Why We Need a Feminist Guide to Marriage
Journalist and best-selling author Jo Piazza long considered herself an independent feminist woman who didn’t need a man to complete her. And she'd always been pretty ambivalent about marriage, too--until she wasn’t: On a boat in the Galapagos islands, she met the man to whom she would be engaged three months later. Piazza had no idea how to both be a wife and maintain her independence. To figure it out, she set out on a journey around the world to 20 countries on five continents to interview women about what a real happily ever can and should look like for a modern woman who demands a marriage of equals. The result is her hilarious and thought-provoking new memoir How to Be Married, which hit shelves earlier this week. The following is an adapted excerpt from the book.
I was nervous about interviewing the feminist writer Erica Jong about marriage. I’d read Fear of Flying at age 12, after stealing it from a high shelf of my mom’s book case because my too-mature friend Samantha, the one who wore blue eyeliner and told us she had already douched, informed me it had a lot of “dirty parts” in it.
What I enjoyed more than the dirty bits, the zipless fucks, was the concept of a woman making her own choices and carving out her own destiny.
Fast forward more than twenty years. I was engaged and terrified of getting married, nervous that I would screw it up and/or completely lose my independence. I began interviewing everyone and anyone about how to be a wife. That’s how I figure things out. I report on them.
I started by asking Erica Jong why she still believed in marriage. Erica has been married four times, the last time for twenty- seven years, and they’re still going strong. Three failed marriages didn’t scare her away from tying the knot a fourth time.
“It’s both essential and nice to have one best friend in a hostile world,” she told me.
When I told Erica I was working on a book about marriage, I didn’t know what she’d say, and I was a little surprised that she was all for it. “Good! It’s up to us to create a new form of marriage, a new way of being married, one where both partners feel fulfilled, one where nobody’s work is more important than the other’s, one where you are both caretakers. The template doesn’t exist yet.”
Plenty of other templates for marriage exist, but they’re quickly becoming antiquated and useless for our generation.
For most of human history there have been real economic and societal imperatives for a woman to find a husband.
Marriage was both destiny and social imperative for my grandmother Carolyn, who met her husband Merwin as a fourteen-year-old farm girl in Illinois desperate for a better life. She followed him to college in Colorado and became a Mad Men–era housewife. Around the time Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963, Carolyn was the dissatisfied woman who “made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night,” the one who was “afraid to ask even of herself the silent question— ‘Is this all?’ ” Once my grandfather passed away, she traded in her Marilyn Monroe bottle-blond hair for a chic brown bob, began collecting abstract art, made friends with a cross-dresser named Bill, and never married again.
My own mother, who came of age during the second wave of feminism, told me she went to college with the intention of marrying a doctor or a lawyer. She wanted her “MRS.” She met my law-student father on her first night of college and married him when she was twenty-one years old. For her and many of her peers in 1976, this was not unusual. She said "I do." She never did anything ever again. That was her happily ever after.
I talked about the evolution of marriage with the academic and author Stephanie Coontz who wrote the book on modern marriage, literally, in Marriage: A History.
“Marriage is no longer about making alliances to further your parents’ interest or about linking a dependent female to a dominant male. Now, both women and men can say they want to marry someone with similar ideals, talents, aspirations, and qualities. We want equals,” Coontz told me. Of course, that comes with its own downsides.
“It creates new tensions when each person in a marriage has the ability to just walk away,” Coontz added.
I can walk away from my marriage at any time. I can support myself, protect myself, feed myself, buy my own property, and even make a baby alone with the help of a very expensive doctor and a less expensive turkey baster.
And yet, it is nice to have one best friend in a hostile world. There is no template. There is no guidebook. Our generation is tasked with figuring this out on our own.
I began writing this book in 2015. Barack and Michelle were still in the White House having date nights with Joe and Jill. The fact that two of the most powerful couples in America truly represented marriages of equals buoyed me throughout the reporting and writing process, not to mention my own first year of marriage. These were two men who were clearly in awe of their highly educated, driven, badass wives. My book, I believed at the time, was capturing the zeitgeist. This was clearly the direction we were all heading in.
Then everything changed.
We've abandoned an age of marital equals in the White House. We now have Melania Trump and Karen Pence, whose wifeliness feels old fashioned and stifling at best. I have a difficult time believing that either of these high-profile marriages are much for a modern feminist to emulate.
That just means we need to talk about it now more than ever.
Speaking at a conference in 2011, the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the crowd that the most important career choice a woman can make is to marry well. I found the guy, a guy who is more of a feminist than I am, a guy who read and re-read Judy Blume as a tow-headed little boy, and who as a small-business-owner adult, still makes sure his female employees have paid maternity leave. I married well. Now I argue that being well married, crafting a true marriage of equals, and finding a way for both people in a marriage to feel fulfilled personally and professionally is the future of marriage. But, we need to talk about it. Too many of us only post the most picture-perfect versions of our relationships on social media. That’s not doing any of us any favors. Talking about marriage, really talking about it, is like taking a shower with another person. You need to be vulnerable and fearless. I want all of us to be vulnerable and fearless as we figure out a new model for marriage together.