Zoe Fairbairns discusses YBA wife?



Zoë Fairbairns talks about the concerns she had about marriage as a teenager in the 1960s and her decision not to attend weddings as an adult. You can hear more about the YBA Wife campaign from Mary McIntosh.

Do you think the choices available to men and women today are the same or different to those described by Zoë Fairbairns?

Do you want to get married? Why is or isn’t this important? Is there an alternative you would prefer? Why?

Film credits

Producer / Director: Lizzie Thynne

Editor / Research assistant: Peter Harte



I had spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence rather dreading being a grown woman, because it seemed to me that as a grown woman one of two things was going to happen to you. Either you were going to get married, in which case you would be miserable for the rest of your life because you would be expected to give everything up or at least put it second, or alternatively you would fail to get married, in which case, although maybe you have some freedom and a nice career and maybe your own home, you would still be viewed as a failure and faintly ridiculous because you had failed at the most important thing which was to get a man. And these two alternatives were a source of great fear and anxiety to me, not least because the convention of the time was that as a girl you had to be completely passive in the process. You know, you weren’t supposed to ask boys out, you certainly weren’t supposed to propose marriage to them, so it was a matter of sitting and waiting and seeing what happened.

Well, in 1971, along with a lot of other women, I got hold of the then new book The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer and found this wonderful sentence. She said: ‘if women are to effect a significant amelioration in their condition, it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry.’ And I thought, refuse to marry! That’s another way of looking at it: it doesn’t have to be something that is either inflicted on you or you are deprived of, you can just walk away from it, and that was tremendously exciting and a moment of epiphany for me.

I don’t go to weddings, I haven’t been to a wedding since 1977 and I have no plans for going to weddings. Initially, this was because most of the weddings I had been to were hugely distasteful to me in their symbolism of the bride being given away as a form of property by the father - not the mother, by the father - to the sort of ownership of the groom. The expectation in some places that the bride would promise to obey, the expectation that the bride would take her husband’s name and also the legal situation, which didn’t change until 1991 which is not that long ago, that the husband had a legal right to have sex with his wife whether she wanted to or not. You could not be prosecuted as a man for raping your wife because you owned her. This is sort of completely irrespective of the individuals getting married or whether one imagined this man would ever behave in such a way. Of course, nobody expects that their beloved is going to behave in such a way. But I felt the way these ceremonies were set up, pretending that those things weren’t true, made them really distasteful to me. So the YBA Wife - spelt the letter Y, the letter B, the letter A and then Wife – campaign emerged from the fifth demand campaign, the campaign for legal and financial independence for married women. I think, you know, the thinking moved on: why stop at legal and financial independence, why be a wife? And just, it drew attention to the possibility that actually as women we don’t have to be wives whether literally or symbolically and that was at its height at the time when poor Diana Spencer got married to Prince Charles. And I can’t remember if we actually created the badge that said Don’t Do It Di but we certainly wore it, because this was a great festival of marriage and you know we had another view, in which I feel we were vindicated, but there we are.

Zoe Fairbairns discusses YBA wife?
23 - 24 June 2011
© British Library
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Marriage and civil partnership

Article by:
Sisterhood and After Research Team
Family and children

Until the 1960s a married woman took her husband’s name, promised to ‘obey’ him and often became economically and financially dependent on him. Find out how the WLM campaigned to change the ‘laws, assumptions and institutions’ about marriage.

Related people