Is Marriage Still a Patriarchal Institution?

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“Even today, some traditions linger from a time when women were pawns of men to be given and taken.”

Words by Lauren Ballad

Image by Ashley Armitage, Styling by Laura Gordon, Makeup by Mollie Gloss

In June 2018, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan won a case they had been fighting for more than three years – their right to a civil partnership. Civil partnerships were created in order for same-sex relationships to be recognised by the government, since they were unable to marry until the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act came into force in 2014.

According to Steinfeld and Keidan, marriage wasn’t right for them. They claim that the institution of marriage is entrenched in patriarchal connotations, and in their commitment to equality, they did not wish to participate. They even seek to abandon the double-barrel surname tradition in favour of combining their surnames to create the family name Keidstein.

While it is certainly true that marriage has a history of inequality, is this still true today?

Throughout English history, marriage has been a transaction, often involving a dowry or ‘bride-price’. It was almost entirely negotiated by the husband and father of the bride, with the woman having little or no say at all. Until the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882, women were considered as one entity with their husbands, subservient and required to surrender all property. It must be noted, too, that many parts of the world have not progressed in their marriage equality as the UK have.

Even today, some traditions linger from a time when women were pawns of men to be given and taken. Many still ask the father of the bride for his permission to marry his daughter, the father of the bride often ‘gives her away’ to her husband during weddings, and wives usually take their husband’s surname.

It is clear therefore where Steinfeld and Keidan’s uncertainties come from. However, although the history of marriage is fraught with awful treatment of women, is it fair to still consider marriage as something inherently patriarchal?

When contrasted with civil partnerships, perhaps it is. Civil partnerships were designed for same sex couples, and thus the law was designed with perfect symmetry and equality between both parties. For instance, certificates of civil partnerships include the names of both parents of the parties, whereas certificates of marriage still include only the names of the fathers of the parties. Although marriage laws have been changed to ensure equality, there is something alluring about a new legal relationship that has not required the same modernising.