Last month a heterosexual couple won a landmark case for the right to enter into a civil partnership instead of a marriage. Kate Bradley asks how far are civil partnerships a new freedom, or do they simply show us how far there still is to go for real liberation?
On 27 June the UK Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favour of the couple who pursued the case, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, marking a shift in opinion from previous failed attempts. This time, the case was framed as a bid for couples with ideological opposition to marriage to get equality with same-sex couples, who have been allowed to choose between marriage and civil partnership since the Same Sex Couples Act was introduced in 2013. The Equal Civil Partnerships campaign has championed the cause for several years, and now finally, the terrain seems to be shifting. What this will mean for other heterosexual couples looking to get civil partnerships is not yet totally clear, but it suggests that heterosexual civil partnership may soon be legal for everyone in the UK, following 26 other countries in the world, including South Africa and Denmark.
The judges’ framing of the current state of affairs as ‘discriminatory’ towards straight couples is unhelpful, since it was anti-LGBT discrimination which led to the resistance to gay marriage in the past, generating the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage in the first place. Straight couples are not oppressed for their sexuality in our society. Nevertheless, there certainly was an inequity in law created by the new freedom of choice for same-sex couples between marriage and civil partnership, and this has now generated a new chance for heterosexual and bisexual people to shed a bit of the baggage of ‘marriage’ for themselves.
As a bisexual woman, it always seemed bizarre to me that if I ended up in a long-term partnership with a woman, I could get a civil partnership, and remain relatively free of the baggage of ‘wifedom’, the expectation of a wedding, or the history of women’s subordination to male proprietors in law. However, if I chose to partner with a man, I would need either to get married, to become a man’s ‘wife’ with all its symbolic meaning, or else stay in that little box on legal forms marked ‘single’, which changes my financial and material rights in law, as well as the way that people would view me: as a spinster, as unlucky, or as ‘still waiting for the right guy’.
So, in one sense, I welcome the news of the expansion of civil partnerships. It also shows how winning advances in one area – this time for LGBT rights with the introduction of equal marriage – can create contradictions which then put new arguments on the agenda. But for socialists, the new laws should come with further questions. How far are civil partnerships a new freedom, or do they simply show us how far there still is to go for real liberation?
The materiality of marriage
In the UK today, some protections for legally partnered couples provide a material security that socialists and radicals can’t sniff at. This is most evident in cases where couples include a British citizen and a non-citizen, for whom legal partnership – whether marriage or civil partnership – can provide a (small, uncertain) safeguard of legitimacy against deportation and visa expiry. It also helps couples to divide assets in law, receive legal benefits if bereaved unexpectedly, and attempt to create legally equitable splits. Additionally, tax breaks for married couples have often meant that couples are better off financially if they marry (or legally conjoin). After one partner in a marriage dies, the surviving spouse is also entitled to pick up a proportion of their partner’s pension, which an unmarried or unpartnered spouse does not receive. These pension payments can be absolutely crucial for the living conditions of the surviving partner, and they are provided equally in marriage and civil partnership for same-sex couples.
Most of these benefits are financial, and the need for them is rooted in material insecurity that arises from the structure of society under capitalism – from low-paid work to job insecurity to the rising cost of living. As authors in the book Social Reproduction Theory discuss, in the past, wage-earning was structured for many around the idea of the ‘household wage’, which is paid to a worker (usually a husband) and pays for his (or her) whole family’s living costs. This imposed its own power structure and maintained patriarchy in the home, effectively impoverishing women and their children if they wanted to leave marriages. Nevertheless, the household wage’s effacement over time has put a new pressure on people to marry. Now, couples, while nominally more equal if they are both earning, need more than simply their own wage to get by, and so they may be drawn to legal partnership to solidify their own finances. Famously, early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft insisted that in her marriage with political theorist William Godwin they would retain separate wings of the house so she could maintain her independence, but only a tiny proportion of people could afford such an arrangement. In fact, in major urban centres these days, even sharing a flat between two people can break the bank, so couples are pushed into shared rooms whether they like it or not.
