Book Review: Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defence of the Marriage-Free State, by Clare Chambers

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterBook Reviews
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Political Theory 47(3)
Against Marriage: An Egalitarian Defence of the Marriage-Free State, by Clare
Chambers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 226 pp.
Reviewed by: Tamara Metz, Reed College, Portland, OR, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0090591718770162
This is a distinct and important contribution to an increasingly crowded field
of liberal political philosophy on marriage and the state and, perhaps most
interestingly, to our understanding of the liberal project broadly.
Chambers tells us that her target audience is “those who have some sort of
egalitarian commitment” and “particularly liberal egalitarians” (2). Indeed.
Neither libertarians nor Marxists (nor anarchists or civic humanists, for that
matter) are likely to be much moved by the argument. Still, Chambers
stretches the liberal project to its farthest egalitarian edges. This is an egali-
tarian argument not only for abolishing legal marriage and replacing it with a
regime tailored to securing material and symbolic equality for all but also,
crucially, for state action in “private”—secular and religious—marital tradi-
tions that threaten equality. Where other liberals seek more vigorously to bal-
ance competing demands of freedom and equality, or emphasize freedom,
Chambers hews rigorously to an egalitarian position. You won’t find another
book that does this so effectively or by way of such productive engagement
with existing scholarship. Laying out the egalitarian case in such clear and
compelling terms, Chambers highlights the challenges it presents to the lib-
eral side of her liberal feminist equation. In so doing, Against Marriage
leaves us wondering just how tenable the liberal feminist project is.
Chambers defends both a negative and a positive thesis. The negative is a
critique of marriage and state involvement in it. The positive defends a “mar-
riage-free state,” in “which personal relationships are regulated, the vulnera-
ble are protected, and justice is furthered, all without the state recognition of
marriage or any similar alternative” (2). Both are largely convincing; the sec-
ond is where she is at her most interesting and provocative.
Chambers’s case against marriage—that it threatens equality and violates
liberty—draws on existing literature, from John Stuart Mill to recent work of
scholars such as Claudia Card, Elizabeth Brake, and Katherine Franke. She
declutters, expands and, at key points, sharpens liberal and feminist critiques
of the institution and the state’s control and use of it. One good example: her
argument that same sex marriage, too, is inegalitarian. Yes, of course, hetero-
sexist marriage is inegalitarian. But adding gay people to the mix doesn’t
eliminate the sexist and racist histories of the institution. Meaning, it turns
out, is the crux of what makes marriage special and powerful. The histories
of racism...

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