argues that a belief in monogamy as a political ideal and defining characteristic of the American state was as deeply lodged in American political thought as notions of popular sovereignty, consent or the necessity of a government of laws.

Cott argues that marriage policy underlies national belonging and the cohesion of the body politic both because it enforces monogamy and shapes rights to citizenship. She outlines how marriage has also been bound up with civil rights and in the past has been “instrumental in articulating and structuring distinctions grouped under the name of ‘race.’”(9) She illustrates this in two ways. On one level, marital nonconformists were deemed racially different and inferior to the American, white majority. These racial groups were Indians, freed slaves, Asians, and polygamous Mormons, which Cott describes as metaphorically nonwhite.(10) On another level, historically racialized groups have never had the same marriage rights as others. For example, slaves did not have the right to marry until they were freed and interracial unions were illegal until 1967. Moreover, because marriage defined inheritance rules, money was not only passed down through white families but also kept in them. By incriminating some marriages and encouraging others, marital regulations have drawn lines through the citizenry and defined what kinds of sexual relations and families will be legitimate. Through marriage, the state and its policymakers have defined the state against racial others.

Cott also argues that because marriage is a public institution, its policies actually define a “gender order.” Expanding the critique of marriage beyond its private effects on women, she stresses that marriage defines a public status and thereby institutionalizes an unequal relationship between men and women. In other words, viewing marriage as public reveals how the state has sanctioned hierarchical gender relations. For instance, the state has constructed gender roles by linking a woman’s right to citizenship to her marital status. Until the 1930s, if an American woman married a foreign born man, she automatically lost her American citizenship; whereas, if an American man married a foreign-born woman, she automatically became American (unless she was considered racially ineligible).

Cott’s book outlines how marriage laws shape the body politic in terms of biological reproduction and economic power. Marriage policy in the United States has shown a national commitment to exclusive and faithful monogamy, preferably intra-racial and heterosexual unions. From an anti-authoritarian perspective, this book illustrates the coercive side of marriage in U.S. history and its role in producing state power.

As Cott points out, marriage policy is still coercive today even if some of the legal foundations of hierarchical relations based on gender and race in marriage are not as prevalent. Unequal relations and rights are still very much alive in marriage policy with the prohibition of same-sex marriages. On this Cott quotes Congressman James M. Talent of Missouri who said the following in support of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as heterosexual against same-sex marriage: “it is an act of hubris to believe that marriage can be infinitely malleable, that is can be pushed and pulled around like silly-putty without destroying its essential stability and what it means to our society, and if marriage goes, then the family goes, and if the family goes, we have none of the decency of ordered liberty which Americans have been brought up to enjoy and to appreciate.”(11) This statement could have been made one hundred years ago. Highlighting a hypocrisy in marriage rhetoric, she points out that legislators jealously guard their power over marriage while denying that marriage has been state-conferred since the 1840s and that they—not God or nature—define it. She writes, “they have tried it both ways with marriage in political discourse—picturing it as a rock of needed stability amidst eddies of change, while also acting to define and redefine marital definitions.”(12)

With Public Vows, Cott gives an important political and institutional history of marriage, revealing the very public and ideological nature of the institution. In so doing, she challenges the conventional understanding of marriage as a free, individual choice that is only about love, commitment, and privacy. Cott’s powerful work allows us to understand the historical context of the current conservative push for marriage and state-funded marriage programs and reveal them for what they are: economically coercive, politically motivated policies that are part of a long complicated history that has used marriage to define the nation, and the rights and obligations of citizens. At the same time, she does not discuss any alternatives to marriage, claiming that “history and tradition cement the hold of marriage in individual desires and social ideals.”(13) Cott ends with a tension—even though marriage has changed dramatically and most of the trappings of the past are no longer, it has become the only site of privacy legally available to citizens and by denying access to this privacy to certain couples, it remains a privileged institution, deeply connected to the state and nation. Cott does not ultimately follow through with the implication of her own critique. Rather than exploring the potential of abolishing an institution that she has shown to be hierarchical, exclusionary, and maintained for political purposes, or consider what it would mean politically and socially not to have marriage, she instead supports expanding the right of marriage and legalizing same-sex unions. In an interview, she admits that same-sex unions are conservative because they will not upset the essential structure of marriage but perhaps she sees no alternative.(14)

What could replace marriage that might be fairer, less restrictive, and not controlled by the state? Is there a way to imagine organizing our private relationships other than marriage? Elizabeth Freeman, in her work, addresses another site within which marriage operates, the cultural and psychological realm. She attempts to move beyond the critique and imagine alternative forms of attachment and belonging that expand outside the couple in marriage.

