“Marriage and Love Have Nothing In Common”: Emma Goldman on Romance and Sexual Freedom

The anarchist, labor organizer and rabble rouser Emma Goldman published this essay, “Marriage and Love,” in 1914.

Emma Goldman

In The Art of Political Murder, Guatemalan-American author Francisco Goldman chronicles the 1998 murder of progressive bishop Juan Gerardi and the subsequent trial.

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.

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 molder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State and Church-begotten weed, marriage?

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, how ever, woman’s pre­mi­um is a 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 down 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 any thing 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 a 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 head 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 the 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 is this 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-earn­ers; six mil­lion women, who have the 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 age-work­ers in every walk of life, from the high­est brain work to the most dif­fi­cult menial labor in the mines and on the 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 tread mill; 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 house work, 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 over crowd­ed, 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 its 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 mold­er 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 call 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.

Emma Gold­man (18691940) was a nurse, anar­chist, lec­tur­er and rev­o­lu­tion­ary, who was twice arrest­ed for vio­lat­ing the Com­stock Law, which pro­hib­it­ed the dis­tri­b­u­tion of birth-con­trol lit­er­a­ture. The pre­ced­ing answers” first appeared, respec­tive­ly, in Woman’s Suf­frage” (1914), The Traf­fic in Women” (1910) and Mar­riage and Love” (1916).
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