My dissertation explored the contemporary and historical status of marriage, and why marriage should be abolished in modern Britain. I chose this topic as throughout history, marriage has played a significant role in shaping society and our understanding of identity. The institution of marriage has always interacted in interesting ways with the law due to their complex and dynamic relationship. Marriage has a privileged status in society, and is therefore far more than just a legal definition. Yet, it is a flawed institution. The dominant discourse of heterosexuality, the control over women’s bodies, and many other problems stem from it. Marriage endures as a symbol which is presented as private but is reinforced everywhere in public and in political discourse.
Ultimately, I argued that marriage should not have legal significance and therefore must not be recognised by the State. The damaging effects of marriage are such that marriage is incompatible with modern rights discourse. My conclusion reinforced that abolition must occur and that no other options, such as civil partnerships, are acceptable alternatives that address the issues raised.
I took an interdisciplinary approach due to the overarching power of marriage making a purely legal approach unsatisfactory. Marriage is an immensely political issue and views can be highly dependent on political viewpoints and personal perceptions of morality. Sources from various time periods proved useful in illuminating how morality and society has developed, along with spotlighting where many of the issues found in contemporary life stem from. Thus, to ignore the history, politics and sociological factors would have been to ignore the source and reasoning, or challenges, behind legal developments.
My first chapter focused on the legal definition of marriage. I used this section to set up the current legal framework and context. The central case for defining marriage is one from Victorian Britain, Hyde v Hyde. The case provides the five elements needed for a valid marriage: a “voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others.” I systematically dismantled the arguments for the preservation of each of these elements to demonstrate why they must be dismissed in the 21st century. The prevalence of divorce was another helpful factor. The average age for divorce and how this corresponds to Victorian life expectancy were also useful in presenting the idea of an average ‘shelf life’ for marriages. The general ease of divorce also helped to demonstrate why the definition of marriage was unacceptable.
My second chapter examined the role marriage has played, and continues to play, in maintaining the position of women as second-class citizens. The work of prominent feminist writers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, were utilised to demonstrate how marriage perpetuates patriarchal dominance and subjugates or enslaves women. Class was also examined due to the way it connects with gender identities, as well as how this has developed throughout time. The modern debate around a woman’s refusal to take the male’s surname was also examined to show how the subjugation is not confined to the historical. Instead, modern attitudes to women’s decisions are still sexist and archaic.
The third chapter of my dissertation explored four works of Shakespeare. I chose two tragedies and two comedies that illuminated aspects of marriage and coupling. Shakespeare was writing during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, yet his works have a universality that allows their time context to be only one notable aspect in the evaluative process. Whilst a product of their time, the plays he produced have a quality to them that allows them to transcend their historical context. I analysed: Macbeth, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado About Nothing. Marriage plays a different role in relation to both the plot and the moral message of the play depending on the genre. In the tragedies, marriage is usually relevant as an element of the main plot, and married life itself is explored. This is noteworthy as it contrasts the comedies, in which it is merely the ceremony of marriage which tends to be mentioned. The comedy plays highlight how marriage can be treated as a mechanism to mend problems and issues. Unfortunately, this is still a factor present today in some couple’s decisions to marry. Now when the marriage fails to deliver the resolution dreamed of, divorces can soon follow.
My final chapter considered the debate around the abolition and focused on dismantling the arguments against abolition. I took this approach because arguments against abolition are important in highlighting the concerns some scholars have, and allows abolitionists to alleviate those fears. Those who oppose abolition have written flawed and targeted pieces full of inaccuracies both in fact and in argument. By dispelling these myths and demonstrating the problems with those views, arguments in favour of abolition become even stronger. The debates around reforming cohabitation and the potential for Civil Partnerships to replace marriage were considered and dismissed as inappropriate. Consequently, the works of Strauss were examined thoroughly in order to demonstrate how flawed an argument he advocates, and his gross oversimplification of key issues. I also looked at the arguments for replacing marriage with civil partnership (advocated by my dissertation supervisor Dr Beresford). I rejected the argument however, as by doing so civil partnerships could claim to have left behind the problems of marriage and yet continue to enforce them whilst enjoying distance from the original criticisms.
My conclusion drew together the previous chapters and reinforced my argument that abolition is the only option. Marriage is incapable of reform; it cannot be saved and made into a neutral and egalitarian institution because marriage is inherently heteropatriarchal and thus, repressive. So long as marriage continues to exist, it will continue to perpetuate both formal and substantive inequality. For equality to even become a possibility in intimate relationships, marriage should be abolished as a legal category. Attempts to equalise other forms of relationships will never work due to the inherent bias in favour of marriage having a special status. From this special status, marriage is able to hide many of its dangerous faults. In order to render all relationships between consenting adults as equal to each other, and to limit the subjugation of women, I therefore concluded that marriage must be abolished.