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This week, I attended an amazing seminar given by Professor Rosemary Auchmuty on “Law and the Power of Feminism: how marriage lost its power to oppress women”. This post is a straight summary of Auchmuty’s talk, without commentary from me.
The title was a twist on a 1989 book by Carol Smart called “Feminism and the Power of Law”, in which Smart suggested that law was not that important for feminism and women’s liberation. The irony is that in the last 20 years, there have been an increasing number of legal solutions to the problem of sexual discrimination, most recently legal protection for cohabitants and same sex relationships.
Auchmuty was interested in the decline of marriage in the UK over the past 40 years. (She emphasised a lot during the talk that her research focused on marriage in the mainstream population in the UK and her conclusions cannot be transposed to specific groups in the UK or to other countries.) She felt that no one had given a satisfactory explanation for the decline and why unmarried cohabitation had trebled in the last 30 years. It was too simplistic to put it down to a change in social attitudes, because the obvious question is why did social attitudes change.
The status of marriage has changed from the only possible option for women to just another lifestyle choice. Auchmuty’s conclusion is that feminism is the most important contributor to the decline. The general lack of pressure to marry, which came about a result, has done more to give women independence than any appeal to legal protection.
However, Auchmuty said that the decline in marriage couldn’t have happened without a number of pre-requisites. Firstly, there was the sexual revolution, a more permissive society, the Pill, greater openness about sex – it gave as much freedom to men as women. Secondly, there were the higher expectations that came with better education and more jobs. Finally, there was the reform of the divorce laws – as the marriage rate has declined, the divorce rate has increased, meaning that fewer and fewer people are actually being married each year.
Feminism (or second wave feminism) grew out of the increasing pressures on women as a result of the above changes. Auchmuty argued that its four pillers – equal pay, equal education/jobs, contraception and abortion on demand and 24 hour childcare – would enable women as participants in society. It’s that that caused the decline to happen. Obviously, progress has been made on all of these but there is arguably some way to go.
The way that feminist ideas spread was through consciousness-raising. It started with small groups of women coming together to theorise and strategise about women’s shared experiences. As more and more people came together, what started off as “sounding ridiculous” became mainstream.
Women’s improved economic status and prosperity came about not through legal protection but because women ignored the law. Auchmuty’s said that this showed that women needed to take charge of their own destinies and were not victims needing protection.
It’s possible that I may have missed out some of what Auchmuty said in my notes. Also, I am writing as someone who had limited knowledge of feminist texts. It’s possible that none of the above is new to experienced feminists.
I have posted previously how, as a conservative evangelical Christian, I have continually struggled with what the Bible often quite clearly says. For various reasons, no where has this been most difficult than on the question of homosexuality. Until today, the closest I could adjust my more natural liberal way of thinking to God’s Word was that it was all about the role of sex. God created sex specifically for marriage, so anything that undermined the sanctity of marriage was a sin. But then I was left with the question of “what about gay marriages and civil partnership?”
I raised this issue with a friend from church over lunch and he provided a very interesting way of looking at it.
So, according to Genesis chapter 1, God created humans “in his image” and male and female. This would seem to suggest that an intimate relationship between man and woman is suppose to reflect the intimacy within the Trinity. But more importantly, since God created men and women to be equal but different, an intimate relationship between man and woman reflects the diversity of the three persons of the Trinity.
Why is this important? Well, Jesus didn’t die for the sins of only one group of people. He died for the sins of all people, because God sees and loves us all equally, regardless of our differences. No one is any less loved because he or she is different from other people.
The heterosexuality of marriage therefore is very much about equality and diversity. Indeed, Hegel describes marriage as the purest form of love, which is a dialectic – an interdependence between two contradictory entities. Therefore, it can be argued that a homosexual marriage only represents equality but not diversity, as if somehow we are all the same. Indeed, if anything, homosexuality perpetuates separation whilst purporting to celebrate diversity.
The Law Commission has launched a public consultation on whether pre-nuptial agreements should be legally binding. One of its hypothesis is that the binding nature of the agreement would lead to more marriages, because the couple can be certain that their own assets will be protected.
But surely a better question would be how legally binding agreements affect the divorce rate. The problem with such agreements is that, no matter how it could be justified on the grounds of ‘you don’t what the future holds’, the couple are presupposing that they will divorce. So, when they promise to be together until death, it is a deception.
All relationships, in the broadest sense, are a dialectic. That is, they are based on the principle of mutual recognition between two contradictory entities. Each entity has its its own interest (self-interest) and it desires that its self-interest is recognised by the other. But that is only possible if it recognises the other’s self-interest – if it doesn’t, there is no other to recognise the self. the whole essence of relationships is sacrifice or submission. The self must sacrifice its self-interest to recognise the other, in order that the other can recognise self by sacrificing itself.
Now, of course, in many relationships, the self-interest is not wholly sacrificed and this allows for the ending of the separation of the relationship. But the expectation of marriage is that it is for an eternal relationship. In using a pre-nuptial agreement, the submission between husband and wife is not complete. Instead of two coming together to form one unit, you have two coming together to form two.
You could argue that not having pre-nuptial agreement hasn’t exactly stopped divorces from happening. But I would suggest that it is not the prenuptial itself that causes breakdown but the underlying, even latent, problems in the relationship which the prenup comes to symbolise. If you get to the point where you are considering asking your fiance(e) to sign a prenup, I would suggest that you examine why it is you need legal protection for what should be lifelong commitment.
Today’s story in the Times about this supposed ‘conspiracy of silence’ about the apparently significant number of British Pakistani men in gangs grooming and sexually exploiting young, white girls does raise a question about Tamil tradition.
When a Tamil girl reaches puberty (i.e. has her first period), a ceremony is performed to mark the ‘attainment of age’. This generally happens between the ages of 11-14, unless the girl is a late developer. I always assumed that this is like Bar mitzah in the Jewish culture, designed to show that the girl is no longer is a child and is now a young woman.
But I have just learned today that the historical, traditional reason for this ceremony was to show the community that the girl had reached marriageable age. Of course, this would have made sense historically because Tamil girls usually married (or were married off) young and puberty didn’t really happen to the age of 16 or 17. But that was back in the day. In the UK, where one cannot get married until the age of 16 and first periods usually happen around the age 12, I would question whether this attainment ceremony is still rational. Why not wait until the girl reaches the age of 16 when she can marry legally or until she is in her twenties or thirties, once she has gone to university and established a career? The other alternative, which has a basis in tradition, is to carry out the ceremony on the wedding day.
Finally, the perpetuation of this tradition actually is misogynist, because there is no equivalent ceremony for when boys reach puberty, which I presume would be when they are able to ejaculate for the first time. Do boys not become young men? On the other hand, ejaculation is pretty much within a buy’s or man’s will to masturbate. A girl or woman’s period is something that happens on its own accord and she had no control over it.