Disclaimer: I am a cisgender white woman writing from my own Western-centric viewpoint of marriage.
“You belong first to your father
Then to him who
– Adrienne Rich
When my parents got married 26 years ago my mother kept her maiden name. Despite this, mail constantly arrives addressed to “Mr and Mrs Castles”. Telemarketers get similarly confused, and my mother takes great delight in telling them “no one by that name lives here” before hanging up.
Names are incredibly important. They mark your identity. As are honorifics: when females sign any official document, goes to the doctors, or boards a plane, they are required to identify their marital status – a male, on the other hand, never have to. While names are important to everybody, traditionally it has been women who have had to give up their names, and still today, women’s names are often secondary to their father’s, husband’s, or family name. Historically women have been denied the opportunity to hold on to the name that gives voice to their individual identity and experiences. Marriage was a way of silencing women behind the name and face of a man; any action a woman performed, anytime she spoke, she first had to think of her husband, his reputation, and his name. Still today, in feeling the need to define themselves through someone else, or through an institution, some women are giving up some of their agency, some of their individual power.
Section 4AA of the Family Law Act 1975 now provides for de facto relationships if two people – whether of the same or opposite sex – are living together on a genuine domestic basis. People in a de facto relationship are entitled to the same rights as a married couple under Family Law, including those relating to financial and custodial disputes. De facto relationships, therefore, provide couples with legal rights without the historical baggage of ownership and disenfranchisement that is inherent in marriage.
So why, then, are people still getting married?
Do we get married because our parents did? Because our families expect us to? Because men ask us to? Because society tells us to? Or perhaps, as Aziz Ansari brutally suggested in Master of None, we simply get to a certain age and get married to whomever we’re dating because we think we should.
In 2016, IBISWorld estimated Australia’s bridal industry was worth $300 million dollars, growing by two per cent per annum over the five years previous. And while many get married for religious reasons, in the 2016 census showed that a third of the Australian population identified as having no religion. However, atheism seems to have had no impact on the booming industry. Significantly, the media, many celebrities and Hollywood have unfalteringly promoted the idea that being in love and a big white wedding go hand in hand. And while I admit there are many positives about publically declaring your love for another person, and celebrating love with family and friends, we must acknowledge the dark side that continues to permeate within the institution of marriage.
Until the end of the 19th century, married women possessed no legal identity. The doctrine of coverture meant that when a woman was married her very legal existence was subsumed by her husband – not only did she no longer have any independent legal rights, but her very social identity was incorporated into that of her husbands. When a woman walks down the aisle she is literally passed from the hand of her father to that of her soon-to-be husband: she is a possession. A married woman’s very survival, therefore, was entirely dependent on her husband. She was not entitled to own property, enter into a contract or legal agreement, and any salary she did earn was his legal property.
Moreover ‘consenting’ to marriage meant unconditionally consenting to sex, with rape in marriage not recognised under law. As famously said by Lord Justice Hale, a husband could not be found guilty of marital rape “for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” Divorce did become available for men who were able to prove adultery – for women, adultery, violence and rape remained insufficient reasons for separation. When the Matrimonial Causes Act was finally introduced in 1857, women had to prove not only that their husband had been unfaithful but also that violence or sexual assault had occurred in order to obtain a divorce. It was only in 1975 with the introduction of the Family Law Act that ‘no-fault’ divorce was legislated for. The immunity for rape in marriage, however, wasn’t abolished in all Australian jurisdictions until 1994.
The idea of romantic marriage only became a widespread reality in the 19th century. However, the literature of this period written by women can reveal a great deal about the continuing harshness of the institution. While many people see Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as the ultimate romance, the reality is that Elizabeth Bennet ultimately marries Mr Darcy to escape the spectre of poverty– she would have been denied any individual property by unjust inheritance laws upon her father’s death. Ultimately, 19th-century romance novels had to end with a wedding to reinforce societal norms and return stability to the world of the novel, and also, because marriage was the only meaningful avenue for the ‘independent’ woman destined accept her fate as an object. The modern concept of love in marriage could not reform the institution – for every Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre or Margaret Hale who marries for love there’s a Catherine Earnshaw driven to death by two men, a Charlotte Lucas who is forced into marriage with a stupid and inferior man, and a Bertha Mason who remains locked in the attic by her husband.
