Saturday, 3 May 2014

Why I support the campaign for mother's names on marriage certificates

Marriage. Whenever I say the word in my head, I hear it in the voice of Peter Cook, as the vicar in the Princess Bride. Mawwiage.

Marriage has been hitting the feminist headlines in the last week, with campaigner Caroline Criado Perez raising awareness of how when one gets married, one’s father’s name, and not mother’s, is added to the certificate. It’s another example of how women’s lives are undermined and made invisible across our culture. It’s another example of the erasure of women from public life. It’s another example of state-sanctioned sexism. And it is a reminder of how, historically, marriage was the exchange of property (woman) between two men (father and groom).

Whatever my own personal feelings about marriage are, I support this campaign wholeheartedly. It is completely wrong that in 2014, the mother’s presence in her child’s life is deemed as insignificant, and that women’s roles are erased on the legal documents that have a lot of meaning – both emotional meaning, and practical.

However, as with any feminist campaign, this new effort to achieve some greater marriage equality has been met with criticism. One criticism is that this is a trivial matter compared with other, bigger issues threatening women’s equality today. Other criticism is that rather than changing components of marriage, we should be focusing on overthrowing the institution of marriage itself.

Let’s deal with the first criticism first – that this is a trivial issue. To that, I refer you to the minutes of the International Feminist Committee meeting on January 1st, when we all agreed that the ONE campaign we would focus on this year would be mother’s names on…oh wait what? Did that meeting not happen? Is there no such thing as the Feminist Committee? And it is in fact possible to campaign on more than one issue at once, both as a movement and as an individual? Well knock me down with a swan feather from a bridal head dress.

Of course there are other issues facing women and feminists today. And of course feminists are able to campaign on both this issue and other issues at the same time. But we also need to think about how so many of issues around women’s inequality in a patriarchal society are linked. For example – the erasing of women on legal documents is linked to the general dismissing of women’s lives, the efforts to push women from the public back into the domestic sphere, and the overwhelming issues around women’s representation in public life. It’s all connected, and that’s why these ‘small’ battles are important. They create movement towards wider change, bigger change. It’s not ok that mothers are erased from marriage certificates because it is not ok that women’s contributions are ignored and undervalued. It is not ok that the state still colludes in this kind of sexism, and when they're questioned about it, they answer with a shrug of ‘tradition’. In short, this campaign’s aim has meaning and life beyond the immediate question of marriage certificates. It speaks to our battle to improve women’s representation.

The next criticism is that rather than trying to change marriage, we should do away with marriage all together.

I do have sympathy for this position, as someone who has always been rather ambivalent about marriage. But I also think it’s not going to happen any time soon, really, is it? And to many, many people, marriage means something important. There are arguments to be made about demolishing structures, but there also arguments to be made for taking those structures and campaigning for change within them. That is what this battle is about. It’s recognising the historic problems of marriage in the UK, pointing to where those problems still exist, and taking action to change it.

Similar arguments were mooted during the equal marriage campaign – that it was a distraction for lesbian and gay people to campaign to get married, that marriage was problematic and should be rejected. Again, although I have sympathy with the argument against marriage as a patriarchal institution that has caused very real harm to women for centuries, the arguments made by some people against gay marriage really upset me. Why? Because I felt that often they ignored the reality of many people who had experienced state-sanctioned homophobia, and campaigned against it (I should emphasise that this was not the attitude of all activists who argued against equal marriage on these grounds, just some of them). I grew up experiencing the impact of institutionalised homophobia, from having gay parents under section 28, to the impact on women I know of banning gay people in the military. Throughout my childhood, I grew up under a legal system that actively defended its right to blatantly discriminate against LGBT people and encouraged that discrimination. I grew up knowing what it was like for the state and society to deem your family to be ‘wrong’.

To me, the campaign for equal marriage was about challenging state-sanctioned homophobia, the continued insistence by the state to deem gay relationships as ‘second class’, and all the baggage that comes with that. That really matters. For the state to say that it would no longer accept this specific example institutionalised homophobia - this was an important step. Because whether you believe marriage is a damaging patriarchal system, or an expression of your love to your partner, it’s what we’ve got. And as long as we have it, I believe we can and should campaign to make it more equal.

Just as the exclusion of lesbian, gay and bi people from marriage was an expression of state-sanctioned homophobia, the refusal to allow mothers to sign their names on marriage certificates is an expression of state-sanctioned sexism. I want to tackle such sexism wherever I find it, even if it is in institutions I find problematic. And that’s why, as an unmarried, un-engaged, not-sure-what-my-plans-are woman, I support this campaign.

Sign the petition.

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