“I have no interest in marriage’s salvation … I seek to abolish completely what is a corrupt and oppressive institution,” writes Australian feminist Clementine Ford in the introduction to her new book about why women shouldn’t marry.
There is little in Ford’s attack on marriage that hasn’t been said before. But her deft use of irony and sarcasm ensures her arguments are presented in the highly entertaining way that viewers of John Oliver or Samantha Bee will find familiar.
Ford, who is 42, has her Millennial peers and their Gen Z sisters in her sights with this work. Given that these are the generations who have turned what was a half-day event for their mothers into a multi-day extravaganza, I Don’t: The Case Against Marriage should be required reading.
The key message, however, is not about the profligate cost of weddings, it’s that marriage is the structure that underpins the patriarchial family unit. This, Ford writes, “needs to be destroyed because it is overwhelmingly hurting women”.
By examining the history of key wedding traditions, Ford argues that even in its modern form, marriage inherently embodies earlier ideas of women as property to be passed from father to bridegroom. The very traditions that brides are encouraged to continue cement the idea that women are destined for domestic duties and economic disenfranchisement.
The metamorphosis of weddings into insanely expensive and highly produced multimedia performances is another good reason for women to eschew the institution. To be fair, men are also under pressure to meet the needs of social media and must now plan elaborate proposals that are captured by professional videographers.
What is somewhat depressing for a reader like me, who is old enough to be Ford’s mother, is that the examples she gives of male expectations of married life suggest little has changed since I was a teenager, despite countless consciousness-raising efforts.
While Ford’s descriptions of hetrosexual relationships aren’t universal, they are widespread, she writes.
What is saddening is that there are so many awful men out there – in particular, the ones who have weaponised incompetence and then feel compelled to boast about it on social media. This type of man, Ford writes, “is an overgrown child who’s convinced his wife he’s a hapless twit, so she stops asking him to do things he doesn’t want to (but will undertake as a gesture of goodwill when he wants to have sex that night)“.
It’s hard to argue that domestic chores and child minding are anything other than boring. But the expectation that women should carry the entire load is what Ford is railing against.
In an elegant encapsulation of the heart of the problem, Ford quotes the work of Adrienne Rich, which identifies the fact that married women with children are less likely to be financially independent and it is this that keeps them reliant on men. Women happily submit to this, thanks to the cultural pressures that convince them that this state of affairs is what will make them “whole”.
It’s an idea absent from the male narrative of marriage, which primes men to expect women to take an economic back seat, especially if there are children.
This, Ford writes, is a myth designed “to convince us that nothing we do, create, achieve, say, build or strive for as humans in the world will ever be as meaningful or exciting to us as becoming the kind of woman a man decides to come home to, sometimes”.
Although the focus of Ford’s book is marriage, much of what she says about bad relationships is just as true for co-habitees.
Ford is a mother who no longer lives with her son’s father. She writes about the breakdown of her relationship and describes how the two of them now co-parent. A point she underscores throughout the book is that being a single woman is something to be embraced rather than seen as a failure to capture a partner.
However, when it comes to children, the benefits of having more than one parent living in the same house are glossed over. To be fair, this topic is a book in itself (indeed, there is a new work on this very subject –The Two Parent Privilege – by Professor Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland).
Ford doesn’t discuss how to overcome the economic and emotional issues of raising children alone. But she does point out that once there are children in the equation, women can be just as disadvantaged, regardless of marital status.
As a consciousness-raising exercise, this book is an excellent tool. But simply getting mad as hell and not marrying won’t fix the underlying economic issues that disadvantage any woman trying to raise children without a live-in partner.
There are many pithy points in I Don’t, but one of my favourites is Ford’s comeback to a smug male relative who asked her what a woman is. “A woman is an anomaly in the animal kingdom in that she’s conditioned to love her most dangerous predator,” she told him.
In a perfect world, men and women would be equal partners sharing the economic and domestic load. Making this the social norm is a generations-long project that starts with books such as Ford’s and the efforts of parents to change the expectations of their daughters and, more especially, their sons.
I Don’t: The Case Against Marriage by Clementine Ford (Allen & Unwin) is published on October 31.
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