Thursday, 1 May 2014

This pair had a feminist marriage... in 1855!

On May Day in 1855 a man and a woman decided to spend the rest of their lives together in ‘an equal and permanent partnership.’ Revolutionary, hunh? Well, I have to admit that before I started this article I hadn’t heard of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell’s marriage protest either, but what a step it was on the path towards equality.

Until that point, and in fact far beyond (the first of four England & Wales Married Women’s Property Acts wasn’t passed until 1870), the doctrine of "coverture" meant a married woman lost all ability to own property, keep any salary she earned, sign legal documents and contracts, obtain an education without him upstairs’s permission, or, in some cases, face individual legal liability for crimes and misdemeanours – since obviously she must have been acting on her husband’s instruction. And, most significantly, it had an impact on a woman’s ability to retain custody of her children on divorce, meaning that whatever meagre power women had to leave a marriage was severely curtailed.

Prior to their marriage, Henry Blackwell and Lucy Stone made a dramatic departure from contemporary thinking. They signed a document declaring that ‘this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage, as refuse to recognise the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honourable man would exercise, and which no man should possess… We believe that personal independence and equal human rights can never be forfeited.’ This statement was read and endorsed by their celebrant, the equally admirable Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

By now, clearly, a great deal has changed. Women’s economic, social and family rights have developed exponentially, and Lucy and Henry’s protest sounds a world away. But hang on, now I think about it, it’s taken us a pretty long time to get here. It took until 1991 for the marital rape exemption (i.e. implied consent where the rapist is the victim’s husband) to be abolished. Only two years before, in the 1990 (that’s right, ladies, NINETEEN-NINETY) case R v Sharples the judge held that the rape could not legally have occurred even though there was a Family Protection Order in place to protect her.

As usual in these cases, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia were some way ahead of us. The Soviet Union (1922/1960), Poland (1932), Czechoslovakia (1950), Denmark (1960), Sweden (1965) and Norway (1971) all pipped us quite emphatically to the post. On the plus side, we got there ahead of Greece (2006), Chile (1999) and Turkey (2005). A big welcome to the fold goes to South Korea, Bolivia and Samoa – who all criminalised in 2013. No plaudits to Bahrain, Afghanistan, Tonga, Uganda and (rather surprisingly) Singapore among many others where it still isn’t a crime. And, most dishearteningly of all, only weeks ago, on 1 April, Lebanon passed legislation that actually creates a ‘marital right to intercourse.’ So there is some way to go on a global level.

And before we pat ourselves on the back too much for storming into the 20th century in 1991, let’s consider the prevailing attitudes towards women’s rights within marriage in the UK – that abuse is a ‘family issue,’ not an area for the government or police to interfere with; that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom, and if she strays out of those then it’s her husband’s prerogative to control her. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary highlighted this continuing mindset in its recent report of police responses to domestic abuse and Rashida Manjoo, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, issued a pretty unflattering statement following her recent trip to the UK.

Manjoo argued that these attitudes, with their highly damaging consequences, are a continuance of the everyday prejudices faced by women. That women’s lack of economic empowerment leaves them at the mercy of the sole earner in the house; that the media’s portrayal of women as victims or sex objects influences some parts of the population to stick to these limiting stereotypes as well; and that the constant grind of everyday sexism can cause women to lose their identity and sense of self – just as they did in 1855 through coverture.

Sadly, nowhere is this more evident than in the now-standard permutation of the traditional Judaeo-Christian wedding. The bride, in virginal white, is given away by one man (her father) to another (her new husband). In some cases (see: Duchess of Cambridge) she promises to ‘love, honour and obey’ him for the rest of her life. At the party afterwards, three men give speeches on her behalf: her father, her husband and his best mate. And when she leaves, she does so (at least in 80% of cases in the US) with a new surname that will forever bear witness to the fact that she now belongs to a different man.

Please don’t think I’m knocking marriage, or even the idea of a wedding. I think it’s a beautiful idea to have a big ol’ party with your nearest and dearest to celebrate the fact that you’ve found someone you love so very much you want to spend the rest of your lives together. But please let’s do so thinkingly, and update the ritual so that it reflects a world where marriages finally can be the equal partnership Lucy and Henry dreamt of.


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