‘Sexist’ marriage under fire after court case
A heterosexual British couple have failed to win the right to have a civil partnership instead of a marriage. But the law may now change. Should the decline of marriage cheer us or worry us?
Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan live together with a young daughter. After a seven year relationship, they say they ‘lack legal and financial security’ — but marriage is ‘not right’ for them.
Their solution is simple: have a civil partnership, like those available to same-sex couples in the UK. But yesterday, they were denied the chance to do so at London’s court of appeal.
The defeat was narrow, and ministers are now expected to review government policy on the issue. Straight couples may soon enter civil partnerships in Britain.
That would merely be the latest change to the institution of marriage. Since 2014 the UK has been one of 21 countries to recognise same-sex weddings. The marriage rate has fallen steadily for decades in the UK — and the 27 other EU countries. Meanwhile the divorce rate has climbed. Most marriage ceremonies are now civil, not religious. And a British child in a wealthy family is more than twice as likely to have married parents than a poor counterpart.
Marriage is believed to be around 4,350 years old. For many centuries it was a strategic alliance between families, designed to produce legitimate heirs and rear children.
It had little to do with love. In the 18th century, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote: ‘a husband who loves his wife is a man who has not enough merit to engage the affections of some other woman’. It only became a monogamous, romantic union after the Enlightenment in the West.
And Steinfeld and Keidan consider marriage ‘sexist’ and ‘patriarchal’. Traditionally women were passed as property from father to husband, and had no say over who they married. Polygamy has been common in many cultures — and is still widely practiced in some parts of the world. Rape within marriage was technically legal in the UK until 1992. Some feminists continue to criticise rituals such as male marriage proposals and white wedding dresses.
So should we celebrate this ancient institution’s decline?
Good riddance, say some. It is better for people to have a choice, rather than feeling trapped by tradition. Marriage is constraining — and there is plenty of evidence that monogamy is unnatural. It too often leaves children to grow up in cold, loveless households. And it is irredeemably tainted by its history as a vehicle of male control over women.
Nonsense, say pro-marriage campaigners. It is impossible to make laws which recognise everyone’s special arrangements. Marriage has been the bedrock of successful family life for generations. Its history is a reflection on societies of the past, not the institution itself. Both children and society benefit when two people make this remarkable commitment to each other.
- Does marriage appeal to you?
- Should we celebrate or mourn the decline of marriage?
- Draw a mind-map with the word ‘marriage’ in the middle. Think of 10 words or phrases which come into your head. Explain your choices to a partner. As a class: were your reflections mainly positive or negative?
- Prepare a two-page fact file explaining: What is marriage? How has it changed through history? How it is different from a civil partnership?
Some People Say...
“Marriage does not work now because we live longer than we used to.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’m too young to get married. Why does this affect me?
- When you are older you will be entitled to get married — or perhaps to enter a civil partnership. Doing so will probably be one of the most important decisions of your life. Considering the benefits and drawbacks of marriage may also help you to understand some of the adults in your life better.
- But why should I care that fewer other people are getting married?
- The decline of marriage is a reflection on the society you live in, which may help to explain many things that happen which affect you. Perhaps you worry that it makes more people vulnerable, increasing problems like crime and dependency. On the other hand, maybe you think society benefits when people are freer to make their own choices and less tied to traditional social norms.
- Civil partnership
- A legal union similar to a marriage. Most of the differences are technical — for example, a civil partnership does not require a ceremony.
- Marriage rate
- In the UK there were 8.5 marriages per 1,000 people in 1970; in 2011 there were 4.5.
- In 2013 72% of marriage ceremonies were non-religious, according to the Office for National Statistics.
- In the UK, 84% of children in the richest quintile of society are raised by married parents. Just 40% of those in the poorest quintile are.
- In the 12th and 13th centuries the European aristocracy saw extramarital affairs as the highest form of romance.
- Having a sexual relationship with only one person at a time.
- The period in the 17th and 18th centuries when prominent European thinkers challenged long-established traditions. Philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau emphasised reason and individualism. This school of thought encouraged people to think marriage should make people happy.
- Having more than one spouse. In polygamous societies this commonly benefits men, not women.