MIDWAY: Marriage is good

I was recently on a discussion programme with a fully signed-up card-carrying feminist. “Damn,” she said, as we came off, “I said ‘husbands’ by mistake, instead of ‘partners’.” She’d made the ultimate faux pas — the assumption that couples must be married. But is it right when so many feminists have chosen to get married, that marriage should continue to be a taboo?

Marriage and feminism came to blows in the 70s. Germaine Greer branded married life “a legalised form of slavery’’ for women. Financial reliance on men made marriage synonymous with dependency on men. Together with divorce laws, this dependency made it very hard for women to leave marriages.

Marriages are reflectors of gender relations at large. Thanks mainly to the women’s liberation movement, greater equality between men and women has led to greater equality between wives and husbands. Now a set of assumptions has settled around marriage. Although it’s an undoubted achievement that women no longer have to marry, there’s still a stigma attached to being a spinster. Inequality is just as likely to exist in non-married relationships as in married ones. But most significantly, once children become involved, the idea that non-marriage is the key to equality can really be turned on its head.

The worry now for campaigners for women’s rights should be the close connection between cohabiting partnerships and lone parenthood. That women can parent alone is a triumph but this is blighted by the reality of lone motherhood. There’s nothing empowering about being left, penniless, holding the baby.

Pared down to its core, what differentiates marriage is commitment. A married family is not only more likely to remain intact than a cohabiting one, divorced fathers are far more likely to pay child maintenance than never-married ones. Marriage is more likely to bring about equality between partners.

The irony is that it seems to be some feminists who need to be converted to marriage. What’s stopping today’s generation marrying is not principle, but circumstance. They’re are not rebelling against an institution, they’re saving up for a house.