Wives (and Husbands): You Not Getting Beaten is a Luxury that Topeka, Kansas Just Can’t Afford

Like other local and state governments, Topeka, Kansas is in the grips of a dismal budget crisis. So this week, Topeka’s City Council did something desperate. They debated decriminalizing domestic violence--because the cost of prosecuting these cases, and other misdemeanors, is just too high. The county has already turned back 30 domestic violence cases since they stopped prosecuting them on September 8.

One of the problems with these stories is that it’s hard to believe that we’re actually hearing what we’re hearing. Sometimes I think the 20th century was all a dream, and we’ve awakened back in the 19th. Could civilization unravel so much that we rip up paved roads to save money—or revive wife-beating to save a buck? It sounds like a satirical Onion headline.

Meanwhile, as the Topeka City Council debates an open season on wife-beating, the conservative Kansas governor, Sam Brownback, has been working very aggressively to promote “marriage-friendly social policies.”  He’s instructed his Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary to do “what he can to reverse any policies that discourage marriage.”

I’m more of a libertarian about marriage. I think people marry when it makes their lives better, and don’t when it doesn’t.  It’s not the government’s place to incentivize types of intimacies between truly consenting adults. But I might not object so much to encouraging marriage—if anyone was encouraging a version that squares with marriage as a civil, secular contract in the United States—a country that is, after all, not a theocracy.

What if we had policies that supported a range of marital types, including dual-career couples, with maternity leave, family-friendly workplaces, career sabbatical and sharing possibilities, or better healthcare and daycare options? I’ve never seen these recommendations from a “defense of marriage” document. I have read arguments that we should support stay-at-home moms with better pensions and benefits. And I agree with that. But the dual-career marriage isn’t extended that same consideration. A favorite has been chosen.

Another principle of the loosely-confederated “marriage movement,” founded in 2001, was to support “marital interdependence” (meaning: a sort of “Me Tarzan-You Jane” division of labor in marriage, whereby the wife does one role and the husband another, to form one theoretically harmonious whole). What if instead, we supported marital flexibility in roles?

Ironically, in the classes and states today that have the very lowest divorces rates—the educated, affluent middle class, that is, and uber-liberal Massachusetts—it’s precisely this sort of gender role flexibility that you’re likely to see. The community welcomes stay-at-home dads as well as stay-at-home moms. Dads and moms are likely to perform a variety of roles in marriage, from breadwinning to breadbaking and childrearing and nurturing. These precisely aren’t marriages of interdependence, but of overlapping, multi-tasking competencies. Still, the defense of marriage tends to trash career moms for ruining the family, and privilege distinct husband and wife roles.

You see how it goes:  It’s not heterosexual marriage generically that’s promoted in Kansas and elsewhere. It’s marriage of a particular (patriarchal) brand and a particular (gender-typed) sort.

One more example: If we’re going to support marriage in policy, then I’d like to see us treat it as the most profound trust of any contract between people. That means, at the very least, that those who violate the sanctity of marriage by beating their spouses are treated with the utmost attention and concern. To support marriage, marriage needs to be a safe place physically, at the very least.

But that pro-marriage policy is not front and center in Topeka.  Evidently that sort of protection for spouses doesn’t count as a policy that would encourage marriage.

In a larger sense: Given how retro (to the 18th or 19th century) and didactic some social conservative extremists can sound about marriage (remember the Iowa marriage pledge from the summer?), there’s a tendency not to give their views much credence, or get too worried. Until, of course they re-center American politics, further to the right, and the “crazy” once again encroaches into “plausible.”

Last year, I was working with a copyeditor who was editing a piece in which I briefly discussed the attempt to revive 19th-century views of “traditional marriage” among social conservatives. “You’re way more concerned about what these people say than anyone I know,” she wrote in the margin. Her view was, it’s a bunch of radicals and it had nothing to do with her marriage, in her northeastern citadel. This kind of solipsism isn’t unusual: If a view doesn’t punch our own life in the face, then we think it can’t hurt us.

But marriage politics today aren’t just about opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexuality. No, they’re interested in your big, fat, straight wedding, too. Campaigns for traditional marriage support particular versions of heterosexual marriage. To paraphrase from Animal Farm, some marriages are more equal than others. 

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