Marriage for the 21st Century

[Content note: rape; homophobia; heterocentric and ciscentric culture.]

[Author’s Note: I am by no means an expert in law. The information I have used for this blog post has been acquired through other articles and personal testimonies. If anyone wishes to clarify a particular legal position that would be appreciated. It’s also worth noting that the discussions today and tomorrow in parliament may mean that some things referred to in this blog post will have changed.]

So equal marriage. Gay marriage, same-sex marriage, civil partnerships, etc. is in the news a LOT at the moment. The third reading of the new marriage bill is going through parliament today and tomorrow. It’s brought a lot of homophobes out of the woodwork and caused me to swear at the radio more than once, but it’s also bringing about exciting opportunities to really change the institution of marriage and change it for the better. It’s a positive step forward and it’s good for me (a gay woman) to know that someday I might be able to get married in this country. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that, even if same-sex marriage becomes legal, the changes will be that radical.

Okay, so what are the problems with the same-sex marriage bill? A huge problem is that sex is legally defined as a penis inserted into a vagina (PIV). This effectively means that legally speaking a lot of gay people aren’t or have never had sex. (Not all, as obviously not all women have vaginas nor do all men have penises. There are also many Gender Studies 101 points to be made here: people have had sex with partners of different genders; bisexuality and other people on the spectrum exist — ‘they’re here, they’re queer, get used to it’;  oh and of course many heterosexual couples choose not to have PIV sex.) This means that marriage laws and civil partnerships involving gay people don’t require consummation of a marriage through sexual intercourse. It also means that legally, gay people may not to be able to use adultery as a reason for divorce unless the person playing away had PIV sex. There is actually a line in the proposed bill that says “only conduct between the respondent and a person of the opposite sex may constitute adultery for the purposes of this section”. This is obviously ridiculous and needs to be changed, but we also need to be aware that it’s being used by the anti-equality brigade as a way of arguing against and delaying the same-sex marriage bill. It’s important to realise that many heterosexual couples divorce on grounds of adultery even when there has been no PIV sex.

Basically this shit is complicated. Ideally I think a lot of feminists would like a re-evaluation of how we define sex by law and within our culture. (For example, it’s not legally rape unless it’s PIV [Edit or PIA]. Oh and our old favourite: that sacred mythical concept of virginity and purity.) But it’s also worth considering why marriages have to involve sexual consummation at all. If two people want to declare themselves publically partnered, to make someone their next of kin with all the rights and benefits that involves, why is it the law’s business if they have PIV sex, or indeed any type of sexual intercourse? The requirement by law for consummation to validate a marriage also adds another dimension and expectation to a marriage: that those within it are required to have sex and may feel obligated. Marital rape is now recognised and illegal in this country, but unhealthy attitudes towards consent remain tied to marriage. Furthermore, there are many asexual people in romantic relationships who may wish to get married. Not to mention those people who would like to make close personal friendships into next of kin ties; what right do we or the state have in saying they can’t do that?

Those writing the new law have also spent very little time considering the implications of the same sex marriage bill for trans* people. Currently married trans* people have to get their marriages annulled upon legally transitioning to the “opposite” gender; those marriages that have been annulled will not be reinstated. Furthermore, when trans* people go to get their Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), they will have to get their spouse to consent in writing to the GRC. If, that is, the marriage was originally considered an ‘opposite sex’ marriage. Those who married as a ‘same-sex’ couple will not have to have their spouse along to give legal consent. Presumably, because same-sex couples aren’t as worried about becoming legally in a heterosexual relationship, while heterosexuals need their privileged status protected. Oh, and all this is only in reference to binary-identified trans* people; nonbinary people can still not legally get married if they wish to be recognised as nonbinary, as the definition of marriage does not include people who do not identify as either male or female.

There are other problems connected to old-fashioned, outdated laws and legal requirements with marriage that feminists also need to be aware of and try to change. For example, I was made aware recently that on marriage certificate and legal documents you are required to put your father’s profession but there is no space for your mother’s. This is obviously outdated but actually becomes ridiculous when you learn that you can put a stepfather’s occupation down, even if they were only married to your mother for a brief amount of time during your childhood. There are other issues too: a friend of mine amicably split with her husband yet legally has to prove that they’ve been living separately for two years before they are able to divorce. This seems ridiculous; surely if two consenting adults can enter into a legal contact of marriage, they should be able to get divorced if both happily consent to the split. Even if one spouse wants to leave and is unhappy in the marriage, they should be able to do this without jumping through legal loopholes. Though I understand that a lot of the legalities of divorce were brought in to protect a vulnerable partner, people should be able to divorce simply because the marriage is no longer working. The Netherlands has the right idea in this regard, where simply the irreparable breakdown of a marriage constitutes grounds for divorce.

