Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation
Top

“Access to civil partnership is a feminist issue, and I won’t get married until it has been resolved”

civil partnership.jpg

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. 


katie russell

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.


Read more: “Let’s make 2017 the year we finally take action against sexual violence”


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.

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidon

Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidon outside the High Court in Central London 21 Feb 2017

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.

aaf

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.


Read more: “Women are scared to run alone, but running groups are not the answer”


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.

gay marriage

"Many people understandably regard civil partnerships with anger because of the resistance to same-sex marriage they were brought in to appease."

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.

Related

running-group-harassment-women.jpg

“Women are scared to run alone, but running groups are not the answer”

woman.jpg

“It is vital that MPs vote to end violence against women this Friday”

rexfeatures_7945761b.jpg

“Disgusting and overrated: we should all be the women Trump despises”

More

“Why Liar is proof that TV's depiction of rape is damaging to women”

The proliferation of rape in TV and film is a real problem for the representation of women

by Harriet Hall
17 Oct 2017

“We should all be angry that Laura Kuenssberg needs a bodyguard”

The BBC's political editor needs protection because of misogyny, pure and simple

by Ellie Mae O’Hagan
25 Sep 2017

“Proposals for women-only carriages are ignorant and retrogressive”

"Why not create a women-only nation state and solve the problem altogether?"

by Harriet Hall
24 Aug 2017

Why Taylor Swift’s sexual assault verdict is a victory for womankind

The pop star has completely changed the narrative

by Kayleigh Dray
16 Aug 2017

“The Boots morning after pill scandal shows the bias of contraception”

Why are women burdened with the responsibility of procuring and taking contraception?

by Jasmine Andersson
26 Jul 2017

“How pathetic sexists tried to tear down the first female Doctor Who”

Misogynists are terrified of Jodie Whittaker and everything she represents

by Kayleigh Dray
17 Jul 2017

“Love Island is proof that 'nice' is feminism's secret weapon”

Harriet Minter says it’s time we dispel the myth that being a feminist means taking no prisoners.

14 Jul 2017

“Rob Kardashian’s social media rampage isn’t funny. It’s revenge porn”

The Kardashian brother posted nude photos of his ex all over Instagram. This is abuse, not entertainment

by Moya Crockett
06 Jul 2017

“Why women are all beauty pageant contestants to Donald Trump”

“I bet she treats you well”

by Anna Pollitt
28 Jun 2017

“How sexists missed the point of this pivotal Handmaid’s Tale scene”

Offred was just getting her tits out for the lads, apparently

by Kayleigh Dray
26 Jun 2017