The roller-coaster life of a campaigning bride-to-be: yesterday it seemed as if the wedding was back on! The Sunday Times reported that equalities minister Jenny Willott was “preparing to make the change” that would finally bring marriage certificates into the twenty-first century along with the rest of us. No longer would the document that makes a marriage legal continue to proclaim marriage a marketplace, where women are traded between men. Mothers were no longer to be banned, and marriage could now legally be what we say it is: a loving union between two equals. How we rejoiced; how I dreamed of champagne and drunken speeches.
But today, apparently, Theresa May says no to equality. I say apparently, because this intervention seems so incredibly ill-judged (who actively comes out against equality? Surely the better part of valour is silence, in such cases), that I still hold out some hope that there has been a miscommunication. There certainly seems to have been one within the Home Office, which the Sunday Times yesterday specifically named as “working on the change with the Department for Culture”. It surely cannot be that equality is going to be a casualty of the Tories’ desire to mark themselves out from the Lib Dems in their bid for 2015 success. It cannot be, following on from the May-Gove row, another sign of Theresa May’s attempts to mark herself out as the future leader of the Conservatives. I hope not – to sacrifice equality on the altar of electioneering would be shameful.
May has refused to specify the exact amount that would tip this small change over into being “too complex and costly”, but previous estimates from the Home Office have stood at around the £1.5m mark. Granted, that seems like a lot of money for a small change on a document, and the government has yet to substantiate how on earth it could cost so much to add a box to a form – particularly given the new civil partnership forms already have spaces for both mothers and fathers. But even if we were to take this figure at face value, it is peanuts in comparison to the “taxpayers’ money” the government is prepared to spend when the change fits in with their own ideology.
It is peanuts compared to the £425m spent on the Universal Credit system that doesn’t work and that by January this year only numbered 5,250 live claimants. It is peanuts compared to the £140m plus lost defending indefensible Atos assessments. It is peanuts compared to the estimated £2.3bn lost selling Royal Mail off on the cheap. And – this is my favourite – it is peanuts compared to the £1bn overspend on Royal Navy Aircraft carriers that don’t carry aircraft.
As for the claim that the change is too “complex”, the existence of forms for civil partnerships that contain spaces for both mothers and fathers rather suggests that such a change is not beyond the wit of this government. The existence of equal marriage itself is evidence that where there is political will, Theresa May can manage to find a way to deal with even the most seemingly intractable of problems: having so thoroughly sullied the “sanctity of marriage” by allowing same-sex couples into the institution, surely allowing some extra women through the gates wouldn’t be the end of times? Or perhaps this is exactly the kind of slippery slope scenario some conservatives were so concerned about.
Some say that this is just a piece of paper – and in some ways it is. In the strictly literal sense, in the sense of what the government actually needs to change, that is exactly what it is, which is why the resistance to the change is so incomprehensible. And why the fact that we have to fight so hard for it, as we have had to fight so hard for every other change, big and small, is so disheartening. The resistance to this change is a damning indictment on this nation’s sense of itself as a progressive land of equal opportunity.
Some say that this is just a piece of paper. But the slightness of the change does not make it unworthy of our time. Every single instance of inequality is worthy of our time. While there is still one area, no matter how small, no matter how seemingly insignificant, in which what applies to men does not apply to women, the fight for equality will not be over. Because every single instance is a sign that we are not yet equal. That we are not yet equally valued. And while we are not equal, the power does not rest equally with us. While we are not equally valued, our power is on loan. Our equality, such as it is, is granted on sufferance.
Some say that this is just a piece of paper. But to me, to Ailsa Burkhimser Sadler, who started the petition on change.org, to the 38,798 people who have so far signed it, it is much more than a piece of paper. It is a symbol of our oppression. It is a sign of how lightly we take women’s equality, that we so glibly dismiss attempts to reform legal documents that present women as chattels to be traded. That we tell women to just get married anyway and ignore what is a legal process at the heart of the ceremony – that we tell women to concern their minds only with the fluffy bits.
I think we ignore the significance, underlying or not, of legal documents at our peril. I take this document seriously. I take it so seriously that I feel unable to get married while marriage means I have to sign it. But I want to get married. I want to make a public pledge of commitment to the man I love. And I see no reason why in order to make that public pledge of commitment, I must sacrifice my commitment to equality.
Sign the petition: change.org/nameequality.