Friday essay: can marriage be feminist? – a ‘hopeless romantic’ says no, but a same-sex newlywed says yes
There is a deep and complex history of feminist thought and activism around marriage.
There is a deep and complex history of feminist thought and activism around marriage.
Early in my career as a gender studies scholar, I was asked to give some “expert” commentary on whether it was possible to have a “feminist” wedding. Without any specific research or personal expertise – never a real barrier in dial-a-quote land – I insisted of course it was possible. I provided a handy list of ways a feminist bride could subvert the dominant wedding paradigm.
Since then, I have been contacted by the media to discuss marriage more than any other topic. This is not surprising: marriage is one of those perennial hot-button topics and guaranteed click bait.
However, apart from sharing my thoughts on my ambivalent love of the reality television show Married at First Sight, I’ve mostly declined these requests. I just don’t have anything new or interesting to say about marriage – including as a feminist.
I’ve never been married, nor particularly wanted to, apart from some idle daydreaming in the early days of new romance. Even then, the fantasy usually involves eloping. Nor, as the eldest daughter of first-generation European migrants, have I ever been pressured to marry.
My parents tied the knot in a registry office, stopping by a photography studio on the way home, to mark the occasion with a serious photograph in which neither smiled. We were too poor to attend the lavish weddings of friends and relatives in the Balkan community, where nothing less than a brand-new white good was acceptable as a gift.
Among my cohort of Generation X friends, hardly anyone got married – unless it was to help secure a visa for international study and travel. The few weddings I attended in my twenties (what should have been my peak period) were usually conducted in a spirit of semi-irony. (It was the 1990s.)
This is not to say my friends were averse to “settling down”. Most of them have had long relationships – some of them very happy ones – with children and houses and shared assets, the whole shebang.
Since marriage equality was achieved in Australia, I’ve had the great pleasure to attend several queer weddings, each one uniquely delightful and moving. There is perhaps no more generative place to discuss marriage as a social institution than at the wedding reception for two people who grew up believing they would never have access to legal marriage.
For every declaration of “love is love”, another guest matches it with a reflection on homonormativity. The historian in me has wished I could have recorded these conversations, but at the time my priority was getting back to the dancefloor.
At these lovely queer weddings, I am sometimes identified as some kind of spokesperson for feminism. What do I think? Is marriage irredeemably loaded with hetero-patriarchal baggage?
Maybe the champagne is to blame, but what pops into my mind at those moments are more trivial episodes in the long history of “feminism and marriage” – like the intense media interest following feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s getting married for the first time at the age of 66, back at the turn of the century.
More recently, we saw former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard retrofit her opposition to marriage equality while in power as some kind of feminist act, rather than the political manoeuvre it clearly was.
There is, of course, a far deeper and more complex history of feminist thought and activism around marriage, including campaigns for women to acquire or retain their rights to property, paid work and their nationality after getting married.
Some of this history is canvassed in two new books by feminists on marriage. Clementine Ford is avowedly against it, while British feminist Rachael Lennon recently married her now-wife.
Their respective books, I Don’t: The Case Against Marriage and Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage, are accessibly written and pitched at a broad audience. Each turn to history, explore popular culture and litter their investigation with personal stories, including their own.
Clementine Ford insists she is ‘hopelessly romantic’. Photo: Nix Cartel/Allen & Unwin.
Lennon and her wife “made the decision to marry alongside the choice to become married”. Her wife wanted recognition as a parent of their children “without jumping through legal hoops and navigating additional paperwork”. Lennon, even (or perhaps especially) after having been a bridesmaid six times, knew she “wanted a public celebration”.
Inevitably, with two women getting married, there were “moments of misunderstanding in florists, venues and dress shops”. Together, writes Lennon, they “shook off some of the patriarchal expectations of marriage – though we still felt them”.
Ford, meanwhile, has never been married, though she’s had long-term relationships, including with the father of her son. As a young adult, she worked in a pub that regularly hosted identikit weddings, or “carbon copy festivals of heterosexuality”, seeding a grim view.
In researching her book, however, Ford is shocked when an ex-boyfriend reminds her she once told him if they ever got married, she’d take his surname. As she was in her early twenties at the time, Ford concedes:
It did sound like the kind of bullocks I might have said when I was a newly gestating human and enjoying the feeling of watching myself be in love. I’m sure I would have framed it as progressive at the time, probably preparing to brag about it the same way people do about their alternative weddings.
