Emma Goldman: Marriage and Love

From the 1917 edition of Emma Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays


The popular notion about marriage and love is that they are synonymous, that they spring from the same motives, and cover the same human needs.  Like most popular notions this also rests not on actual facts, but on superstition.

Marriage and love have nothing in common; they are as far apart as the poles; are, in fact, antagonistic to each other.  No doubt some marriages have been the result of love.  Not, however, because love could assert itself only in marriage; much rather is it because few people can completely outgrow a convention.  There are today large numbers of men and women to whom marriage is naught but a farce, but who submit to it for the sake of public opinion.  At any rate, while it is true that some marriages are based on love, and while it is equally true that in some cases love continues in married life, I maintain that it does so regardless of marriage, and not because of it.

On the other hand, it is utterly false that love results from marriage.  On rare occasions one does hear of a miraculous case of a married couple falling in love after marriage, but on close examination it will be found that it is a mere adjustment to the inevitable.  Certainly the growing-used to each other is far away from the spontaneity, the intensity, and beauty of love, without which the intimacy of marriage must prove degrading to both the woman and the man.

Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact.  It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting.  Its returns are insignificantly small compared with the investments.  In taking out an insurance policy one pays for it in dollars and cents, always at liberty to discontinue payments.  If, however, woman’s premium is her husband, she pays for it with her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life, “until death doth part.”  Moreover, the marriage insurance condemns her to life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.  Man, too, pays his toll, but as his sphere is wider, marriage does not limit him as much as woman.  He feels his chains more in an economic sense.

Thus Dante’s motto over Inferno applies with equal force to marriage. “Ye who enter here leave all hope behind.”

That marriage is a failure none but the very stupid will deny.  One has but to glance over the statistics of divorce to realize how bitter a failure marriage really is.  Nor will the stereotyped Philistine argument that the laxity of divorce laws and the growing looseness of woman account for the fact that: first, every twelfth marriage ends in divorce; second, that since 1870 divorces have increased from 28 to 73 for every hundred thousand population; third, that adultery, since 1867, as ground for divorce, has increased 270.8 per cent.; fourth, that desertion increased 369.8 per cent.

Added to these startling figures is a vast amount of material, dramatic and literary, further elucidating this subject.  Robert Herrick, in TOGETHER; Pinero, in MID-CHANNEL; Eugene Walter, in PAID IN FULL, and scores of other writers are discussing the barrenness, the monotony, the sordidness, the inadequacy of marriage as a factor for harmony and understanding.

The thoughtful social student will not content himself with the popular superficial excuse for this phenomenon.  He will have to dig deeper into the very life of the sexes to know why marriage proves so disastrous.

Edward Carpenter says that behind every marriage stands the life-long environment of the two sexes; an environment so different from each other that man and woman must remain strangers.  Separated by an insurmountable wall of superstition, custom, and habit, marriage has not the potentiality of developing knowledge of, and respect for, each other, without which every union is doomed to failure.

Henrik Ibsen, the hater of all social shams, was probably the first to realize this great truth.  Nora leaves her husband, not–as the stupid critic would have it–because she is tired of her responsibilities or feels the need of woman’s rights, but because she has come to know that for eight years she had lived with a stranger and borne him children.  Can there be anything more humiliating, more degrading than a life-long proximity between two strangers?  No need for the woman to know anything of the man, save his income.  As to the knowledge of the woman–what is there to know except that she has a pleasing appearance?  We have not yet outgrown the theologic myth that woman has no soul, that she is a mere appendix to man, made out of his rib just for the convenience of the gentleman who was so strong that he was afraid of his own shadow.

Perchance the poor quality of the material whence woman comes is responsible for her inferiority.  At any rate, woman has no soul–what is there to know about her?  Besides, the less soul a woman has the greater her asset as a wife, the more readily will she absorb herself in her husband.  It is this slavish acquiescence to man’s superiority that has kept the marriage institution seemingly intact for so long a period.  Now that woman is coming into her own, now that she is actually growing aware of herself as being outside of the master’s grace, the sacred institution of marriage is gradually being undermined, and no amount of sentimental lamentation can stay it.