Weddings in American Culture and Literature
In her book, The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture, Elizabeth Freeman looks at the history of American weddings and their depictions in literature and popular culture. Rather than understanding weddings as the grand finale leading to the happy ending of marriage in the story of love in America, she sees weddings as an opening for conceiving alternative forms of belonging and attachment. Weddings are usually understood as acts of social and psychic closure that mystify heterosexuality, making it seem natural and magical, but as Freeman points out, a wedding is ultimately a very common, everyday event. Weddings, she suggests, do not represent longing for marriage but for public forms of pageantry and celebration. De-linking the wedding from the idea of legal marriage, she argues that weddings are performances, fantasies, and rituals that provide openings for imagining and even enacting different kinds of attachments and intimacies other than monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

Weddings and marriages are predominant literary tropes in American texts and films. Freeman writes, “The use of a wedding to figure the incarnation of a polis has a long history in cultural representations of America.”(15) In the texts and films she examines—works by Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the films The Graduate and Deer Hunter among others—the ceremony itself is portrayed as a “portal” to national belonging. The voluntary submission of the bride to the groom and of the couple to domestic laws reflects and reinforces the contractual and consensual aspects of U.S. citizenship. Here, she asserts, “the state authorizes itself by sanctioning a particular kind of love.”(16)

In this way, the state financially rewards those who limit their social obligation and sexual relationships and allow the state to forsake the burden of caring for dependents. Freeman points out that in the contemporary United States, more than an issue of determining the role of men and women, marriage law privileges the dyadic couple over other forms of belonging, attachment, intimacy, and connection. The issue is that the couple automatically packages incommensurate elements such as material resources, sexual practices, social recognition and institutional benefits. The state maintains the social order by fixing the routes by which names, property and cultural recognition travel.(17) Seeing how marriage functions in culture and society is important for articulating an anti-authoritarian approach to marriage.

At the same time, Freeman shows how there is a fundamental instability at the heart of the American weddings. She asks to what degree does the ritual of wedding reinforce marriages, the nation-state, and notions of belonging or open them up and destabilize them? In this book you not only get an idea of the repressive and state-centered ideologies around marriage, but are also offered ways rethink it. In the chapter, “Love among the Ruins,” Freeman gives an informative and rich history of the wedding ceremony. She explains that the wedding offers contrasting visions of the social, one restrictive and one expansive. In the wedding the couple is the focus while at the same time also displayed alongside them are the very things that compete with the primacy of the couple, such as ties with extended kin, social and religious movements, and friends.(18) The wedding, she sums up, “can seem to transform static and biological notions of being into dynamic, cultural notions of doing, extending the parameters of belonging—so that even when these parameters seem limited by race and sexuality, they can be operated against their most oppressive results. The wedding preserves exactly what it claims to renounce.”(19)

Instead of viewing the wedding ceremony as reinforcing the synthesis of patriarchal, Christian, governmental, and capitalist aims in marriage, she is interested in the discontinuities between these domains. She focuses “on the dissonance within the nuptial ceremony . . . and on the question of whether and how these discontinuities might be worked against marriage and toward a recalibration of social life as we know it.”(20) She argues that weddings allow an opening, and tap into fantasies not reducible to a wish for couplehood. For example, in her chapter called “The We of Me: The Member of the Wedding’s Novel Alliances,” she analyzes Carson McCuller’s 1946 novel. It takes place during World War II and is about a twelve year-old tomboy named Frankie who, longing for connection, suddenly becomes obsessed with her brother’s wedding. Freeman explains that most view the novel as a coming of age story in which Frankie leaves her childhood behind for illusions of femininity, marriage and a proper adult life. Freeman takes a different tact and argues that Frankie’s focus on the wedding is not about a desire for a wedding but more to be a part of the wedding, a member as it were, and that weddings do not always signify marriage. Freeman’s argument is more complex than I can reproduce here, but in short, she suggests that Frankie is in love not with someone else or even the couple, but the with the pageantry and celebration of the wedding itself.

Through her analysis of literary texts and film she argues that rather than closure, weddings create social and narrative chaos. She also suggests that weddings do cultural work at an interesting angle, what she describes as “slantwise” to marriage law.(21) That is, according to Freeman, weddings have the potential to demystify marriage law, and break apart its power to maintain structures that do not seem immediately connected to it, such as the nation-state and racial taxonomies. The wedding plays a dual role against marital supremacy, she claims. It allows a window into the work of marriage law as well as makes visible other kinds of important but publicly undervalued and nonlegal social attachments such as gay couples, nonparental ties between adults and children, and friendships, to name a few. She argues that these other social possibilities are also points of resistance, creating the possibility of a different social order.

A complicated book with many different themes running through it, The Wedding Complex at times overreaches itself but it is also interesting and insightful. Freeman’s work creatively illustrates how deeply entrenched notions of marriage are in American society, defining our conceptions of national and personal attachment solely through a monogamous, dyadic couple. However, while she opens up the notion of weddings and imagines alternative forms of belonging, she does not explain or address how destabilizing cultural narratives will actually have practical, political effects. Different from Cott, Freeman does not support legalizing same-sex unions because they still would privilege the couple as the primary form of attachment. She suggests that to truly reconceive the social order would be to open up the family structure. The difference between Cott and Freeman on the issue of same-sex marriage may result from Cott’s focus on policy and Freeman’s on culture. However, together they show the difficulty in actually achieving alternatives to marriage and how to link those to a political project.

