Maria Miller has opposed civil partnerships for heterosexuals - why?

The Equalities minister Maria Miller has spoken out against extending civil partnerships to heterosexuals - because who, she wonders, could feel oppressed by marriage?

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In a last minute bid to soften the blow of gay people getting equality, some Conservative MPs are currently trying to amend the Equal Marriage Bill. Proposed amendments include there being no law change unless there’s a national referendum (next year: ‘should blacks be allowed to marry whites?’) and giving teachers legal protection to shame children in their care by refusing to teach the topic.

There is one decent suggestion though: extending the right to civil partnerships to straight couples. Logically, Maria Miller, Equalities minister, chose this amendment to speak out against. In discussing the issue with the parliamentary joint committee on human rights this week, it was suggested to her that there were some heterosexuals who, put off by the links between marriage and oppression of women, would like the option (and legal benefits) of a civil partnership.

She replied: "I am not sure why marriage would oppress women any more than it would oppress men. Having been married for 23 years, I don't feel oppressed myself…”

Okay, I’ll bite. I assume that Maria Miller is at least a bit sure why marriage, as an institution born (at least in part) from a patriarchal system and existing today within a deeply sexist society, would oppress women more than it would oppress men. I assume that she understands the difference between literal and symbolic oppression and doesn’t actually think that women – and men (I know, men!) – who aren’t a fan of matrimony on the grounds of sexism believe that when a woman marries she’s chained to a sink and taught to darn her hubby’s socks. Or that if they did decide to say ‘I do’, that once the ring was slipped on their finger they’d have to watch in horror as their boyfriend transformed from a Ryan Gosling figure into a 1950s caricature.

Something can have a history of misogyny and perpetuate antiquated and sexist ideas, after all, without making the people currently signing up to it feel the direct effect in their everyday lives.

Not to be picky Maria (and you know from your time trying to take our reproductive rights, feminists can be terribly picky), but sometimes marriage likes to literally oppress women. Connotations are tricky like that and symbolism can feel annoyingly real. As of this year, eight out of 10 married women still do more housework than their husbands. Up until 1991, it was legal in this country for a husband to rape his wife. (It didn’t mean that your husband was going to rape you, Maria. It did mean that there was something about marriage that meant the law didn’t care if he did.)

Women are still dealing with the dregs of what marriage was born from, of connotations of ownership and the perpetuation of traditional gender roles. The ones that tell us in 2013 it’s romantic to give up our name to our husband and change our title to classify and rank us differently than unmarried women. Or the ones that see the ceremony that seals it all still be a grown woman clothed in virginal white and passed from one man to another, before going to a reception of fun boozy speeches…where no woman speaks.

I don’t think Maria actually thinks people who want straight civil partnerships expect women who are married to feel oppressed, or that she doesn’t understand why, regardless, they wouldn’t want to join the marriage club. Or – as she wades through backbenches reeling at the thought of two men or women marrying – she’s unsure why an institution that’s excluded (and still doing its best to keep out) millions because they’re ‘perverted’ or can’t produce children, isn’t one some straight people don’t want to be a part of. But – if the aim’s to protect the conservative status quo – playing dumb is a relatively clever technique. Denying there might be a problem is the first step to denying the right to a solution.

The second step, apparently, is saying you’re worried what the effect would be on gay rights.

When pressed, the Equalities minister added: “[It would be regrettable to delay gay people being allowed to marry] for something which is giving yet further benefits to heterosexual couples.”

Of course, Maria. It’s the progressives that slow down the rights of gay people. Conservatives, who introduced Section 28 and even voted against gay civil partnerships, are always fighting homosexuality’s corner.

If we needed proof that in the bid to keep out marriage’s rival, Maria really was saying anything, that sentiment surely has to be it. 

Maria Miller, has spoken out against an amendment to the Equal Marriage Bill. Photograph: Getty Images.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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