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Monday 08 November 2010

Matrimony and its discontents

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 23rd August 2010

While we campaign for same-sex marriage and relationship equality, it's important to bear in mind that this institution has a problematic past.

Recently, British social historian Maureen Waller wrote an eminently readable demythologising analysis of marriage as it occurred in the United Kingdom over the last five centuries.

Modern, romantic and egalitarian marriage is a new invention. It didn't exist in the United Kingdom until the eighteenth century. Before that, women sacrificed the right to property ownership in their own right, were often forced to submit to domestic violence and spousal rape or marital infidelity, as divorce was almost impossible to obtain until the nineteenth century. This didn't stop independently minded upper class women from love matches, verbal sparring, economic independence or infidelity of their own. Unfortunately, there were many mercenary, monetary, parentally coerced, dysfunctional and miserable indissoluble relationships to balance that out.

If one did have a reasonably happy and egalitarian marriage, there was still the risk of childbirth mortality from breech birth, ectopic pregnancies or the strains of multiple pregnancy to surmount, due to the absence of contraception. As for domestic violence, to kill one's wife was merely a 'felony' for brutal husbands, while women could be burnt at the stake if they defended themselves against a violent spouse and killed him, at least until the seventeen-nineties. Other cases of wrongdoing included passage of STIs like syphilis or gonorrhea, due to the absence of protection from unfaithful spouses.

There are some harrowing stories here, like Lady Mary Eleanor Bowes arduous escape from her brutal porcine husband, ending in divorce after disclosure of horrendous domestic violence, ending in his life imprisonment. However, as Britain entered the nineteenth century, overdue changes accumulated. After campaigning from Caroline Norton, the Infants Custody Protection Act 1839 awarded presumptive custody to the mother of children. Her spendthrift violent husband had abused her even while she was pregnant.

In the 1850s, matrimonial property ownership and divorce reform were debated, although divorce reform occurred first, in 1857. However, two matrimonial property reform bills followed, in 1870 and 1882. After initial divorce reform, women took the initiative and rid themselves of violent, spendthrift and negligent parasite husbands after enduring years of their brutality. Some of these sorry specimens were Anglican ministers. Indeed, divorce court records are full of accounts of such inhumanity. Further divorce law liberalisation followed in 1878, as the Matrimonial Causes Act granted seperation and maintenace orders to battered wives. In 1912, the Royal Commission on Divorce recommended no-fault divorce, but women had to be satisfied with being able to divorce for adultery in 1923.

After World War II, the stresses of that conflict, prenuptial pregnancies, marital breakdowns, barrier and artificial contraception and womens waged labour all culminated in the introduction of no-fault divorce in the United Kingdom in 1969.

Social conservative opponents of same-sex marriage are being ridiculous when they romanticise that institution. Indeed, the institution in question has only survived due to the collective struggles of generations of brave and courageous straight feminist reformers. Arguably then, it is we who are actually defending that institution through introducing further equality and representative status into its matrix.

Maureen Waller: The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery: London: John Murray: 2009

Craig Young - 23rd August 2010

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