What are the Alternatives?
In their book, Unmarried to Each Other, Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller try to tackle that social and political project on some level. They do so not only by offering practical advice on how to live life outside of the institution of marriage, but also by beginning to imagine and construct an identity of unmarried people comprised of unmarried heterosexuals, single people, gays, lesbians and people in polyamourous relationships. The book is based primarily on interviews with over a hundred unmarried people varying in age, region and racial classification. It offers information ranging from what to call your unmarried partner, how to set up contracts in lieu of the marriage contract, and how to have and raise children out of wedlock.

A very different kind of book than Cott’s or Freeman’s, Unmarried to Each Other does not claim to offer any analysis of marriage. However, it demonstrates that the current rules of marriage do not fit existing, heterogeneous practices. More of a how-to book, Solot and Miller explore and explain the political, cultural and personal issues in being unmarried. In the chapter, “Why aren’t you married?” Solot and Miller discuss the myriad reasons why many people do not get married even if they could. They cover the ideological weight associated with becoming a wife or husband and why many, on that basis, have said no to the institution.(22) They point out that the marriage contract is the only contract most people sign without having had any opportunity to read or modify its terms (even though everyone knows that it triggers a slew of state and federal laws that effect the couple).(23)

In a chapter called “When Others Disagrees: Surviving Pressure and Discrimination,” Solot and Marshall discuss the different kinds of communities and viewpoints that discriminate against unmarried people, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. At the same time, they make clear that there are differences between heterosexual and homosexual discrimination at the unmarried level, stating that homophobia is more of a problem than marital status discrimination. And of course they admit that most of the time, unmarried life is “smooth sailing.” However, marital status discrimination is still a reality. In many ways, family members are the biggest culprits, but so are adoption agencies, bank and loan companies, car rental companies, and data collectors.(24) A chapter on the history of cohabitation is also interesting and offers a useful broader view of unmarried relationships. In looking into the history of the United States and other countries, they claim that relationships outside marriage were and still are very common.(25) This book fills a gap by explaining the way living unmarried effects people on an individual level.

By giving information not only on how to manage and negotiate an unmarried life but also on the historical and legal background of domestic partnership policy, this book is an enormous contribution. One could argue that Solot and Miller could have been more self-consciously political in their orientation, but at the same time, by not taking this approach, they present unmarried relationships as normal, even commonplace. It is the first step towards carving out a social space for nonmarital relationships. They leave it to others to imagine and argue for an unmarried identity and link this to struggles for equality and freedom from discrimination.

These books by Cott, Freeman, and Solot and Miller, in different ways, illustrate the cultural and political work marriage has done, and still does, by shoring up state power and limiting personal and collective choices. They offer material that not only enriches the early opposition to marriage by anarchists like Emma Goldman, but also develops and expands it with a level of theoretical and practical sophistication. Through an understanding of marriage as controlling cultural traditions, bounding sexual relationships, limiting legitimate reproduction, restricting economic inheritance and defining the nation, it seems possible to imagine a political identity of unmarrieds on its own terms and suggests that marriage is a legitimate site for constructing an anti-authoritarian politics.


1. There are roughly eleven million people living with an unmarried partner in the United States. Nearly ten million of them are living with an unmarried different-sex partner and 1.2 million living with a same-sex partner. 11 percent of unmarried partners are same-sex couples. For more information see Alternatives to Marriage Project website at

2. Emma Goldman, "Love and Marriage," in Anarchism and Other Essays second revised edition (New York and London: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1911), 233.

3. The books in this review and the issues raised draw only from the United States context. However, similar issues may be present in other countries as well.

4. Quote from the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia which determined all anti-interracial marriage laws unconstitutional.

5. Quote from the 1888 Supreme Court case Maynard v. Hill which asserted firmly that marriage is a social relation subject to the State's police power.

6. Nancy Cott, "Giving Character to our Whole Civil Polity: Marriage and the Public Order in the late Nineteenth Century," in US History as Women's History, edited Kerber, Kessler-Harris, Sklar, Kish (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

7. Nancy Cott, Public Vows (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), 10, 16.

8. Ibid., 22.

9. Ibid., 4.

10. Ibid. Cott explains that during the late 1800s in the United States the notion of civilization was considered a racial trait (Ibid., 117). The association of whiteness with monogamy, America and political liberty meant that polygamy was equated with nonwhites and despotism, anti-American values. Even though their skin color was white, Mormons were considered nonwhite because they practiced polygamy.

11. Ibid., 219.

12. Ibid., 219.

13. Ibid., 225.

14. Infinite Mind radio program on NPR, November 22, 2002,

15. Elizabeth Freeman, The Wedding Complex (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 39.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., VIII, IX.

18. Ibid., 11.

19. Ibid., 44.

20. Ibid., 9.

21. Ibid., XIV.

22. Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller, Unmarried to Each Other (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2002), 41.

23. Ibid., 50.

24. Ibid., 86.

25. Ibid., 241-42.