There’s something very wrong with the formalities of marriage within England and Wales that you’re probably not aware of. I wasn’t, until my now-husband and I tied the knot. This problem applies no matter what type of wedding you have, or what kind of officiant marries you. First of all, I’d like you to take a look at this example marriage certificate which I pulled off the internet, but which represents an across-the-board-in-England-and-Wales, standard document. Hint: it’s all to do with how women are represented…
What do you see on this piece of paper that suggests women are still draconianally under the cloche?
There are two things actually. The first is exclusively relevant to male-female marriages; I have no idea how it might play out for same-sex couples. Allow me to navigate your eyes towards the bottom left of the text boxes in the picture where it says “This marriage was solemnized between us…” Indeed, it’s assumed that the groom signs first, and the bride’s signature sits underneath his. Read: it is assumed…
A few weeks ago, my now-husband and I married each other (finally, after 13 years). As we sat in the vestry mid-ceremony catching our breath, the formal personnel overseeing our marriage began to guide us through the formality of signing the register. But when it was implied that my husband sign first, he questioned it, asking whether it was possible that my signature instead appeared first. Knowing my opinions on how records read, this was his way of making a beautifully subtle statement – by championing not just me, but all women. The registrar considered his request for a few seconds and said, “Nobody’s asked us that before. But I see no reason why not.”
So my name appears before my husband’s in what I guess is a history book. That’s a nice little feeling.
But recognising women in marriage records isn’t always accommodating. Take another look at the picture, this time at the area that says ‘Father’s Name’ and ‘Rank or profession of Father’. If you’re wondering where the box that says ‘Mother’ is, you’ll be looking a long time. That’s because It is forbidden to list your mother on a marriage certificate. Yes, that’s right. The terminology is ‘forbidden’.
This fact set my thoughts alight. I’m lucky: while I am a child of divorce, my father has very much been active and present in my life, so listing him on our certificate certainly didn’t kick up any issues. However, given that my mother has been just as much of a linchpin in my life (possibly even more critically than my darling dad – I’m certain he’d agree with me if he ever read this), I would have liked to see a box for her on the paperwork also.
So how does it work for marrying individuals who either have no relationship with their father; were raised triumphantly by their mothers either single-handedly or with a step-parent; weren’t raised by a male parent at all; or who, for a number of reasons, genuinely have no idea who their father is? Step-fathers don’t count unless they officially adopted the marrying individual. And as for two female parents? I would guess that’s frustratingly complicated.
I know two people who found themselves in this predicament, both raised by their mothers. The parental boxes on both of their marriage certificates bears the word ‘Unknown’. Which frankly seems Dickensian.
This dranconian piece of legislation is baffling, and the reason behind it basically flimsy by 2016 standards: in short, it’s just the way it’s always been done. But mothers (or anyone for that matter) can walk their child down the aisle. Couples are free to shake up the traditional format of their wedding, providing the person conducting the marriage agrees to it. And what about the other stuff, like speeches? It doesn’t always have to run in a Father-of-the-Bride, Groom and Best Man order right? No, it doesn’t. The reception part of a wedding isn’t bound by legal rite, so anything goes.
In 2014, this issue was raised in Parliament after a petition on Change.org was signed by nearly 80,000 people. Like him or loathe him, this is what David Cameron said:
“The content of marriage registers in England and Wales has not changed since the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. At the moment, they require details of the couples’ fathers, but not their mothers. This clearly doesn’t reflect modern Britain – and it’s high time the system was updated. So I have asked the Home Office to look at how we can address this too.”
But as adamant as Cameron was for redress, the Home Office rejected it. Their reason? Because updating legislation and changing the law to include mothers on marriage certificates “wouldn’t allow for different family circumstances”. Erm…
So in 2016, official certificates of marriage haven’t changed in at least 115 years. The problem with marriage? There are some things about it that have come so brilliantly far within the last 10 years; while something as precious and gargantuan as the work of mothers still fails to be recognised.