FeminismIdentity

Foucault spins in his grave: women as chattels


My partner and I have decided not to get married. We are reasonable adults who both work, own a home and a car, manage our money well, go on holiday, love each other and share a happy life together. We have talked the issue through and although I would never dream of writing my partner’s reasons in a blog post as I have too much respect for him, here are mine.

In some popular wedding ceremonies it is implied by the lines ‘Who gives this woman’ that the woman ‘belongs’ to someone, usually her father. It implies that during the service the woman is given to her husband, who would thereafter own her. In 1918 women over 30 were given the vote, and in 1928 women over 21 were given the vote. Until then, any women outside these laws were chattels of their husbands, meaning their husbands owned them. So, less than 100 years ago women were treated as object of ownership. Yet millions of couples every years go through a ceremony of ‘giving away the bride’ in order to reinforce this ideas of ownership of women. I, however, am an independent person who does not ‘belong’ to anyone, therefore being ‘given away’ would not really make sense.

I attended a wedding ceremony in 2005 where the bride promised to obey her husband. Afterwards I queried this and he told me that if she followed the social rules of marriage it would be OK and there would be no need to enforce the promise. Enforce? Really? I’m sure that there are many married people reading this blog who are very happy and in no way think of their partner as their property or responsibility, yet have actually contracted to this during the marriage ceremony. I’m not against anyone getting married, it really is none of my business. I would prefer it if people, particularly women, entered into this contract understanding exactly what they have agreed to, but I expect lots do and unfortunately are so entrenched in the traditional values embedded in society that they feel the expectations around romantic love are more important than equality expectations. But I feel punishing me for not getting married by taxing me extra amounts, when I have stated my reasons and these have not been taken into account, is discrimination. Because if the Conservatives win the general election, everyone who is not married will pay more tax than married people.

In any case, the purpose of my post today, as you may have guessed, is to celebrate the fact that white picket fence idealism is still alive and well in the Conservative party manifesto. The popular media are today carrying the story that the Conservative party will reward people who get married with a tax break. Apart from the obvious inequality of this (what about widows and parents who are left alone to look after a child – do the Tories really plan to punish someone whose partner dies or leaves them?) the promotion of marriage in it’s present patriarchal form is reinforcement of the idea of men ‘owning’ women.

I know, I know, this sounds extreme and controversial, yet of we take a closer look, is marriage actually ‘all that’? Lovely though it is to wear a nice dress and make a public commitment to your partner, the patriarchal undertones of marriage sound more sinister when we realise that in 2008 425,000+ people got divorced and one in five of these people had been married previously to someone else and that each of these divorces have been administered by a paid legal representative for each party. That’s a million legal transactions per year to transfer ownership. Why not simply issue women with log books so transfer of ownership could be made more simple and less costly for all concerned? So, if married couples are so much happier and socially adjusted than people who live together, why are nearly half a million people per year getting divorced?

The idealism of marriage is currently being constructed by the Conservative Party as a safeguard from the apparently immoral and socially unhealthy ‘living over the brush’ which incidentally is a Pagan phrase for ‘jumping the brush’ or making a lasting commitment. Not so long ago in the UK people sealed their relationship by binding their hands together symbolically and jumping over a brush. This arrangement was reviewed annually and should either party decide not to continue they would jump back over the brush. This is partly how the image of a woman with a broomstick as a witch (or woman with power) has come to be pathologised, a women often tied the hands. So it becomes even clearer now why a legally controlling ceremony which opposes such Pagan brush jumping and hand tying would be necessary in patriarchy.

The real crux of the matter here is control. This is politics in its most shallow, manipulative form. The archaic notion that marriage will somehow equate to immediate social equity is as naive now as when it was first imposed as law. The history of marriage ceremonies as tools of social control, which I will not recount here, is embedded in an unequal partnership between a man and a woman where defined and expected roles are laid out for they way we should live. Where’s the equality and choice in that?

So, on to the Conservative Party tax break for married people. If ever there was a device for manipulation and control of the population, this is it. Bribing women to put on a white dress and pretend they are a virgin, sometimes for the second or third time? Paying men to take full responsibility for another person when they’re already supporting a failed marriage? Offering a financial incentive for women to enter into a contract of ownership? All sounds a bit dodgy to me. Did someone have a light-bulb moment where they thought, ‘I know, let’s get everyone to get married by offering them Β£150 quid a year. The British public are stupid enough not to really understand what this means and will fall for generating an income for everyone who charges for marriage and divorce services. Obviously ‘family values’ statistics would immediately increase, making us look very good indeed. Also the employment figures would look better because we wouldn’t have to count stay-at-home wives receiving a tax break as unemployed, would we? They could just disappear into the ironing pile with their Prozac and their bottle of gin. Men owning women, you say? What’s wrong with that – it’s the way it’s always been.’

But it isn’t. Foucault must be turning in his grave at this thinly disguised piece of political manipulation.