Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. Here, feminist writer and activist, Katie Russell, explains why the institution of marriage does not serve women, and why true equality means civil partnership availability for all.
My ex and I had largely differing views on marriage. While it would be over-egging to claim we ended our relationship as a result of it, it would be a lie to say it wasn’t a key factor. And, ultimately, he married someone else.
Whatever disagreements they might have, this particular dispute is not apparently one with which Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidon have to contend. In 2014, united in their desire not to be married, the couple walked into a registry office in Chelsea to request a civil partnership, and were turned away by a sympathetic registrar who confirmed that performing the ceremony for two people of different sexes was against the law.
Two and a half years later, Steinfeld and Keidon, who both identify as feminists, are still fighting to enter a “social institution that will express how we see each other.” This week, despite three judges recognising a potential breach of the couple's human rights, they turned down their Court of Appeal challenge. Undeterred, the pair vowed to take their battle to the Supreme Court, and not alone; they're backed by the Equal Civil Partnerships campaign and 74,000 signatories to a Change.org petition.
On paper, marriages and civil partnerships are very similar legal unions between two adults. They grant largely the same rights in relation to inheritance, tax, pensions and next-of-kin arrangements. So why does the distinction matter so much to people like these two, when they've had the privilege of access to marriage - the option with higher symbolic status in many people's eyes - for far longer than same-sex couples who've had to fight for that right?
For starters, Steinfeld and Keidon take issue with the 'sexist trappings' that come with marriage. I, too, admit to finding these - the white dress to symbolise a woman's virginity, the bride being ‘given away’ to her groom, the tradition of only men giving speeches, the space for only fathers’ names on the marriage certificate - rather problematic.
I am too aware of the way marriage is still used as a weapon against women, both locally and globally.
Of course, this symbolism can be circumvented and often is at modern mixed-sex weddings, where traditional colour-schemes are disregarded, brides speak for themselves, and both or neither parties are ‘given away’. Many people marry in the spirit of subversion, staking their claim to marriage in spite of its centuries-long history of the treatment of women like property, re-appropriating it in the name of love.
It wasn't really the sexist symbolism or the patriarchal history that made me feel unable to marry my ex, though. For me, it was more that I was, and am, too aware of the way marriage is still used as a weapon against women, both locally and globally.
With rape within marriage only recognised as a crime in this country since 1991, I know how the shame, self-blame and fear that prevent so many sexual violence survivors from seeking support or even telling anyone what's happened to them can be compounded when a woman's rapist is also her husband.
I know how abusive men can use the social weight marriage carries as a tool to further control and coerce the 1 in 4 UK women who experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. I know that forced marriage has only been illegal in the UK since 2014 and that the Home Office admits the 1,200 cases recorded here annually are likely only the tip of the iceberg. I know how our immigration system makes it especially difficult for some women to escape a violent marriage. I know all this and it makes me loath to enter freely into an institution that ensnares and oppresses so many of my sisters, because I feel 'I am not free while any woman in unfree'.
I don't want to get married, as long as inequality between men and women persists.
None of this makes civil partnerships so great of course. Many people understandably regard them with anger and suspicion because of the resistance to same-sex marriage they were brought in to appease. And obviously they are no more immune to domestic violence and abuse than any other relationship. But they do offer an alternative to couples seeking legal rights and recognition who don't want to get married.
I've been to countless weddings. I was proud to give a speech at the wedding of two of my best friends, and sing at another’s. I usually cry.
But it makes sense to me because my feminism is nothing without sisterhood and solidarity. Its solidarity that makes me passionately support same-sex marriage, and its solidarity that makes me not want to get married, as long as inequality between men and women persists.
My feminism doesn't ask me to judge other women for making choices that are different from my own, but it does make me believe that all women should have the rights and freedom to choose between the same options. This is why I believe access to civil partnership is a feminist issue, whether it directly affects me or not.
Because, if I do fall in love again, I'd like to think it would be an option open to me, whatever my partner’s gender.
Katie Russell has campaigned within the Rape Crisis and wider women's movements for the past 15 years.