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My opinion on the institution of marriage has gone all over the place the last few years, from believing it is instituted by God with specific duties for husband and wife, to all but opposing it, and now I think I've settled on a final opinion.
This is important to talk about, because as modern-day feminists, we can feel like sell outs if we do decide we want to marry. And that's totally legitimate. I want to share why I think marriage is ok, even for the feminist.
A funny thing happens when you break away from religion--or at least the very negative parts of religions: freedom. You are free to investigate, learn and decide based on evidence and your own preferences. There's no one telling you what to do. You have to make your own decisions. It's very exciting, but scary because there's no cookie cutter road map of How to Live anymore.
Marriage has a rather disgusting history for the most part. The religious right currently likes to pretend that marriage is one man, one woman and has always been that way. But that's just not true.
Even when marriage is for one man and one woman, historically women were traded as property, a servant forever dependent on some man to provide for her. In any culture, before effective birth control came to be, a sexually active woman was guaranteed a life of housework and childrearing. How could there be any time for any further pursuit?
Thankfully, things have changed. Nowadays women can (in most modernized countries) do and be anything they want, for the most part. Unless, of course, fanatical politicians succeed in making abortion and birth control illegal, but let's set that aside as I am talking in huge generalities here.
My point being: in a free society, marriage is what YOU make of it. It can be a religious marriage. A childfree marriage. A same-sex marriage. A polygamous marriage. An "open" marriage. Whatever.
Marriage has been many things and will continue to be many more things because it evolves with people and their cultures. What it boils down to is that marriage is an agreement between 2 (or 3, 4, 10...) consenting adults, and each marriage is different because the people are different. What other people do in their marriage has no effect on you and yours, nor does what has happened in the past concerning marriage define yours. We are free to make our own rules. I think marriage is basically a legal and/or relational contract between consenting adults, and what that contract contains is up to them to define.
There are several aspects of marriage: legal, spiritual (if you're religious) and what I call relational (if you're not religious). Let's set aside spiritual marriage for obvious reasons. Relational marriage is defined by the individual relationship; for example, I feel and behave as if I am married, and I frequently call my partner "husband", because we completely share our lives together and are completely committed to being together. To me, that's my marriage. It's an agreement between ourselves and what makes us happy. I know several other couples like us, and I'm sure you do too. You don't have to be legally married to be married in your heart (i.e., emotionally). This relational marriage is what's most important, I think, as marriage really only takes place between the people in the relationship. I don't have to use the word married to describe my relationship, but sometimes I do, because that's what it feels like to us; we have reached that level of happiness and commitment and neither of us plans on going anywhere.
I also don't believe marriage is till death to us part, unless you want it to be. I will only stay married as long as I am happy and the relationship is healthy; if it ceases to be both of those things, I will no longer be committed to it for my own sake, and I extend the same courtesy to him if he is not happy and healthy. When I was at Catholic Pre Cana, the hostess said that, "Marriage is like this big, beautiful house that has all these really cool rooms... but once you go in, you can't ever leave that house." I beg to differ! I see no point in voluntarily suffering. When that house is rotting and unfixable, leave.
Legally, of course, can be the can of worms everyone is worried about. It is a risk, yes, and it's not for everyone. Personally, it's right in my situation because 1) I have a high level of trust and love for him, 2) I'm comfortable with this risk because of #1, and 3) I have a batshit crazy family and don't want them to have control over my assets should something happen to me. #3 is what is really behind my making my marriage legal. BTW, this is NOT to say that because someone doesn't get married that they don't love and trust their partner. It's just that because of my family, his fairly dangerous job, and our level of commitment, that I'm ok with making it legal.
Originally I was going to do all the necessary paperwork to make him my beneficiary, and medical power of attorney, etc, but when I looked into the legal forms it made my head spin. The laws are crazy, and they're so different for each state. I would have had to hire a lawyer to make sense of it all. And guys, I'm lazy. I realized that I was committed to spending the rest of my life with him anyway, and marriage is just easier because it does all that crap in one fell swoop and is recognized in all states. Plus, we get tax and health insurance benefits. That process gave me much more empathy with my same-sex brothers and sisters who are in my position, and are pointlessly denied their rights to do so.
For this feminist, marriage is a good choice. My partner and I get to define what marriage is to us, and we will not stay married if we are unhappy and so will never be trapped. It is an equal partnership and a mutually beneficial one. There are financial risks if things don't work out but I am well aware of them, and I'm comfortable making things legal because I strongly believe I know who he is and who I am and that we are a good fit for life. The benefits outweigh the risks. Obviously, it's taken years for me to get to this point with myself and with him, as it should. We are old enough to be settled into who we are and our beliefs and habits, and ready for one life partner.
After my first marriage, I vowed against being in a relationship ever again because they completely took away your freedom. And don't misunderstand--being single is awesome and you are more free single than you are in a relationship. But I've found someone who makes my life better when I'm with him than when I'm single, and I loved being single! It's a conscious choice that I made, and re make every day, to give up some freedom for the benefit of my life partner.
This has been incredibly long and for that I'm sorry, but I hope it helps my fellow feminists, or any person struggling with the question of marriage, see that marriage can be a good, and happy thing (officially legal or not!), when freely undertaken with someone right for you.