From infancy, almost, the average girl is told that marriage is her ultimate goal; therefore her training and education must be directed towards that end.  Like the mute beast fattened for slaughter, she is prepared for that.  Yet, strange to say, she is allowed to know much less about her function as wife and mother than the ordinary artisan of his trade.  It is indecent and filthy for a respectable girl to know anything of the marital relation.  Oh, for the inconsistency of respectability, that needs the marriage vow to turn something which is filthy into the purest and most sacred arrangement that none dare question or criticize.  Yet that is exactly the attitude of the average upholder of marriage.  The prospective wife and mother is kept in complete ignorance of her only asset in the competitive field–sex.  Thus she enters into life-long relations with a man only to find herself shocked, repelled, outraged beyond measure by the most natural and healthy instinct, sex.  It is safe to say that a large percentage of the unhappiness, misery, distress, and physical suffering of matrimony is due to the criminal ignorance in sex matters that is being extolled as a great virtue.  Nor is it at all an exaggeration when I say that more than one home has been broken up because of this deplorable fact.

If, however, woman is free and big enough to learn the mystery of sex without the sanction of State or Church, she will stand condemned as utterly unfit to become the wife of a “good” man, his goodness consisting of an empty brain and plenty of money.  Can there be anything more outrageous than the idea that a healthy, grown woman, full of life and passion, must deny nature’s demand, must subdue her most intense craving, undermine her health and break her spirit, must stunt her vision, abstain from the depth and glory of sex experience until a “good” man comes along to take her unto himself as a wife? That is precisely what marriage means.  How can such an arrangement end except in failure?  This is one, though not the least important, factor of marriage, which differentiates it from love.

Ours is a practical age.  The time when Romeo and Juliet risked the wrath of their fathers for love, when Gretchen exposed herself to the gossip of her neighbors for love, is no more.  If, on rare occasions, young people allow themselves the luxury of romance, they are taken in care by the elders, drilled and pounded until they become “sensible.”

The moral lesson instilled in the girl is not whether the man has aroused her love, but rather is it, “How much?”  The important and only God of practical American life: Can the man make a living? can he support a wife?  That is the only thing that justifies marriage. Gradually this saturates every thought of the girl; her dreams are not of moonlight and kisses, of laughter and tears; she dreams of shopping tours and bargain counters.  This soul poverty and sordidness are the elements inherent in the marriage institution. The State and Church approve of no other ideal, simply because it is the one that necessitates the State and Church control of men and women.

Doubtless there are people who continue to consider love above dollars and cents.  Particularly this is true of that class whom economic necessity has forced to become self-supporting.  The tremendous change in woman’s position, wrought by that mighty factor, is indeed phenomenal when we reflect that it is but a short time since she has entered the industrial arena.  Six million women wage workers; six million women, who have equal right with men to be exploited, to be robbed, to go on strike; aye, to starve even. Anything more, my lord?  Yes, six million wage workers in every walk of life, from the highest brain work to the mines and railroad tracks; yes, even detectives and policemen.  Surely the emancipation is complete.

Yet with all that, but a very small number of the vast army of women wage workers look upon work as a permanent issue, in the same light as does man.  No matter how decrepit the latter, he has been taught to be independent, self-supporting.  Oh, I know that no one is really independent in our economic treadmill; still, the poorest specimen of a man hates to be a parasite; to be known as such, at any rate.

The woman considers her position as worker transitory, to be thrown aside for the first bidder.  That is why it is infinitely harder to organize women than men.  “Why should I join a union?  I am going to get married, to have a home.”  Has she not been taught from infancy to look upon that as her ultimate calling?  She learns soon enough that the home, though not so large a prison as the factory, has more solid doors and bars.  It has a keeper so faithful that naught can escape him.  The most tragic part, however, is that the home no longer frees her from wage slavery; it only increases her task.

According to the latest statistics submitted before a Committee “on labor and wages, and congestion of population,” ten per cent. of the wage workers in New York City alone are married, yet they must continue to work at the most poorly paid labor in the world.  Add to this horrible aspect the drudgery of housework, and what remains of the protection and glory of the home?  As a matter of fact, even the middle-class girl in marriage can not speak of her home, since it is the man who creates her sphere.  It is not important whether the husband is a brute or a darling.  What I wish to prove is that marriage guarantees woman a home only by the grace of her husband. There she moves about in HIS home, year after year, until her aspect of life and human affairs becomes as flat, narrow, and drab as her surroundings.  Small wonder if she becomes a nag, petty, quarrelsome, gossipy, unbearable, thus driving the man from the house.  She could not go, if she wanted to; there is no place to go.  Besides, a short period of married life, of complete surrender of all faculties, absolutely incapacitates the average woman for the outside world. She becomes reckless in appearance, clumsy in her movements, dependent in her decisions, cowardly in her judgment, a weight and a bore, which most men grow to hate and despise.  Wonderfully inspiring atmosphere for the bearing of life, is it not?

