The idea of a marital contract sounds new, but it actually isn’t.
The debut issue of Ms. magazine, in 1971, which was an insert in New York magazine, included an article on “How to Write Your Own Marriage Contract” by Susan Edmiston, who interviews two couples who created their own marriage contracts.
Why? Despite the cries of today’s men’s rights movement, marriage was not so great for women in the 1960s:
Margaret Sanger and second husband J. Noah H. Slee had a marriage contract in which they agreed to live apart.
- We could be fired if we got pregnant (until 1978)
- Sexually harassed at work? Too bad (until 1977)
- We couldn’t get our own credit card (until 1972)
- We couldn’t refuse to have sex with our husband (until the mid-’70s in some states, in all 50 states in 1993)
- We couldn’t get a divorce without having to prove fault (until 1969)
Not surprisingly, it was the wives who insisted on the contracts to deal with what clearly were marital inequities.
One couple, the Shulmans, created a marital contract after they had kids, when their previously egalitarian partnership fell into old gendered patterns, which despite how far we’ve come, baby, since then, still occurs today. (It also was a way to salvage a marriage doomed for divorce, and was roundly mocked by Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and Russell Baker.)
The other couple started off with a contract, one that dealt with chores, cooking and finances. When their daughter was born, they renegotiated their contract again to include childcare, which the wife, psychologist Barbara Koltuv, admits was a struggle — one that I’ll bet most women can relate to:
The hardest thing was being willing to give up control. What we call responsibility is often control, power, being the boss. When I was really able to recognize that my husband’s relationship with Hannah is his and mine is mine, everything was all right. He’s going to do it differently but he’s going to do it all right. We’ve been teaching her all along that different people are different.”
But marriage contracts between spouses date back farther than the ’60s and ’70s.
Social critic Mary Wollstonecraft was philosophically against marriage but married William Godwin in 1796 after they discovered she was pregnant (she died in childbirth six months later), yet they had a “highly unconventional marriage during which they lived far enough apart to permit the continuing exchange of letters.”
Abolitionist and suffragist Lucy Stone and activist Henry Blackwell created a contract when they wed in 1855, mostly in protest of coverture, in which women lost their legal existence to their husband once they married.
So did birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and her second husband, oil billionaire J. Noah H. Slee, whom she married in 1922. She wanted autonomy so they had a LAT, living apart together, arrangement, first in separate homes and then in separate parts of the same house.
Finally, Jackie Kennedy allegedly had a contract when she wed Aristotle Onassis in 1968, in which she declared her independence as well as separate homes and separate bedrooms within their shared homes. (It was also a safety marriage).
OK, we no longer have coverture and we have more egalitarian marriages than ever before, and thankfully women have financial independence. So do we really need individualized marital contracts?
Before you say yes or no, let’s look at what Edmiston includes in her article’s “utopian marriage contract” — agreements about birth control, having/adopting children, how children will be brought up, whose job will determine where and how the couple lives (including separate bedrooms or homes), how child care and housework will be divvied up, how they will handle finances, and sexual rights and freedoms.
Given how many of those are things couples still argue about today, and as women debate if they can have it all or just lean in, why would anyone, especially women, be hesitant to create a plan that honored both spouses’ needs and expectations?
Unless perhaps the dirty secret is that we really don’t want marital equality. As Alix Kates Shulman, profiled in that 1971 Ms. article, wrote just recently:
The idea’s limited success is hardly surprising, given the economic, social, and psychological arrangements that continue to impede equality, in marriage and out. Such strains doomed my own marriage, along with half the marriages in America. Probably not until the polity is more child- and woman-friendly, not until men and women are equally valued — economically and otherwise — not until free or low-cost quality childcare is universally available, will the ideal of equality in marriage be other than radical.”
Could it be that we women don’t really want an equal partnership? Many married moms have said they’d prefer to work part time, echoing what the rest of society believes is ideal for kids, while the majority of men would just prefer to work outside the home. And maybe, as Koltuv discovered, it’s just too hard for women to give up control.
Can we have egalitarian marriages when one spouse works full time and the other works part time, when one spouse is unable or unwilling to give up control? Or does equality even matter as long as both spouses are happy with the arrangement?
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