For many feminists of course, the institution of marriage is a patriarchal institution so tainted that they would much rather have a civil partnership that doesn’t have the same historic baggage. However, the new proposals make no changes to allow heterosexual couples civil partnerships . Same-sex and heterosexual couples will continue to be perceived differently in the eyes of the law.

I don’t want same-sex marriage to be delayed; I want same-sex couples to be closer to equality as soon as possible; however, we do need to keep pushing for a law that is up to date and relevant. Same-sex marriage is a positive step in the right direction, but making same-sex marriage legal should not be seen as the end of the process. What we really need to do is properly overturn and re-evaluate marriage, divorce and definitions of sex for the 21st century.

Love is Love
Text: Love is Love, Regardless of Gender. Support Marriage Equality at www.c4em.org.uk 

*EDIT* A lot of people have been expressing the general thought on this post, why do we need marriage at all? Well mainly what we do need is the ability to define who is our next of kin. Our first point of contact, family visiting rights, inheritance rights, the right to make decisions in regard to health care, the right to live in your partners country. These are all things that people in same sex relationships have lacked for a long time. These are not things to be dismissed. What we call it, I’m not too bothered about. Though I think we should always challenge it when same sex relationships are seen differently in the eyes of the law.

References:
Diva magazine, April 2013. Article: Putting the sex into equal marriage. Kim Renfrew.

Autostraddle, December 2012: Faulty Deflowerings, UK Lawmakers Trying to Define Sex. Gabrielle.

Sarah Brown’s Blog, January 2013: Same-Sex Marriage Bill — Transgender Implications.

Related reading:
Jessica Valenti: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women

International Workers’ Day

Today is International Workers’ Day, so I found a good series of videos on the relation between feminism and working class women, and feminism on the left, by Those Pesky Dames. Feminism is often followed and participated in by more upper and middle class women than working class women. In these times of austerity, with women facing the brunt of the majority of cuts in services, it is vital that activist groups both on the left and in feminist circles include the voices and actions of working class women. Feminism needs to be more accessible to those without a university level education or time on their hands to do lots of research online (which, due to health problems and having such time on my hands, is how I managed to get to grips with some of the academic language). Anyway, the Dames’ video playlist says a lot of things better than I can, so give them your time and YouTube hits. 

On matters of why feminism is needed in the ranks of socialism in the UK, there is this, which as a socialist (non-affiliated with any party) saddens and angers me.

May Day bank holiday is coming up! Unfortunately, for us in the UK we may not have a bank holiday on the first Monday of May for much longer as the Conservative Government in 2011 plan to move the extra bank holiday in May to October, and May Day has come under their sights as the May bank holiday to be cut. There is more on the international history of May Day on the page, and is well worth a look as a jumping off point. 

Also, in an interesting twist, I found this article on the socialist feminist roots of International Women’s Day, founded in 1909! 

In Solidarity,

Pix

Is energy a feminist issue?

First things first: what do I mean by ‘energy’? In the simplest terms, something we use to make machines work. Common examples are combustible fuels (e.g. gas, petrol, paraffin) and electricity (you’ll be needing some of that to read this!), though electricity is usually generated by burning fuels, so you’re just having the fuel burnt a long way away from you.

“Why did it take most of human history, until the late 19th century, for feminism to get going?” I believe the answer is one of power, electrical power.

To assess whether or not energy can be considered a feminist issue we need to look at the history of energy and feminism in parallel with each other. The first major energy boom in the developed world was during the 19th century during which coal was being exploited to run steam engines and furnaces for industrial uses, powering the industrial revolution; however, this energy was not available at home, unless you were both extremely wealthy and didn’t mind having lots of spinning axils inside your house! (Yes, some people did try it, it didn’t last long). The key here for women was that this energy was only available in male-dominated spaces: factories, ships, mines, trains. With women still confined to traditional gender roles they had no access to this power until the advent of electrical power stations in the early 1880’s and Nikola Tesla’s invention of the alternating current system. Power began, starting with the rich and large businesses first, to enter the home and into the hands of women.

