Civil partnerships for straight couples are a good start – but next let's abolish marriage altogether

As an atheist and feminist I was up until today faced with a choice: sacrificing my values to engage in an institution I vehemently disagree with, or giving up the social capital that comes from people viewing you as being in a committed relationship

Sirena Bergman
Wednesday 27 June 2018 17:20 BST
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We should be outraged that it’s taken this long to offer people an alternative to marriage
We should be outraged that it’s taken this long to offer people an alternative to marriage (Reuters)

I never thought I would sympathise with those who got teary-eyed with excitement over the royal wedding – who cares about two strangers signing a contract to not cheat on each other? – but perhaps we’re more similar than I thought: the news that Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan may soon be getting civil partnershipped is more exciting to me than many weddings of people who I’ve actually met.

Steinfeld and Keidan have been campaigning for this for years – as a heterosexual couple they had thus far been denied the opportunity to enter into a civil partnership, which applied only to same-sex couples. Because marriage is – unarguably – a sexist and patriarchal institution, they didn’t feel comfortable applying it to their relationship, but they also didn’t want to give up all the additional benefits and legal securities associated with it.

Civil partnerships in the UK are not historically a bastion of progressive views either: they were offered to gay couples as a consolation prize when a homophobic society deemed them unworthy of actual marriage. But at the very least it is a modern creation which allows for a rethinking of what love and relationships should be, and how we exist as partnered people in today’s world.

When you enter into a marriage you can do so with your own values – you can eschew the church, the white dress, the “giving away” of the bride from one man to another. But you cannot remove the institution from its roots. You can dress it up as progressively as you want, you can be a feminist bride and a feminist groom and quote Simone de Beauvoir instead of the Bible, but you cannot have a feminist wedding.

Unsurprisingly, this seems to be complicated for men to comprehend. Perhaps because when they get down on one knee and kickstart the spiral of capitalist madness that modern weddings seem to be, they’re not faced with the emotionally exhausting task of explaining why they’re breaking with endless traditions which were created in order to oppress them.

Oliver North compares gay marriage to slavery in 2014 speech

As an atheist and feminist I was up until today faced with a choice: sacrificing my values to engage in an institution I vehemently disagree with, or giving up the social capital that comes from people viewing you as being in a committed relationship (apparently merging your life in every way does not equate to commitment unless you spend tens of thousands of pounds on a party to prove it).

If I decided to get married I would be referred to as a “bride” (from the German braut, meaning “to cook”), I would have a “husband” (from the Old Norse husbondi, meaning “master of the house”). If you think etymology is irrelevant, have some modern-day semantic misogyny instead: women who are unmarried become “spinsters”, while men remain “bachelors”; many institutions and publications still refer to women as either Miss or Mrs – including our prime minister who surely has more relevant characteristics than her marital status; “single” or “unmarried” mothers are routinely vilified, while fathers are portrayed as heroic. The Church of England only realised it was problematic for women to promise to “obey” their husbands in 2006.

Given that the whole concept of marriage – from its roots of treating women as property to the myriad sexist traditions still commonly upheld today – goes against the basic principles of feminist values, the fact that the government has fought tooth and nail to avoid offering an alternative should be deeply worrying.

Earlier this year it was reported that ministers spent £65,000 fighting Steinfeld and Keidan’s court case for no apparent reason. Much like the absurdity of denying marriage to same-sex couples, there is literally nothing to lose by allowing civil partnerships for heterosexual ones, unless of course you specifically want to reinforce outdated patriarchal values.

Married couples are entitled to tax breaks, they’re exempt from inheritance tax and pay reduced income and capital gains taxes. Given that the average wedding in the UK costs £27,161, it seems unlikely that most married people are in more financial need than their unmarried counterparts, and none of these benefits are means-tested, so one can only infer that the government is so desperate for people to get married that they are willing to bribe us into it, but not offer us an option which reflects our values.

They will tell you this is about “family values” and “stability”, but the figures reveal this to be disingenuous: one in three marriages still ends in divorce. Those in power want us to remain obsessed with marriage because it benefits them to promote the status quo, and condemn anyone who steps away from it as “radical”.

We should be outraged that it’s taken this long to offer people an alternative to marriage, and that it’s had to come from the Supreme Court rather than the government. But now that civil partnerships are legal perhaps it’s time to dispense with the concept of civil marriage ceremonies altogether. Those who have a true desire to buy into the religious origins of marriage can do so of their own volition, but our laws should not be based around a made-up concept which the capitalist machine has conned us into believing is about love.

Language, symbols and presumptions are important and relevant – they subconsciously legitimise outdated and discriminatory views that we’re fighting so hard against. We cannot collectively be pushing for gender equality with one hand, and with the other thoughtlessly buying into a concept which works to oppress women, by placing their value on their appearance and “purity”, by silencing them while the men give speeches, by treating them as property whose fate must be decided by their father, whose very identities must be given up to accommodate a man’s, whose job it is primarily to procreate.

Women should not be forced to implicitly endorse these views in order to access the privileges that we have arbitrarily decided that “committed” couples are entitled to, and thanks to today’s ruling, which went some way to righting the historic wrongs of our patriarchal society, we won’t have to.

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