There was, of course, societal pressure on men to get married as well. Marriage was often necessary to keep property within the family and also to produce heirs to continue the patriarchal line. By the 20th century, marrying, settling down in the suburbs and supporting a wife and family was how society perceived ‘manhood’. The nuclear family, therefore, became embedded in nationalism. Throughout the marriage equality debate, we have increasingly heard from the ‘no’ side about the importance of protecting family values and ‘traditional’ families. As Tony Abbott argued: “It’s marriages that create families, families that make up communities, and communities that build our nation.”
However, gender roles and double standards are inherently embedded in the ‘traditional’ family. While men were expected to provide for the family, women (even working women) were expected to take on sole responsibility in the domestic sphere. Similarly, a refusal, or failure, to conform to societal expectations posed different risks for men and women. While a man who remained single, or left his wife, might be judged, the consequences for a woman who remained unmarried were far more serious. While women gained important political and social rights in the first half of the 20th century and were no longer legally required to subsume their identity with a man’s, marriage remained the only acceptable end for women. As Betty Friedan argued in The Feminine Mystique: “There is no other way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.”
Still today, women – particularly women in power – are criticised for being unmarried. Former prime minister Julia Gillard was repeatedly asked why she wasn’t married, and was accused of being “deliberately barren”, as if her childlessness rendered her unable to effectively run a country. There’s also a whole new genre of romantic comedies – take 27 Dresses or Bride Wars as examples – which insist that women should ultimately aspire to marriage. One only has to Google “TV shows about wives” to see an absurdly long list of shows including Mob Wives, Army Wives and Sister Wives to realise how prevalent the obsession with women being married remains.
One might argue though, that marriage has fundamentally changed in recent history. Women no longer rely upon marriage for financial security. It is (largely) socially acceptable to have children outside of wedlock. Yet, many of the double standards inherent in marriage remain present today. Historically, because a woman literally became her husband’s property she was legally required to take his surname. Significantly, this legal requirement no longer exists, but over 80 per cent of Australian women still choose to take their husband’s name following marriage.
Publically this remains an issue. Following her marriage to Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham was widely criticised for choosing to keep her maiden name. So criticised, in fact, that she eventually took her husband’s name, becoming Hillary Rodham Clinton. By the time she ran for president in 2015, however, Hillary had completely dropped Rodham. And while there are now many reasons for changing one’s name – including wanting to have a ‘unified’ family surname – men are not the one’s making the change. In fact, a survey in Men’s Health in 2013 found that 96.3 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t take a woman’s last name.
Names are important, they mark identity. Names allow you to own and acknowledge your own experiences, story and achievements. Choosing to take your husband’s name is a loaded choice, embedded in a history of patriarchal ownership and control. Hillary Clinton was a highly successful lawyer and campaigner in her own right before her marriage. This is often overlooked and forgotten by people who claim she only got where she is because of her husband. In taking another person’s name you are relinquishing any public connection you have with your past identity and achievements. And while you may be creating a new identity, it is an identity which is also embedded with your husband’s history, and his family’s too.
Same-sex marriage might have the potential to fundamentally change marriage. Historical power discrepancies remain inherent in heterosexual marriage. but same-sex marriage has the potential to transform the institution, for all people. If ‘traditional marriage’ exists to protect ‘traditional families’ then marriage equality is a step in the right direction to promoting diverse families that don’t define people along gendered lines. Tony Abbott, in a recent article in the Australian, asked whether “a few years agitation should unmake a concept of marriage that … has always been regarded as the rock on which society is built?” My answer, Mr Abbott, is that I fervently hope so.
We need to once and for all break open and destroy the cage that marriage has placed women in. In voting no, in voting for ‘tradition’, in voting to ‘protect family values’, you are only reinforcing a patriarchal system that has been used to oppress and control women for generations. It’s true that voting yes is fundamentally a vote for marriage, but it’s also a vote to change marriage for the better. To acknowledge that there are diverse relationships, and that making a public declaration of love can defy societal norms, rather than reinforce them. Same-sex marriage fundamentally lacks the gendered disparity that is inherent in heterosexual marriage. And it’s for this reason that I have hope for change.