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Marriage obsession reveals its true role

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Telling us monogamous marriage is best still serves the interests of our rulers, writes Judith Orr
Issue 2250

The gushing drivel that passed for media coverage of the royal wedding felt like a long advert for the institution of marriage. Every little girl apparently wants to become a princess.

It appears that even in the 21st century, women’s highest aspiration should be to be wrapped in white froth and walked up the aisle.

But marriage rates in Britain have dropped by a third in 30 years—though you wouldn’t think it from the numerous glossy wedding magazines, reality TV shows and the boom in expensive stag and hen parties.

The Tories promised tax breaks for married couples in their manifesto. Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith promoted a “marriage week” and the Church of England has made a video to encourage church weddings.

The decline in marriage reflects the changing position of women in society since the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Women can now control their fertility better, so can enjoy sexual relationships without the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy and a shotgun wedding.

The majority of women now work outside the home so have much greater financial independence than previous generations.

The foul and oppressive morality that deemed children born out of wedlock as “illegitimate” is much weaker. Now 45 percent of children are born to unmarried parents.

But the obsession with weddings shows the resilience of the ideology about women’s role in society.

People get married for many reasons—love, money, status, nationality, security or a fear of being alone in a world that seems to celebrate only coupledom. No one goes into it to join an oppressive institution.

But for the ruling class, promoting marriage is still very much about shoring up the family.

A woman’s role in society is shaped by her role in the family. Without this the state would have to take responsibility for caring for children, the sick and the elderly.

The family still plays a vital ideological and economic role in modern capitalism.

The symbolism of the wedding ceremony reflects its oppressive function. Women are “given away” by one man to another whose name she is expected to take.

Wedding vows traditionally include a promise by the bride to obey her husband and a commitment to have children.

A man could not be charged with rape of his wife until 1991—being constantly available for sex was seen as part of the deal.

Until the 1950s married women were barred from certain jobs and couldn’t sign a contract or take out a bank loan without their husband’s permission.

Women have fought hard to be treated as individuals, but despite many changes, many still find themselves defined by expectations of their role in the family.

Capitalism is a heartless system. We can feel isolated—with no control over our day-to-day lives. Our families and personal relationships can be the one place where we find comfort and support.

But we shouldn’t tolerate an ideology that says a relationship is more valid, and love more real, when the state gives its seal of approval.

It is progress that same-sex couples are recognised in law. But the fact that they are not allowed to be seen as “marriages” exposes the fact that the institution’s function is not about romance or relationships.

The state has no place in our private lives. It is a tool used to maintain the system and the status quo.

During the 1917 Russian Revolution, the huge battle to challenge women’s oppression included removing the role of the state from people’s personal lives.

When Leon Trotsky was asked if it was true that people in revolutionary Russia could get a divorce just by asking, he replied that a better question would be, “Is it true there are still countries where this isn’t the case?”

The revolution was ultimately defeated. But even in its fledgling years it showed its potential to liberate women.

What will personal relationships be like in a future socialist society? We don’t know.

The experience of making a revolution will open our minds and liberate us from the ideas of the past. Only then will we be able to make real choices about our lives.

But I’m prepared to bet one thing. Princesses in horse-drawn carriages will find their true destiny—in the museum of reactionary fairy tales where they belong.

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