Amelia Earhart's "prenuptial agreement" with her husband, George Putnam, whom she married in 1931 when she was 32, drew a flurry of attention this week. Los Angeles writer Amanda Hess posted the letter on her Tumblr page after running across it in the online library of Purdue University, which houses Earhart's papers.
"On our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly," Earhart wrote. She went on to say, "I may have to keep some place where I can go to be by myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage."
She also made Putnam promise to divorce her in a year if they weren't happy.
In Slate, Ms. Hess explained that youngish female bloggers read this proto-feminist manifesto and seized the opportunity to mull over the confusing, often contradictory state of modern marriage. The Feminsting blog called Earhart's letter "forward-thinking," "well-reasoned" and "strangely reassuring." On Jezebel, Earhart was deemed "a progressive woman who faced many of the same issues that ladies in love face today."
Some readers rightly pointed out that if a man had served his betrothed with a document like this (let's be clear, it's not a pre-nup, just a letter) it would not have met with the same level of enthusiasm. Others wisely suggested that anyone harboring this level of ambivalence might do well to avoid marriage altogether.
Given long-standing theories about Earhart's ulterior motives for marrying Putnam — Putnam was a powerful publisher and she a writer, and let's not forget the lesbian rumors — it's probably best not to read too much into what may be an expression of anxiety more than anything else.
But that doesn't mean there isn't an appetite for new ways of looking at marriage. It's worth noting that the surge of interest in Earhart's unconventional approach came along just as the Supreme Court announced its plans to take on the issue of marriage equality, and after an election that legalized same-sex marriage in four states and sent an openly gay senator to Washington. On Sunday, conservative columnist George Will made headlines when he said on TV that "opposition to gay marriage is dying, quite literally."
It's ironic, then, that as gay marriage becomes more popular, barely half of all adults in the U.S. are married. Same-sex marriage opponents will use that as ammunition for their indefatigable "defense" of traditional marriage. (The decline, though, has less to do with gay marriage and more with the destigmatization of cohabiting and single motherhood.) But here's another way to look at it: Maybe heterosexual marriage just suffers too much in comparison to the gay variety.
Maybe straight people want what they can't have: to be gay married too. That is, they want the perks of legal partnership without the baggage of thousands of years of that very durable marriage tradition: an unequal partnership. Maybe they don't want to align themselves — till death do us part — with an institution that until very recently enshrined female subordination.
When gay people get married, they are in many ways operating with a clean slate. There may be power inequities between wife and wife and husband and husband, but instead of being elevated to something akin to Betty Friedan's "problem that has no name," it's just something to be worked on between partners.
This is not to say that Earhart's version of marriage bears a closer resemblance to gay unions than straight ones (plenty of gay marriages involve eating dinner on TV trays while watching "60 Minutes," just like straight marriages), but it shares this with the gay variety: It requires some imagination, and conscious choices. Despite her plea for an early escape clause, Earhart wasn't thumbing her nose at marriage as much as customizing it. She was honoring the institution without surrendering to it.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides, it's likely that some aspects of Earhart's out-of-the-box marriage — the kind in which big assumptions (like having children) and small ones (like who does most of the driving and who nags from the passenger seat) — are treated more like decisions than inevitabilities. Everyone might do well to take a gayer approach to their nuptials, starting with not taking them for granted.
As much as marriage can sometimes feel like a cage, "attractive" or not, it's worth remembering how hard some have fought to break in.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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