Historically men seeking to repress women have had to find ways to keep women busy. Near constant pregnancy with plenty of children to look after has always been a common tactic, but for women without children, or in-between pregnancies, this isn’t enough to keep women in the state they wanted them in: too tired to think, too busy to do anything else and trapped in a box. So the go-to plan was never-ending busy work in the form of housework. Many good books have been written on women and housework from a feminist perspective, and they will give you a far superior account of this part of history than I will; however, for now let us suffice to say that doing all possible housework to perfection by hand is an all day all year occupation. Women in positions of wealth (well, their husbands’ wealth) have had access to a form of power to reduce housework for millennia: servants! Why did it take until the late 19th century for these women to get feminism really going? Remember, most suffragettes were from middle-class backgrounds where they had the finances to hire servants. Well, apart from reasons of wealth (being a rich woman beats being a poor woman, even beats being a poor man in many regards), class divisions, etc. women simply had either too many servants or not enough. Servants, being human beings, need supervision and as you get more wealth you get a bigger house, which needs an army of servants to keep clean and working, who need someone to manage the human resources, which once you get to that size is a full time job leaving you in the same position: too tired, too busy, and stuck at home. Too few servants and you had to spend any time you gain not managing them on doing the work yourself.

When electricity brought energy into houses it was very quickly realised by some entrepreneurial individuals that there was money to be made making new electrical machines to run off the new domestic electricity supplies. Most of these were machines that mechanised dull repetitive tasks which were invariably linked to housework. For example, the vacuum cleaner. It makes cleaning floors much faster and easier than doing it by hand with a broom and so saves a lot of time and effort. The first vacuum cleaners were powered by coal fuelled steam engines that came to your house on the back of a cart and needed a whole team of men to operate; electricity allowed for the engine driving the vacuum cleaner to be reduced down to a portable size and for it to not vent coal dust all over the inside of the house! Electricity wasn’t available to most of the population yet due to the sheer expense of the new system; however the upper and upper-middle classes soon found themselves saving money by hiring far fewer servants, now equipped with new electrical domestic labour saving devices, making managing servants a far less time-consuming task. This newfound time and energy allowed for women to dedicate themselves full time to their own pursuits. One popular pursuit quickly became being treated as human, hence suffragettes.

Work made Easier... and in half the Time with the aid of a Eureka vacuum cleaner.  The thrifty housewife uses the Eureka vacuum to clean her draperies. curtains, rugs and overstuffed furniture, making them all look bright and new. Call us for demonstrations.  Established 1871 Hardy's  GOOD FURNITURE LINCOLN

Work made Easier… and in half the Time with the aid of a Eureka vacuum cleaner.

After WWII, electrical power grids in developed nations began rapid expansion and integration, with most national power systems dating back to the 40’s and 50’s. Over this period of time the vast majority of homes, and certainly all homes in urban areas, gained a supply of energy that was rapidly becoming more convenient and less expensive, which brought with it the mechanisation of domestic tasks to women of increasingly lower income households. This meant that by the late 1960’s a large amount of female labour had been freed by the increased productivity of performing domestic tasks, which as households were still normally financed by a man’s income alone meant this time was to be spent, in most cases, as women pleased. Note this is the same time that the female consumer as a general marketing idea came into force. Previously it was thought the only women worth marketing to were the wives of rich men, but now with more free time and husbands with the highest average wages compared to the cost of living the world has ever seen, an opportunity for profit was created, something that would also not have been possible without the mechanisation of ordinary households.

This surge in mechanisation of domestic tasks provided a second large scale release of female labour potential, which was used in part to drive the second wave of feminism that was being built upon post-war ideas about gender, sexuality, etc.

Currently, feminism is still benefiting from ever increasing levels of mechanisation, reduced working hours and faster cheaper communications to discuss ideas, apply political/economic pressure and to coordinate feminists causes across the globe, many of which are in developing nations that are in various stages of reaping the benefits of industrialisation. But all this is still underpinned by the same system that we have been using for over a century, and with increasing resource pressures and climatological issues presenting us with new challenges to face our energy system, I believe this has been for some time, and continues to be a feminist issue.

This is also a kyriarchal issue. With many developing nations generating much of their power from coal and putting exponentially increasing number of cars on roads, it would be a piece of supreme hypocrisy for the developed world to say, “You can’t have all those things we’ve had for so long, the carbon cost is too high.” But we can’t ignore the issues at hand, which is why I believe that it is imperative for any feminist group, especially an intersectional one, to support the development of practical solutions to these issues, whatever they may be, as things could go very badly if we just bury our heads in the sand. If energy starts running low, who is going to end up being cut off from the supply first? I’ve seen the contingency plans for what national governments plan, and minority groups will be hit hardest by even the earliest and least drastic stages.

This is one of my cases for putting literal power in the hands of the people, taking this vital underpinning of our societies out of the hands of rent seeking companies and into the hands of the people who would be most affected by the system breaking down.

Further reading:

[1] “A woman’s work is never done: history of housework in the British Isles 1650-1950” by Caroline Davidson

[2] “Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age” by Julie Wosk

[3] “A New System of Alternating Current Motors and Transformers” by Nikola Tesla