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Seminar: Law and the Power of Feminism

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.




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