Marriage and civil partnership

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.
The ‘institution of marriage’ is deeply embedded in the culture of societies all over the world. It represents a legal and emotional (and in many cases, religious) union between a man and a woman. In the UK two people of the same sex have been able to register a civil partnership since 2005.

Zoe Fairbairns talks about the concerns she had about marriage and her decision not to attend weddings


By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1945, between nine and 12% of adult women were not married and many cohabiting, unmarried couples brought up children together. The destruction of so many thousands of lives and families during the Second World War perhaps heightened the wish for love and strengthened the idea of the family: nearly 500,000 marriages took place in 1940, compared with 270,000 in 1929. Numbers fell for the duration of the war because so many men were away, but between 1945 and 1972 marriages increased. From 1972 onwards numbers of marriages per year declined steadily, until in 2009 just 232,000 couples married. The trends towards lower marriage rates in recent years are closely associated with more extensive and open cohabitation, lower birth rates, the acceptance of birth outside of marriage, and improved educational and employment opportunities for women. In 2010 68% of marriages registered were civil marriages, which means they did not take place within the structure of a religion. It was also estimated that in 2011 one in six adults (17%) were cohabiting without marrying, compared to just 1% in the early 1960s. The total number of civil partnerships – officially recognised same-sex partnerships – formed in the UK since the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 came into force up to 2011 was 53,417.

What issues did feminists have with marriage?

Until the 1960s a married woman took her husband’s name, promised to ‘obey’ him and, unless she had independent income or property in her own name, became economically and financially dependent on him. Feminists felt that women started life being dependent on their father and then became dependent on their husband. Many professions were closed to women, through custom, men’s resistance (which took many forms) and women’s lack of education. Some occupations, for example factory work, clerical work, teaching in some local authorities and service industry jobs, introduced a ‘marriage bar’. This meant either that married women were prevented from working in these occupations or that once a woman became (or ‘fell’) pregnant, she had to give up her work. The marriage bar had been introduced in selected occupations during the interwar years due to the economic depression and high male unemployment. It was justified in part by the belief that a woman would not be able to combine work and domestic life, even though historically working-class women had always had to do so to support their families. You can find out more about the marriage bar from Bronagh Hinds.

The marriage bar was gradually lifted in the UK from 1944 onwards. However, the idea that women would not be able to give a job their full attention because of demands in the home still prevailed, as did the exclusion of women from many trades and industries. Statutory maternity leave for all women was not introduced until the 1999 Employment Relations Act as a result of 25 years or more of persistent feminist lobbying. Prior to this, pregnant women were not legally protected against being made redundant on the grounds of their pregnancy.

These factors in combination meant that women in the 1960s and ‘70s were still largely financially dependent on their husbands. The 1964 Married Women’s Property Act allowed women to keep half of any savings they made from the allowance received by their husbands. This revision demonstrated that, despite more women working and earning their own money, many still received an allowance from their husbands and were therefore financially dependent on them.

For all these reasons many UK feminists in the 1960s and ‘70s were strongly opposed to conventional marriage and campaigned, through the fifth demand, for legal and financial independence for women.

Bronagh Hinds describes the marriage bar faced by her mother

Domestic violence and sexual assault

One reason for this disillusionment with marriage was the growing awareness of domestic violence and assault. The seventh demand of the Women’s Liberation Movement was ‘freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women’.

Domestic violence against women is still a serious problem: a British Crime Survey carried out in 2004 found that 45% of women and 26% of men had experienced at least one incident of domestic violence or sexual assault since the age of 16.

You can find out more in Bodies, Minds and Spirits.

Lesley Abdela talks about domestic violence in the 1980s

A safe place

Women’s refuges are open to all women and children who have been abused by a husband, partner or family member. The first women’s refuge opened in Chiswick, west London, in 1971 and was followed by others across the country. Setting up refuges required delicate negotiations with local authorities and neighbourhoods; when established, the refuges had to rely on the police for secrecy and protection. In 1974 the National Women’s Aid Federation (Women’s Aid) was set up, bringing together women’s refuges across the country. As race, culture, class and religion can play a central part in domestic violence several support groups specifically for black and Asian women were started. Southall Black Sisters became internationally known for pioneering activism in support of women’s human rights locally and nationally. Like most refuges, it will not refuse help to any woman in need regardless of their race or religion.

You can find out more in Race, Place and Nation and Activism.

Arranged marriage

In many cultures in Britain arranged marriage is common. Parents or older family members introduce young people who they think might be a good match for each other. In many cases, once the young people have been introduced, it is then up to them to decide whether to continue seeing each other. In other cases, the parents manage the whole process, from introduction to the marriage ceremony. Arranged marriage is not the same thing as forced marriage. In an arranged marriage both parties consent to the assistance of their parents, or a matchmaker third party, to identify and propose a spouse. In a forced marriage one or both spouses have no say in whether the marriage goes ahead. Groups such as Southall Black Sisters actively campaign against forced marriage. Pragna Patel talks in her oral history about the traumatic experience of her parents trying to arrange for her to marry without her consent. As a key member of Southall Black Sisters she currently campaigns against forced marriage and for increased rights for Asian women in Britain.

