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Marriage: A feminist history

Why does anyone decide to get married in the 21st century? After taking that leap herself, Rachael E Lennon decided to explore the history, meaning and motivations around marriage

Illustration of married couples

Illustration by Lou Kiss

My wife and I walked down the aisle together in 2017, just three years after the first same-sex marriages began to take place in England and Wales. Planning a wedding in the infancy of same-sex marriage in the UK was tricky. Waiting for the inevitable moment of misunderstanding in venues, florists and dress shops. She. My fiancee is a woman. Being asked which one is the bride.

Six years later, and my new book Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage explores my motivation for joining this ancient institution. It looks again at the definitions, traditions and expectations of marriage that we’ve inherited, and it challenges a narrow and nostalgic vision of the past that continues to shape decisions today. More than half of all adults in the UK are married. Many more have been – or will be. While couples are marrying later and more people outlive their marriages, the vast majority of people around the world still choose to join the institution at some point in their lives. 

When feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem reflected on her decision to marry in 2000, aged 66, she remarked: “I didn’t change. Marriage changed.” In recent centuries, the history of marriage has been shaped by activists who have fought, generation after generation, to improve the lives of those who had been repressed, exploited or excluded by the structures set up around our most intimate of relationships. 

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My research into lived experiences of the institution of marriage took me to some dark places. Across Britain, and territories colonised under British rule, a woman’s existence as an autonomous person was almost entirely relinquished on her marriage, for centuries. The practice of coverture, drawn from Anglo-Norman tradition, meant that brides under British rule suffered a ‘civil death’ at their weddings, their legal identity automatically suspended under the groom’s. In ancient Rome, a wife had held the equivalent legal status as that of her husband’s child. For centuries, British law bestowed more power on children than on married women. 

Across class and religious divides, women found that the law would provide them with no protection from the men they married – and would give them no independent social or political voice. Husbands could take financial resources from the women they married and spend their spouse’s money as they pleased. Women found themselves with no rights to their own children. Until 1991, women in the UK had no legal protection from being raped by their husbands.

My research also revealed inspirational and hopeful stories of people who resisted, and forged new paths, achieving positive reforms. In Massachusetts in 1855, when suffragist Lucy Stone walked down the aisle to marry fellow abolitionist Henry B Blackwell, she read out a long statement protesting the presence of coverture in American laws. Fellow suffragist Susan B Anthony described Stone as “the first woman in the nation to protest against the marriage laws at the altar”. Stone amended her marriage vows and insisted on retaining her family name.

In 1871, when pioneer Elizabeth Garrett Anderson made the decision to marry, she was determined that her relationship would not restrict her ambition or limit her ability to pursue the career that would see her become the first woman surgeon in the UK, and its first female mayor. Alongside her sister, Millicent Fawcett, she campaigned for women to be freed from the heavy constraints that came with their marriages. The Women’s Liberation movement would pick up the baton in the 1970s. In the UK today, where women continue to earn less than their male peers, where they undertake 60% more domestic labour than their male partners, and more than twice as much childcare, feminists continue to resist legacies of gendered ‘wifely’ work that persist in perpetuating gender inequalities. A woman’s work is never done.

In my research, I enjoyed finding stories of same-sex relationships that set interesting and exciting precedents for my marriage to my wife. Beyond the United Kingdom, same sex marriages had taken place on every populated continent before they were repressed through European colonialism. 

In writing Wedded Wife, I discovered that marriage has existed in almost every society known to recorded history. But models of marriage have been so different that no single definition exists. It has been constructed, reconstructed, reformed and reshaped across millennia. As we shape our relationships, we can all continue to rewrite the history of this institution through the choices we make today. Marriage is, and always has been, what we choose to make of it.

Wedded Wife cover

Rachael E Lennon is a writer and social history curator.

Her book, Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage, is out now (Aurum, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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