Compulsory Matrimony

FEMINIST AND QUEER LEGAL THEORY, pp. 315-328, Ashgate, 2009

17 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2009


In 1980, feminist and lesbian theorist Adrienne Rich published her now-classic against the universalization and naturalization of women’s heterosexuality. Rich posited that heterosexuality needed to be "recognized and studied as a political institution - even, or especially, by those individuals who feel they are, in their personal experience, the precursors of new social relation." Rich challenged feminists to “take the step of questioning heterosexuality as a "preference" or "choice" for women," contending that heterosexuality "may not be a 'preference' at all but something that has had to be imposed, managed, organized, propagandized, and maintained by force." While Rich’s essay was not unproblematic, especially with regard to postulating a "lesbian continuum" of resistance to heterosexuality, compulsory heterosexuality has become a core concept in feminist and queer theorizing. In Rich’s original essay, compulsory heterosexuality and marriage were often conflated, but more recent legal developments regarding same-sex marriage raise the possibilities of decoupling heterosexuality and marriage. Indeed, some theorists argue that same-sex marriage has the potential to eradicate compulsory heterosexuality.

However, even assuming that same-sex marriage can undermine compulsory heterosexuality, this should not immunize marriage itself from interrogation. Marriage, as much as-if not more than-heterosexuality, is a political institution. In this chapter, I appraise a variety of forces that impose, manage, organize, propagandize and forcefully maintain the political institution of marriage. The first section considers how state-sanctioned economic arrangements advantage married persons over unmarried persons, thus making the choice of marriage the economically advantageous choice in a capitalist economy. The next section focuses on the gendered and class dimensions of the state's support of marriage, especially as it affects women in poverty. In the third section, I examine the way in which the law tolerates discrimination against the unmarried, while privileging those who are married. Finally, the last section addresses the forces that promote marriage, again especially for women: Section four focuses on the legal forces, both direct and indirect, while section five considers the social realm. The chapter concludes that there is a regime of compulsory matrimony and that it is as least as problematical as a regime of compulsory heterosexuality.

Suggested Citation

Robson, Ruthann, Compulsory Matrimony. FEMINIST AND QUEER LEGAL THEORY, pp. 315-328, Ashgate, 2009. Available at SSRN:

Ruthann Robson (Contact Author)

CUNY School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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