Though there are perks, marriage also comes with material risks and complications. Around half of marriages end in divorce, which has its own associated costs, as well as adding a huge amount of legal bureaucracy to an already painful process of breaking up. For those in abusive relationships, marriage can be used to control and manipulate partners, and can make the process of leaving an ex-partner behind obstructively difficult. For trans people in marriages, the Spousal Veto in the 2013 same-sex marriage legislation actually made transitioning in law more difficult, giving legal partners a veto power over their spouse’s gender reassignment in an inexplicable and odd sub-clause that campaigners have been working to reverse since, even within the Conservative Party. This is because one of the listed grounds for annulment of a marriage is the “issuing of a Gender Recognition Certificate”, meaning that if a trans person changes their gender in law, their partners can end their marriage stating their new gender as a reason. These additions were specifically brought in in sympathy with transphobic spouses who might want a say in their partner’s gender, an undue and patronising power someone else’s rights and selfhood in law.
Get the state out of my bedroom
Civil partnership and marriage for same-sex couples do have some differences. For example, in a civil partnership you can have both your parents’ names on your certificate whereas, amazingly, when you marry you still only use your father’s: another reminder of the patriarchal system that marriage upholds. Even if a civil partnership would offer heterosexual couples the exact same legal protections as a marriage, it still assigns the state a level of coercive control over our intimate and personal relationships. It apportions us off into administrative units of two, the assumed basis of a future family. Society is built around this two-person family unit, which many Marxists argue is in order to ensure efficient social reproduction. In other words, the nuclear family unit is an efficient unit for creating workers and heirs for future generations of the working and middle classes, and ensuring the easy handing-down of property and inheritances after death.
Going back decades, feminists such as Lise Vogel have written extensively on the family unit, how it is rooted in capitalism, and its role in women’s oppression. In time, civil partnership could well prove to be a whitewashing of the darker purpose of the state’s involvement in our private lives: a consolidation of the power and control the state has in our relationships while quieting criticisms of the more contentious religious and ideological symbolism of marriage. The state’s policing and incentivising of particular kinds of relationship should be contentious, because they seek to control our behaviour and push us towards particular ways of living our life that hold the status quo in place. For me, the material risks – and my desire to keep my relationships out of the office trays of government officials – may well outweigh the benefits of any kind of legal partnership, civil or otherwise.
However, at least what the potential of a civil partnership allows is the ability for me to fight my ‘wifing’ by society even if I seek out the material security of legal partnership with a man. One fear is that if I become a man’s ‘wife’, I will be placed in that category – by my husband, but more importantly (since I can argue with my husband!), by society: by tax collectors, doctors, family friends and so on. To be a ‘married woman’ is such a loaded term, used to signify and protect a sexist order, the maintenance of monogamy, and wives’ own lack of freedom. I am already assigned the role of ‘woman’ – a diminutive of ‘wif-man’ from the Anglo-Saxon – I don’t want to have to be a wife as well.
My mum told a story of when she and my dad bought a house together for the first time in the 1970s. Keeping her ‘maiden name’ became almost impossible in the documentation because of a conservative solicitor who insisted that she sign under her married name. From then on she received letters for ‘Mrs Bradley’ well before she’d decided to use the name for her ease. The rash of misnamings spread across her life, and soon it was easier to be Mrs Bradley than to carry round official letters and confirmations that she was, in fact, still the person she had always been. Her right to be seen as separate to my dad slipped away. It’s worked out in her case, since they’re still together and those tax breaks came in handy, but I can’t help feeling that it was a compromise – a compromise out of which I got my father’s name and lost a vision of how I might live my life as an unpartnered person in law without being materially disadvantaged.
For true liberation, we have to find ways of restructuring relationships to enable people to truly and freely choose how they live, stripping back law to allow for the flourishing of different forms of relationships not so tied to the nuclear family unit. Where Marx fantasised about the “withering away of the state”, I fantasise about the withering away of the state’s interference in my bedroom.