I don’t usually comment on celebrity doings on this blog. Or much of anywhere else, for that matter, because, really who cares? But a recent event got me thinking about a classic romance situation: David Letterman finally married the woman he’s been living with for over 20 years, Regina Lasko, a woman who bore him a child five years ago. A woman who used to work for him and who does not have either a significant fortune or career, or as far as I know, any independent life aside from him.
Maybe this woman is a strong, self-respecting person who does not need a marriage certificate to be confident in her man’s love for her and for her child. Maybe he has been asking her and asking her, and she finally agreed. But I don’t think the power dynamic works that way. Not when the man is very famous and rich, and the woman is not. No, the power has been entirely in his hands. I don’t consider this a happy romantic situation. I consider it a depressing story that at best metes out justice to the wronged woman.
How can I be a card-carrying feminist and still talk about a wronged woman? Aren’t women independent and capable and so on? Of course. But I am a realist, and men still hold most of the power in our society, as they do in most other cultures. Letterman by his own account was the one who has held out and held out. Which means that there is a good chance that she’s just another doormat, who has waited and waited to be officially valued, like Patient Griselda.
Never heard of Patient Griselda? The tale is from Boccaccio, and before him, Petrarch. An aristocrat marries a girl of lesser status (sound familiar?), and treats her like dirt for years, heaping more and more indignities upon her, and even taking her children away from her. She does nothing. (Well, realistically, what can she do? He has all the power.) She doesn’t complain. Finally, after many years of this, he rewards her by at last acknowledging that all of his tests of her have proven her merit, and he gives her the status their marriage entitles her to. Granted, there is something about being a martyr to which most women are conditioned to respond. I’ve talked about it before. The martyr story is some kind of working out of women’s inferior strength or power vis-a-vis men. It’s weakness taken to the nth degree, until weakness itself becomes a strength. Many men have been baffled and defeated by women’s weakness, by our ability to take it and take it, and survive anyway. Even so, when I see it played out as a modern, real-life story, I am not happy.
Marriage is a public commitment. Between a man and a woman, it’s a public proclamation of the man’s respect for the woman. And it’s an acknowledgment that she is actually a major part of his life and not just some convenience for his sexual or procreative urges. A woman who lives with a man and has a child by him and has no other career has already made her commitment. Marrying him is not a major leap for her. It’s a major deal for him. And that’s why, call me old-fashioned if you will, I believe that marriage is essential between men and women. Because, given that the woman is already committed, so the man should be also. If a man doesn’t value you enough to marry you, why be with him? And what kind of message does it send to a child when the father won’t even marry the mother?
Yeah, yeah, so maybe they took secret vows before a Buddhist shrine 20 years ago. Or they went to a park and stood under a tree and recited promises they’d made up. It’s not the same as saying it in public for the whole community to know. It’s not the same as making it legal, which still has significance if one person is ill or injured, and the other person needs access or decision-making authority. And there is the matter of inheritance, too, although with Americans spending more than we earn, maybe many people won’t have much to leave as estates. Letterman will. Regardless, a spouse has rights that a non-spouse does not. Why else are gays struggling to gain the right to marry? They know that being married is better than not being married. Unlike a lot of people in our culture who are in denial.
So, I’m happy that David Letterman finally did right by the woman he apparently loves, and the son he very publicly loves. Now, would the rest of you who are in long-term, seriously committed relationships please get married? I promise you, I won’t ask when you’re going to have babies, or why the wife isn’t changing her last name to the husband’s, or why one of you isn’t converting to the other’s religion. Or any of the other awkward questions from strangers and the demands from family that get put upon people who do marry. I’ll just congratulate you.