These days, she rarely goes to weddings as a guest: like her, most of her friends are unmarried.
Lennon and Ford each reference the key text on the topic, historian Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage: A History, From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005). The notion marriage should be based on mutual love and desire, and freely chosen by both parties, is a relatively recent and by no means universal idea – as captured by Coontz’s subtitle.
Rachael L. Lennon.
“Around 200 years ago, most societies around the world saw marriage as simply too important to leave up to the choice of two people”, writes Lennon, drawing on Coontz. These days, Ford writes, “cultures in which marriages are arranged are sneered at, while the women who still come with a price on their head are pitied. We would never diminish love that way, or women!”
It’s a promising line of argument, but only fleetingly developed because Ford, unlike Lennon, resists cross-cultural analysis or examples, including within Australia. Nor does Ford consider how the mainstream success of the Netflix series Indian Matchmaking has opened up a wider international conversation about arranged marriages.
Lennon identifies a cultural shift from the late 18th century, evident in the life and work of Jane Austen, as she tracks the rise of the notion marriage should ultimately be about love. Austen’s celebrated novels “set a romantic bar in popular culture”, writes Lennon, “but the social and economic pressures on middle-class women to marry are always present”.
On “a cold evening in 1802”, Austen herself, aged 26 and dependent on the relatively modest income of her father, accepted a proposal from family friend Harris Bigg-Wither, only to change her mind the next morning.
By the middle of the 20th century, Lennon continues, “most young people in Britain would not only aspire to be in love with a fiancé but expect to be”. But, as Lennon foregrounds, the history of marriage – particularly as decreed by religion and the law – is also one of exclusions on the basis of class, gender, sexuality, religion, race or disability.
Ford doesn’t consider how the success of Indian Matchmaking has opened a wider international conversation about arranged marriages.
As the idea of marriage for love became more entrenched in the West, so too did the gender binary, the separation of the spheres, colour bars and anti-miscegenation laws. At the same time, European colonial expansion “restricted and homogenised marriage definitions around huge swathes of the world”.
In 1918, the Australian government, building on existing Protection Acts in all states, passed the Aboriginals Ordinance, restricting marriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people under their jurisdiction.
Ford mostly leaves such histories untouched, making the argument that “as a white woman living in Australia, I couldn’t possibly speak for cultures outside of my own or assert expertise that I don’t have”.
Instead, she purposefully focuses on the “experiences of white, middle-class women” because they “have been instrumental in establishing the idea of success in marriage as a sign of economic status and moral value, which in turn upholds hierarchical power within the patriarchal system”.
Possibly aware she may be negatively targeting her core constituency, Ford makes sure at numerous points to emphasise it is “systemic oppression” she wants to combat and criticise, not “personal actions”. “Contrary to what some may think,” insists Ford, “I am quite hopelessly romantic!” (On this note, in her last book How We Love: Notes on a Life, published in 2021, Ford compellingly argued for an expansive and capacious definition and experience of love.)
The plot and path of marriage gives each author a structure to roughly follow, from proposal to wedding to what happens or could happen next, including divorce. Both point out the “traditional wedding” or “marriage” as we understand it is a recent invention.
Lennon wryly notes history “is not full of men, century after century, popping the question down on one knee in a carefully choreographed performance”. The proposal is a 20th-century invention. For Ford, the most odious forms are the big, flashy public ones.
The proposal is a 20th-century invention. Photo: Jesus Arias/Pexels.
Ford cites the example of her friend Bridget, whose ex-boyfriend proposed while they were a plane crossing the Atlantic: at “their heart, proposals are an act of entrapment, and there’s nothing quite so inescapable as a tin tube 30,000 feet above the ocean”.
Queen Victoria is described by Ford as one of history’s most successful wedding “influencers”. Fittingly, she features in both books. When she married Prince Albert in a white gown in 1840, she launched a “tradition” of brides wearing white. She also inaugurated the big, expensive and elaborate wedding as the default standard for the aspiring middle classes – and, adds Ford, revitalised Britain’s lace industry.
Lennon aptly describes the wedding of Victoria to Albert as “Britain’s first celebrity wedding”. Widely publicised around the world, its influence – via colonialism and the modern press – extended far beyond England itself.
And while Lennon laments the enduring hold that “Queen Victoria’s tiny waist and sexual purity” maintains on the bridal industry in the UK and globally, she also stresses the merging of local traditions and western influences in Vietnam and Japan. In China, India and much of Asia, she points out, “red is the bridal colour of choice”.
