David Cameron has asked the Home Office to change the content of marriage registers in England and Wales to include details of mothers as well as fathers. It has taken more than a year of feminist campaigning to bring this issue to prominence, since Ailsa Burkimsher Sadler instigateda Change.org petition calling for mothers’ names to be added, in August 2013. Ending the invisibility of women’s identities in these historical documents is an important step forward, practically and symbolically, but there are many other elements of modern marriage that could be updated to achieve equality.
You might hope we were past the stage at which women were expected to sit around, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the man in their life to take full responsibility for steering their shared future, yet I’ve still heard tutted responses about “what a shame” it is and even “how embarrassing” when female friends have been the ones to propose. It is mind-boggling, in 2014, that there is still such a stigma around the idea of a woman in a heterosexual couple being the one to pop the question. Gone are the days of knights in shining armour and rescued princesses, so is it not time women were allowed to play an equal role in determining their own futures?
2. The looks obsession
The dress of your dreams. The heavenly hairstyle. Shoes! Shoes! Shoes! You can read a bridal magazine from cover to glossy cover without ever touching on a single idea outside of the all-encompassing importance of a woman’s looks on her wedding day. Sure, most will want to look nice, but our societal obsession with the beauty of the bride, from the toasts to the photographs, makes it easy for a woman’s personality and the commitment she is making, to get completely lost in superficial objectification. One instant way to remedy this? Turn another ancient, misogynistic tradition on its head and have the bride give a speech at her own wedding (and preferably plenty of other women too). At least that way she gets a voice, instead of being a demure, mute object of admiration.
3. Domestic chores
If we really want to talk seriously about marriage equality, it is not weddings we should be looking at, but marriages themselves. Analysis published by the Institute for Public Policy Research in 2012 indicated that 77% of married women do more housework than their husbands, while just one in 10 married men do an equal amount of housework as their wives. Those who think we have reached equality in 2014 may be surprised to hear that women are shouldering the burden of the equivalent of an extra day’s unpaid work per week compared with their spouses. And yes, the gender gap remains when women are working full-time.
Yet the idea of cooking, washing and cleaning as “women’s work” is an archaic norm that is so insidious it is difficult to challenge. On a recent school visit with a class of seven- and eight-year-olds, the children were quick to tell me that sport, politics and maths were all “boy things”. I asked them what they felt “girl things” were, thinking they might point to literature, or drama perhaps? My heart sank as they answered: “Cooking, cleaning, tidying.” Why such strong stereotypes at such a young age? Well, just look at the heavy gendering of children’s cookeryand cleaning toys, for a start.
Women also take on the majority of caring duties for children and other relatives. According to employment figures from April to June 2013, having a baby makes men significantly more likely to be employed but women far less likely, suggesting that this inequality may be having a major impact on women’s employment. New shared parental leave rulesthat come into force next year should help to alleviate the pressure on women to take on the lion’s share of caring for a new baby. However, prohibitively expensive childcare, a lack of flexible working hours and cultural prejudice still mean it’s far more likely to be women who pay the career-limiting price for having a family. And, of course, this inequality applies outside marriage too.
5. Decision making
One of the most commonly reported scenarios to the Everyday Sexism Project is a woman taking a phone call from a lettings agent, double-glazing salesman or bank employee who asks “is your husband in?” Or being told: “I can’t discuss this without your husband present.” The days of women in the UK needing a husband’s support to take out a loan or buy a car may be over, but the prejudiced assumption that men should control household decisions has not faded just yet, and it has a very real impact on women’s ability to run their own lives.