But the child, how is it to be protected, if not for marriage?  After all, is not that the most important consideration?  The sham, the hypocrisy of it!  Marriage protecting the child, yet thousands of children destitute and homeless.  Marriage protecting the child, yet orphan asylums and reformatories overcrowded, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children keeping busy in rescuing the little victims from “loving” parents, to place them under more loving care, the Gerry Society.  Oh, the mockery of it!

Marriage may have the power to bring the horse to water, but has it ever made him drink?  The law will place the father under arrest, and put him in convict’s clothes; but has that ever stilled the hunger of the child?  If the parent has no work, or if he hides his identity, what does marriage do then?  It invokes the law to bring the man to “justice,” to put him safely behind closed doors; his labor, however, goes not to the child, but to the State.  The child receives but a blighted memory of his father’s stripes.

As to the protection of the woman,–therein lies the curse of marriage.  Not that it really protects her, but the very idea is so revolting, such an outrage and insult on life, so degrading to human dignity, as to forever condemn this parasitic institution.

It is like that other paternal arrangement–capitalism.  It robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty, and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self-respect.

The institution of marriage makes a parasite of woman, an absolute dependent.  It incapacitates her for life’s struggle, annihilates her social consciousness, paralyzes her imagination, and then imposes its gracious protection, which is in reality a snare, a travesty on human character.

If motherhood is the highest fulfillment of woman’s nature, what other protection does it need, save love and freedom?  Marriage but defiles, outrages, and corrupts her fulfillment.  Does it not say to woman, Only when you follow me shall you bring forth life?  Does it not condemn her to the block, does it not degrade and shame her if she refuses to buy her right to motherhood by selling herself?  Does not marriage only sanction motherhood, even though conceived in hatred, in compulsion?  Yet, if motherhood be of free choice, of love, of ecstasy, of defiant passion, does it not place a crown of thorns upon an innocent head and carve in letters of blood the hideous epithet, Bastard?  Were marriage to contain all the virtues claimed for it, its crimes against motherhood would exclude it forever from the realm of love.

Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful moulder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?

Free love?  As if love is anything but free!  Man has bought brains, but all the millions in the world have failed to buy love.  Man has subdued bodies, but all the power on earth has been unable to subdue love.  Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love.  Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love.  High on a throne, with all the splendor and pomp his gold can command, man is yet poor and desolate, if love passes him by.  And if it stays, the poorest hovel is radiant with warmth, with life and color.  Thus love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king.  Yes, love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere.  In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely.  All the laws on the statutes, all the courts in the universe, cannot tear it from the soil, once love has taken root. If, however, the soil is sterile, how can marriage make it bear fruit?  It is like the last desperate struggle of fleeting life against death.

Love needs no protection; it is its own protection.  So long as love begets life no child is deserted, or hungry, or famished for the want of affection.  I know this to be true.  I know women who became mothers in freedom by the men they loved.  Few children in wedlock enjoy the care, the protection, the devotion free motherhood is capable of bestowing.

The defenders of authority dread the advent of a free motherhood, lest it will rob them of their prey.  Who would fight wars?  Who would create wealth?  Who would make the policeman, the jailer, if woman were to refuse the indiscriminate breeding of children?  The race, the race! shouts the king, the president, the capitalist, the priest.  The race must be preserved, though woman be degraded to a mere machine,–and the marriage institution is our only safety valve against the pernicious sex awakening of woman.  But in vain these frantic efforts to maintain a state of bondage.  In vain, too, the edicts of the Church, the mad attacks of rulers, in vain even the arm of the law.  Woman no longer wants to be a party to the production of a race of sickly, feeble, decrepit, wretched human beings, who have neither the strength nor moral courage to throw off the yoke of poverty and slavery.  Instead she desires fewer and better children, begotten and reared in love and through free choice; not by compulsion, as marriage imposes.  Our pseudo-moralists have yet to learn the deep sense of responsibility toward the child, that love in freedom has awakened in the breast of woman.  Rather would she forego forever the glory of motherhood than bring forth life in an atmosphere that breathes only destruction and death.  And if she does become a mother, it is to give to the child the deepest and best her being can yield.  To grow with the child is her motto; she knows that in that manner alone can she help build true manhood and womanhood.