The burden of wedding planning, Lennon and Ford agree, continues to fall largely on women – or at least, is expected to. In the run-up to opposite-sex weddings, writes Lennon, “gender looms large, with parties of segregated people coming together to celebrate and prepare”.
Hen nights and stag dos, only a regular feature since the 1960s, have transitioned from “moments of quiet celebration to whole weekends”, perpetuated by a “massive industry telling us to make the most of these moments and opportunities”.
Hen nights and stag dos have transitioned from ‘moments of quiet celebration to whole weekends’. Photo: Jonathan Borba/Pexels.
Ford is especially scornful of what she labels the “wedding industrial complex”. Its history includes the highly successful mid-20th-century campaign in the US to revitalise the exploitative diamond industry by rebranding expensive engagement rings as an essential wedding-related expense.
Attentive to how marriage has oppressed women, neither Lennon nor Ford shy away from its worst manifestations and most enduringly sexist features. On this front, Lennon casts a wider net, which takes in child brides and bride kidnapping, to cite just two examples that still occur.
Until not that long ago, a woman lost her entire legal identity when she became a wife. (This is a strong theme for both writers.) The law of coverture was defined by British judge and Tory politician Sir William Blackstone in the 1760s: “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband”.
With British colonialism, their model of marriage became a major global export, writes Lennon. Ford points out this legacy can be seen everywhere, from “mechanics or tradespeople” who ask to speak to the “man of the house”, through to men who kill their wives and “believe in their hearts that these women belong to them”.
Both draw their reader’s attention to how long it took to get rape in marriage recognised by the law – in Australia’s case, into the 1990s. Criminalisation of rape in marriage here started in South Australia (which partially criminalised it) in 1976, with New South Wales the first state or territory to fully criminalise it, and the Northern Territory the last, in 1994.
Ford is especially scornful of the ‘wedding industrial complex’. Photo" Dimitriy Frantsev/Unsplash.
As feminists writing avowedly feminist books about marriage, Lennon and Ford each pay some attention to feminists who came before them. They include Mary Wollstonecraft, who is widely though not uniformly recognised as the first modern feminist.
She was also no fan of marriage, at least as it stood in 1792 when she published A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, an instant bestseller in England. “If marriage be the cement of society”, wrote Wollstonecraft, “mankind should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship.”
Wollstonecraft subsequently married writer and political theorist William Godwin – who, as a foundational anarchist, lambasted marriage as a “system of fraud” and the “worst of all laws” – after she became pregnant in 1797. This is interpreted by Lennon as evidence even the strongest and most vocal critics were not immune to “the social pressures and punishments set up to induce marriage”.
Ford celebrates Wollstonecraft’s “wild life”, including “multiple lovers out of marriage”, having a child with one of them and marrying “a fellow radical” who “inadvertently destroyed her reputation by publishing a posthumous tribute that described in detail what a cool bitch she was”.
That Wollstonecraft died giving birth to her second daughter (Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein) is for Ford a “terrible irony”, given her resistance to “the entrapment of marriage and all the risks it posed to women”.
Despite their shared features, however, Wedded Wife and I Don’t are strikingly different projects. Lennon, a “bisexual, feminist woman from a working-class background in the UK”, was inspired by her own marriage to her now-wife to ponder the institution’s “problematic inheritance”.
A social historian and curator, Lennon deftly blends an “intimate history” centred “on the stories of women and those who challenged gender norms” with a “whistle stop tour of 500 years of modern marriage, within the United Kingdom and beyond”.
At the vanguard of the same-sex marriage revolution, Lennon finds plenty of evidence to support her case that “nothing about marriage is inevitable, natural or fated” – and that it’s perpetually open to adaptation.
While hardly a groundbreaking revelation or conclusion, Lennon impressively backs it up in her jaunty and thoughtful survey of marriage practices across time and place, with special attention to its queer history, legal and otherwise.
And if on occasion, she slips ever-so-slightly into what Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones (in “singleton” mode) called “smug married”, who can blame her? Lennon’s marriage sounds happy and harmonious, and she mostly resists evangelising for the cause.
Ford, meanwhile, as her title “I Don’t” makes obvious, is having none of it. Marriage is the paradigmatic patriarchal institution and cannot be queered or saved.