Many feminists in the 1970s felt that arranged marriage was another way of oppressing women and campaigned against it. Spare Rib, one of the most well-known journals that came out of the Women’s Liberation Movement, published several articles written by young women who did not want to have arranged marriages. In the 1982 Spare Rib Reader one woman was quoted as saying: ‘What got me extra mad was that they asked my mum – it wasn’t her that they were going to marry their sons to, it was me (not that I wanted to marry them, but still they might ask me).’

Civil partnerships

The Civil Partnership Act (2004) came into force in 2005. Until then relationships between gay people were not formally recognised by the state. With the introduction of civil partnerships, gay and lesbian couples could register their relationships in a ceremony and gain access to the same mutual rights and responsibilities as straight couples.

Registering any kind of relationship through the state is, for many women and men, problematic. Why should the government manage a private contract between two people? For many lesbians who are also feminists, marriage and a nuclear family have historically been institutions from which they were largely excluded. But for lesbians and gay men, the right to public recognition of their relationship, and just as important the tax breaks and state support that go with this legal recognition, has been an important political struggle. Several feminists who were opposed to heterosexual marriage have subsequently entered into civil partnership with other women. Mary McIntosh (1936–2013), who was a key instigator of the YBA Wife campaign, opposed heterosexual marriage because of the inequalities it brought about for women. Some years later she entered into a civil partnership with her partner Angela Stewart-Park, perhaps reflecting the changing status of partnerships across sexualities both legally and in broader culture.

In 2012 a debate arose around whether gay couples should be permitted to get married (as opposed to being offered a civil partnership). Plans to legalise marriage for homosexual couples have caused controversy. Gay marriage has met with profound resistance among religious groups who believe that marriage (as it is currently legally defined) should remain a union between a man and a woman. Equal rights campaigners have challenged this idea on the grounds that it is discriminatory to offer one option to heterosexual couples and another to homosexual couples. In February 2013 MPs in the House of Commons voted in favour of a gay marriage bill. The bill must be passed by the House of Lords before it can become law.

Mary McIntosh on women's legal and financial independence

Divorce and dissolution

During the 1960s and ‘70s men and women were more ready to admit to unhappy marriages. The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 meant that couples could agree, via mutual consent, to a divorce on the basis of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage rather than one or other party having to prove ‘fault’ as the cause. As a result of this and growing educational opportunities and expectations for women, divorce rates increased – in 1950 there were 30,000 divorces in England and Wales, and by 1978 there were 144,000.

Equally as significant but more emotionally gruelling was the status of the mother in a divorce or separation agreement in the 1960s and ‘70s. Children came under the custody, care and control of a parent. Usually a mother was given responsibility for care and control, which meant the child or children lived with her; but the father was normally awarded custody since he was the primary breadwinner, making his legal and financial status more independent and secure. It was very unusual for a divorcing women to be awarded more than a percentage of the value of the family home, as well as a percentage of the husband’s income for alimony and child support – the sum awarded was determined on the basis of ‘need’ rather than on the husband’s assets (property or income). In The Female Eunuch (New York: Paladin, 1970) Germaine Greer declared how difficult it was to divorce when you were economically dependent on somebody else: ‘The working wife has her income assessed as a part of her husband’s, and he on the other hand is not even obliged to tell her how much he earns’.

The law in these respects was not changed until 1996 and now it is more common in the case of divorce for assets to be more equally split. Today joint care and control is common practice, as are equal shares of all property acquired within marriage (at least in theory). After reaching a peak of over 165,000 in the mid-1990s, the number of divorces has, overall, been falling again.

When the Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2004 provision was also made to dissolve partnerships. It is not possible to dissolve a civil partnership on the grounds of ‘adultery’ because the legal definition of this involves two people of the opposite sex.

You can find out more about divorce from Lesley Abdela.

Lesley Abdela talks about divorce and child support

What did the Women’s Liberation Movement want?

The Women’s Liberation Movement campaigned to change the ‘laws, assumptions and institutions’ that oppressed women through the marriage contract. Feminists challenged the economic dependence of the wife and mother: they demanded the right for married women to work on the same terms as men by campaigning for nurseries, maternity and paternity care; they argued for fathers to share in housework and childcare; and they challenged the notion that marriage was a woman’s chief aspiration. The sixth demand of the movement, for the recognition of lesbian relationships and the right of women to sexual freedom, released women’s sexual desire from the heterosexual marriage bed. Women’s liberation was not the sole reason for the decline in marriage rates, but feminists from the 1960s imagined and enacted creative ways of living in relationships with others. They set up communal households, lived openly together outside marriage and established loving lesbian partnerships, sometimes having children. They also influenced the way heterosexual and nuclear families could work more equally and flexibly, reclaiming the idea of family life as a place of genuine support and love for all its members.

Banner credit: 'YBA Wife' poster © See Red workshop

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.