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From Proposal to Privilege: The Unearned Rights of Married People February 14, 2015

Posted by Onely in As If!, Everyday Happenings, Food for Thought, STFU.
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Copious Readers: Four of us singles’ advocacy writers banded together to write about the scourge of. . . Marriage Privilege! Bella and Rachel recently published this article on the subject in TruthOut, and you can find Onely’s take below. We hope you’ll check both them out,  as well as a co-authored list version cross-posted by Rachel and Bella on their blogs. Below, skip to the More tab to read specific examples of marital privilege.

Declaration of IndependenceMillions of unmarried people in the U.S. and around the world are targets of discrimination, yet hardly anyone has noticed. It’s time for that to change.

Successful social movements upend fundamental worldviews so that what originally seemed unthinkable to a privileged majority comes to feel ordinary to almost everyone. Although many marginalized groups have still not achieved true equality – as the recent events in Ferguson highlighted for the world – many have still made considerable progress in recent history: African-Americans became property owners, businesspeople, and U.S. President. American women got the vote, and the earnings gap, which shamefully still exists, isn’t as great as it used to be. Gays and lesbians garnered more positive portrayals in popular culture and gained the right to marry in some U.S. states and other countries.

But during the transition from odd to obvious, there’s always push-back. People cling to their worldviews, beliefs that make them feel secure and rooted and right. A challenge to those views, even a gently-worded one, is scary.

Odd and scary is the idea that marriage provides invisible and unearned legal, political, and economic privileges to its participants, at the expense of unmarried people. Obviously this discrimination is not as nefarious as, for example, racism has been. But it does exist. It’s even codified: over 1,000 U.S. federal laws favor married people. This factoid becomes even stranger when you consider that today about half the adult population of the U.S. is unmarried (whether due to desire, divorce, death, discriminatory laws, or other life circumstances).

If you find yourself rolling your eyes at the above, saying to yourself that it’s not that big a deal, consider this: For a very long time, men went about their lives confident in the assumption that their ordinary experiences were just that – ordinary. Men were overwhelmingly represented on TV and in newspapers. Men were widely favored in the workplace. Men did not need to realize that women had equally valid perspectives and strengths, which were largely under-represented in dominant discourse. They were overwhelmingly represented on TV and in newspapers. They were widely favored in the workplace. They did not need to realize that women, African-Americans, and other groups had equally valid, but underrepresented, perspectives and strengths. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a Wellesley women’s studies scholar, took the lessons she had been teaching about male privilege and turned them on herself, as a white person. Her race, she realized, made her privileged, too.

Decades later we’ve progressed to discussions about male privilege and white privilege, and these conversations have raised our consciousness about all sorts of other unearned privileges, such as those conditional on age, social class, and sexual orientation. Yet marital privilege – a pervasive, powerful package of unearned benefits – remains largely unchallenged and rarely recognized. It is almost completely invisible to the populace at large, even across other categories that are now very visible, such as race and social class.

Yes, people know that if they marry, they get stuff, such as blenders and the option not to testify against their spouse (the narrower meaning of marital privilege). But these are seen as rights, not as privileges that disenfranchise other social groups (such as single people).

Many people are familiar with the socio-cultural aspects of what we call “marital privilege.” Perhaps the best-known example is the widespread assumption that single people will “die alone,” with no one at their death beds, croaking the words “if only I had married” to the spiderwebs on the ceiling. As single people ourselves, we have heard this warning from otherwise intelligent individuals, people who seem to forget that the world is awash with chaos like car accidents, cancers, and barracudas that could obliterate their spouse and leave the remaining partner to “die alone” (and be eaten by their pets).

If you’re part of the married half of society, you may never have questioned the social and economic benefits you automatically receive just because you tied the knot. That’s okay, because marital privilege is a stealth privilege: couples and singles alike are simply not taught to recognize it. McIntosh explained that whites are not taught to recognize their white privilege. We believe couples are especially unlikely to notice marital privilege, because the thing about privilege is that the people who have it can afford not to see it.

That’s why we’ve provided some ways to recognize if you are experiencing, or have experienced, marital (or couple) privilege in the U.S.:

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