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Extra info for Conjugal Rites: Marriage and Marriage-like Relationships before the Law

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All of the above? Feminists have certainly identified each of these areas as intrinsically linked to marriage. One suggestion for conceptualizing marriage’s institutional apparatus will be posited later, but for now, the question will be put to one side. Having looked at what Foucault has sketched as perils accompanying the study of institutionalized power relations, we need to examine his suggestions for avoiding these problems. Foucault asserts, in “The Subject and Power,” that the “anchorage” of institutionalized power relations is to be found outside the institution; that we might understand sanity by investigating insanity, legality through crime, power through resistance, and so on (Foucault 1983, 211, 222).

But like so many feminist issues, the problems seem impossible to pin down—the bad taste is mercurial, and seems to slip and shift between the prongs of our every attempt to remove it from our plates. So how do we reconcile those feminist critiques of marriage that are deeply pessimistic about the prospects for rehabilitating conjugality with the actual (albeit limited) transformations and improvements to marriage and matrimonial law that feminists have struggled to achieve, and for which we continue fighting to protect and extend?

This problem of circularity is rife in feminist theorizations of marriage. Even some of the most influential critiques of marriage conclude, in essence, that marriage oppresses women, and that women marry because they are oppressed. Consider Delphy and Leonard’s influential Familiar Exploitation (1994). They argue that marriage is a coercive relation of sexed and sexual labor in which women’s work (whether paid or unpaid) is undervalued because it is work performed by women. Critiques of marriage exploring its relation to violence often betray a similar problem: to say that power relations exercised to women’s detriment in the home originate in marriage is somewhat tautological.

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