Ibsen must have had a vision of a free mother, when, with a master stroke, he portrayed Mrs. Alving.  She was the ideal mother because she had outgrown marriage and all its horrors, because she had broken her chains, and set her spirit free to soar until it returned a personality, regenerated and strong.  Alas, it was too late to rescue her life’s joy, her Oswald; but not too late to realize that love in freedom is the only condition of a beautiful life.  Those who, like Mrs. Alving, have paid with blood and tears for their spiritual awakening, repudiate marriage as an imposition, a shallow, empty mockery.  They know, whether love last but one brief span of time or for eternity, it is the only creative, inspiring, elevating basis for a new race, a new world.

In our present pygmy state love is indeed a stranger to most people. Misunderstood and shunned, it rarely takes root; or if it does, it soon withers and dies.  Its delicate fiber can not endure the stress and strain of the daily grind.  Its soul is too complex to adjust itself to the slimy woof of our social fabric.  It weeps and moans and suffers with those who have need of it, yet lack the capacity to rise to love’s summit.

Some day, some day men and women will rise, they will reach the mountain peak, they will meet big and strong and free, ready to receive, to partake, and to bask in the golden rays of love.  What fancy, what imagination, what poetic genius can foresee even approximately the potentialities of such a force in the life of men and women.  If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage, but love will be the parent.


8 thoughts on “Emma Goldman: Marriage and Love

  1. The institution of marriage harkens back to the enslavement of women. Yes. even today in 2010. We ended negroid slavery in the West, I’m curious as to when more will wake up to what marriage means, and why it’s important.

  2. Marriage is a societal construct that asked of us to declare in front of witnesses a bond of my choice for which we both have only gained and not lost any of our entitlements – how is that slavery?

  3. As Emma Goldman stated almost 100 years ago, it is more a question of when women are forced into this ‘contract’–and the duties and responsibilities related with this contract.

    Of which entitlements do you speak? I fail to understand how before and after marriage anything would change for you as an individual, or you both as a couple.

    I don’t think you have differentiated a “wedding” and the concept of ‘marriage’ in what you state. Your declaration was a wedding. Marriage as I have mentioned in other posts has a strange, unjust, surprising history–involving the legal rape of wives and women being transferred from male property owner to male property owner as chattel. At its most benign, it is purposeless, but at its most frightening it signifies the control and ownership of nothing more than baby making machines.

    Perhaps you are lucky, much as one who has purchased a single diamond from a source which was not involved in the murders and injustice inherent in the trade, but that in and of itself in no way implies the cleansing of this artificial social mechanism which so many perpetuate without questioning it origins, and contemporary purpose.

    There also existed negroid slaves who were befriended by their ‘masters’, and those ‘masters’ would speak to a mutually beneficial relationship for their instance. This however did not justify this slavery.

    I question the concept of marriage as a whole, I question the necessity of ‘marriage’ as an indicator of anything.
    Love is what is the essence of the special bond between two romantically intertwined partners, and this bond is not quite viewable to those who hope to ‘witness’ it.

    The artifice that is marriage perpetuates today, perhaps not the explicit injustices of years past, but implicit ones which society may hoist upon the partners involved. Certain expectations, certain rules, duties and obligations.

    It is my contention that by ignoring the history of marriage we maintain historical injustices which both the church and the state created and conspired to indoctrinate society with.

    YOU, Shreela, might not be a slave, but your neighbour may. It is a question of principle.
    I have no respect for an institution which was created to falsify commitment, assuage the anxiety of loneliness, pathetically mimic the natural beauty of real love, marginalize and deem ‘illegitimate’/’bastard’ children born of lustful passionate connections of man and woman, and prescribe roles for participants which are policed by both the participants as well as their society.

    If I were to throw only a party where my love and I declared our inner emotions, infront of all the witnesses of my society, how would that differ from what you have yourself done?

    If I spend the next 60-70 years sharing my journey with a certain special human being and at 95 die intertwined in a loving embrace, who was that person to me? And of what significance is what society deemed us?

  4. If marriage is so sweet, romantic, and poetic, why does it necessitate a marriage certificate? And moreover a “Divorce Certificate”…hahaha. Property Transfer.

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