“Marriage,” she argues, “entrenches gender inequality between men and women while advertising heteronormative goals to queer people”. She is a “marriage abolitionist” who “cannot in good conscience support an institution that has enslaved women sexually, reproductively, financially and domestically”.
There is no doubting Ford’s ambition. While aware “you can’t summarise six thousand years of patriarchy in ninety thousand words”, she has a go anyway. The obligatory targets and greatest hits are all there – the Ancients, Christianity, the witch-hunts, the Western legal tradition, Piers Morgan.
So are contemporary examples of dud husbands and fear-mongering misogynist podcasters collapsed into the composite figure of “Kermit McDermit”, as are retro comedians (with “a name like Rocket Dickfingers”) who continue to peddle tired “take my wife” jokes to their receptive audiences. Ford’s contempt for such men is occasionally amusing, but more often tedious.
When dealing with the most challenging material – like accounts of coercive sex and rape in marriage that have been shared with her – Ford is sensitive and suitably outraged. But she stops short of providing the proper treatment such disturbing, yet commonplace phenomena demand. Instead, I Don’t is padded with unnecessary detours and digressions, including a lazy primer on what feminism has been blamed for throughout its history.
I Don’t is an unapologetic polemic, which begs the question of who Ford is trying to persuade. The author of three previous books, including Fight Like a Girl (2016) and Boys Will Be Boys (2018), as well as a podcaster with a strong social media presence, Ford has established a dedicated readership.
Presumably, some of these readers are like me – self-identified feminists who are, at best, indifferent about marriage. Or if they are married, or plan to marry, or want to be married, such a reader is probably already quite aware marriage has historically been a somewhat oppressive and sexist institution – and often still is.
That they want to get married anyway invites more reflection on its appeal beyond blaming popular culture, society and the patriarchy. Maybe Ford and the publishers anticipate some new readers who are curious about “marriage abolition”. It’s hard to tell.
In any case, “marriage abolition”, as advanced by Ford, is a far sketchier proposition than other recent and ongoing feminist mobilisations focused on the abolition of some of society’s most entrenched institutions and structures.
For example, feminism aimed at dismantling the carceral system is a growing international movement that includes Australia’s Sisters Inside Inc. and is showcased in the bestselling manifesto Abolition.Feminism.Now.
Books like Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family (2019) and Abolish the Family: A Manifesto (2022), both by British scholar, writer and activist Sophie Lewis, invite readers to imagine what a world without the family (as it is currently constituted) would look like.
The best polemics and manifestos dare readers to imagine alternative and better worlds: alas, I Don’t is not one of them.
One major reason I Don’t fails to persuade is that there is a tension between Ford declaring her book the “start of a much bigger conversation” about marriage on the one hand, and as a “profoundly hopeful love letter to women” on the other.
Conversations about marriage are happening all the time – for instance, about ethical non-monogamy, living-apart-together, blended families and friendly divorces. But surprisingly few of them appear in Ford’s book. And while plenty of queer theorists share her view that marriage remains fundamentally heteronormative no matter who enters it, she names none of them.
As a genre, polemics defiantly resist the obligations of “balance”. But without the voices of women who, like Lennon and her wife, have reclaimed and reinvented marriage to suit themselves, in I Don’t, Ford runs perilously close to accusing women who decide to get married for whatever reason of false consciousness.
As polemic, the success of I Don’t largely rests on accepting Ford’s two related claims. Firstly, that the “modern woman is told that she needs marriage” and this pressure remains overwhelming. Next, that the stigma of not getting married – of becoming the modern version of a “spinster”, the “Cat Lady” – continues to loom large.
As a “spinster” myself (without any cats), I am part of an ever-increasing cohort of women who will never marry, have never really had any desire to, and have somehow remained largely immune from social pressures – including from the enduring stereotype of the “Cat Lady”.
I embarked on I Don’t sharing most of Ford’s criticisms of marriage. And while I still share them, I also found reading it such an alienating experience that by the end, I was tempted to get married just to prove her wrong.
As an alternative, I would recommend Lennon’s nuanced history, or even better, historian Alecia Simmonds’s recently published Courting: an intimate history of law and the law. In her captivating history of people – most of them women, but not all – who sued their prospective marriage partners for breach of promise, Simmonds audaciously suggests there might be merit in reviving and updating breach of promise in the civil law as a way to advance an ethics of intimacy.
It’s the sort of cleverly developed argument you don’t have to necessarily agree with to be excited by. I just wish there had been more of those arguments in I Don’t.