Lee Comer’s punchy book is like an attempted jailbreak. Forged in the crucible of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the early 1970s, when women were becoming more vocal and organised than at any time since the Suffragettes, it is an attempt to free her sisters kettled by the institution of marriage. For her, wedlock is a shackle – a device to keep men dominant and women enslaved.
Marriage is seen as one of the key structures holding up the patriarchy. As ‘the only known mechanism’ for compelling people to perform the function required of them in society, it ‘makes women into wives and mothers, and men into breadwinners’. These roles are locked in at an early age and leave boys with the freedom to follow their dreams, and girls to submit to a life of drudgery and child-rearing, whatever their talents or desires.
Looking back at the 70s, it often strikes us here in the sunny uplands of the 21st century just how laced with casual racism and sexism society was. Such attitudes were often the defining flavour of TV and tabloid and, as Comer shows, they were also reflected in officialdom and authority. Referencing the Newsom Report into education of 1963, for example, she points out that it regarded marriage as a key vocational aspiration for girls and gives an anecdote of a school taking that advice to heart by having school leavers perform a mock wedding ceremony every year.
As late as 1972, the British Medical Association felt able to issue its latest Family Doctor leaflet entitled Getting Married with a section headed ‘He’s Got to Come First’. Here, the new bride was told that the secret of a lasting marriage was for her to subsume her identity entirely into his, to take an interest in his whippets or his stamp collection or whatever and never to embarrass him. “Don’t want to be right so much that you insist on putting him in the wrong, especially in public. And, anyway, could it sometimes be your fault?”
Understandably, Comer is almost apoplectic when describing these particular manifestations of male entitlement. For the most part, though, she paints a steady, convincing picture of marriage as a means for keeping women’s potential and right to self-determination under lock and key. Drawing on interviews she conducted at women’s groups around the country and a range of sociological and feminist writing of the time, it’s a book that retains an impressive clarity of language and purpose. There is no jargon and the ways in which marriage has been used by society to trap and diminish women are methodically laid out.
If times change, it is almost always because people organise and push against incumbent power. In the five or six years before this book was written, the Women’s Liberation Movement had held three national conferences establishing and refining demands, there had been three major strikes by women workers seeking equal treatment, a Miss World contest had been spectacularly disrupted and Spare Rib and the Virago Press had started publishing.
Change took the form of Acts like the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act, both of 1970. The marriage bar that allowed employers to dismiss women when they married or if they became pregnant fell into disuse, although women had to wait until 1999 before they were granted statutory maternity pay. And, to the horror of moralists, the contraceptive pill – which had, since its invention, been restricted to use by married women – was made available to all.
Since Wedlocked Women was published, there have been significant changes in the ways in which we live together and raise families. Despite the fears of some politicians in recent years, marriage is unlikely to disappear. It is true that open cohabitation, or living in sin as it used to be known, has risen from 1% of couples in the 1960s to 17% in the 2010s, and that same-sex marriages are now approved in law. But perhaps the fact that nearly 80% of weddings are now conducted outside of the Church in civil ceremonies conducted around personalised vows that rarely feature the word ‘obey’ shows that the shape of marriage is changing.