Sunday, 19 June 2011

Independent: Allowing women to vote was once against ‘the natural order of things’
Article published on 19 June 2011 by Daphne Caruana Galizia

One of the saddest aspects of the divorce referendum aftermath (fear not, this is not about that subject) was reading Eddie Fenech Adami’s words about divorce being the thin end of the wedge, leading on to what he intimated were terrible and unnatural evils to do with homosexuals getting above themselves and demanding rights which belong only to heterosexuals.

His words have been echoed by those who think it would upset the natural order of things if homosexuals were to be allowed to marry somebody of their gender. Talk of the natural order of things conveniently bypasses the fact that marriage does not exist in nature and that it is entirely a social construct, which came into existence not for reasons of love between a man and a woman but to safeguard property and inheritance rights and ensure the legitimacy of children. That latter necessity is from where the proscription on sex outside marriage stems, and why a wife’s adultery was considered a fatal transgression while a husband’s was not.

When I say this to people who quarrel with me about the mystical union of marriage and how it should be kept above and beyond the reach of mere homosexuals, I am pounced on with the inevitable ‘Ha!’ by those who imagine they have found the flaw in my argument. “You see,” they say, “marriage is for the procreation of children! So we are right after all – it is a vehicle for reproduction.”

But no, not at all: it is the property and inheritance rights that are the primary consideration and not the children. The children, to put it as brutally as it would have been put in the days when marriage really was a contract – for that is how it started out, before the fanciful notions were piled onto it – were there for no other reason than to service those very same property rights, that very same inheritance. Children were not children in the way that we think of them today. They were heirs. They were brought into the world solely for dynastic reasons or to work within the household’s economic unit, the farm or the workshop.

If the justification for marriage were truly the ability to reproduce, as so many people claim when fighting against the possibility of same-sex marriages, then the marriages of the infertile – including all the thousands struggling with IVF and the like – would be null and void, and women over the age of 50 would be denied permission to marry.

Perhaps those who approach the anti-gay marriage argument from the reproduction perspective might like to consider applying the exact same arguments against the marriages of older heterosexuals. A heterosexual couple in their 50s are about as likely to have children together as a homosexual couple of any age.

I understand the reservations of those who think that way, because many years ago, while I was still growing up and trying to come to terms with the world about me, I used to feel that way myself. But only a little bit and not for long. I soon came round to the conclusion, as very many people do after trials and tribulations, that life is fragile and short, that we can all be undone in a moment because we hang by a thread at the mercy of an erratic fate, and that consequently, we should seize and celebrate whatever adds to the sum total of human happiness, rather than persisting in finding new reasons to perpetuate misery for its own sake or because we think that it is ‘the natural order of things’.

The way I think now is this: if two people want to get married, let them. It’s no skin off anyone else’s nose and none of our business either, assuming they are old enough to enter into that kind of contract in a country where you’ve got to be 21 to go into a casino but can commit yourself to marriage at 18, or 16 with parental permission.

What makes me saddest about all this is not the disparagement and fear of other human beings because they are homosexual, but the total lack of insight that people who think this way have into their own thoughts. They don’t realise that their reasoning is exactly like that of those who disparaged and feared (and in some parts of the world, still do) other human beings because they are women.

The historic records and the newspapers of the time show that in the days of emergent feminism the very same arguments used today against homosexuals were used then against women. People genuinely believed what they said and wrote about the natural order of things being overturned by allowing women to vote or manage their destiny, in the very same way that Eddie Fenech Adami genuinely believes that homosexuals are another class of person who shouldn’t be allowed to marry each other.

Just as the former prime minister speaks with total conviction about the evils of gay marriage, so countless other men (and even very many women, oddly enough) spoke against the evils of allowing women to vote in general elections. Allowing women to vote, allowing married women to hold property, to have rights over their own children, would upset the natural order of things.

I once asked an elderly (intelligent and opinionated) relative how she stood for a situation in which she was told that she was not fit to vote because she was a woman. “We just accepted it,” she said. “It was the way things were, the way they had always been. We took it for granted.” There you have it: the natural order of things. They took it for granted. And now, we find it unbelievable that they did so until some very difficult women – probably dismissed as lesbians who hated men − began to throw themselves under horses at the races in England.

We needn’t go that far back, either, even though being told they were not fit to take a decision on politicians is within the experience of Maltese women in their 80s and 90s. When even women of my generation got married, the law gave the husband total control of communal property, including the marital home, and of the children.

Wives, in the rare event that they worked, did not even have rights over their own earnings. As part of the community of property, they fell under the husband’s full administration. The law gave the husband full autonomy in deciding matters involving place of residence, administration of property and anything to do with the children, without the need to consult or inform the wife.

Women lived in a precarious state where the husband, should he see fit to do so, could sell the marital home without their knowledge, still less their consent. There were countless cases in which the marital home was used to make good for borrowing, put up as security for a business loan and then lost, even gambled away, all without the wife knowing about it until she woke up to read in the newspaper the notice of a judicial sale, or until she found letters from the bank sequestered away in some drawer.

Now, we look back and wonder how in heaven’s name we thought such a situation acceptable. It seems horrific, something out of the Dark Ages, but it was still like that in the early 1990s and people took it for granted as the natural order of things.

It was the natural order of things that a married woman could not buy a car on hire purchase because it was her husband who had to sign the bills of exchange, and in whose name the car consequently was, even if she paid the deposit and instalments herself. The natural order of these things wasn’t questioned until my generation began to get married in the late 1980s. We were the first to carry on working after marriage in any significant number (and the number was not significant at all), and so we were the first to really discover in a big way that we couldn’t buy things with our own money unless we had our husband’s permission, while he could buy things with his money and even ours without even telling us.

I will never forget the sense of anger, humiliation, degradation and injustice I felt when, in 1991 and about to move into our new home, I popped down to the shops to put a deposit on a much-needed large American fridge and get it delivered, with the balance paid on delivery because that is the way things should be done. The salesman told me that unless I paid the full amount before delivery, then I would have to come back with my husband so that they could get his signature on the order note. Given that I was the one paying for the ruddy thing, and not my husband, I told him that he could keep his fridge and hopefully find a nice man to sell it to. But of course, it wasn’t his fault. It was the law.

A lot of women must have been as angry as I was on making the same discoveries at roughly the same time, because something gelled. When the White Paper on the new family law, Shab Indaqs Fiz-Zwieg (Equal Partners in Marriage) was published soon after that, there were the exact same arguments about undoing the natural order of things. “You must have a head of household,” people said, all of them men. “How can you have two captains of a ship?” And of course, the captain had to be the husband because it would undo the natural order of things to place a woman in charge of a man and his earnings. We were still living in the Mad Men era even though it was 1993.

I have no doubt that we will eventually come to see our reluctance to allow homosexual marriage with the same incredulity that we now regard past reluctance to allow women to vote in general elections, or a legal situation which dictated that the husband called all the shots and did as he chose without consultation, while the wife was utterly powerless to do anything autonomously other than pack her bags and leave him, whereupon she lost her right to the marital home because of ‘abandonment’. Oh, and she had to leave without the children.

So when it comes to homosexual marriage, let us not be so categorical about what is and what isn’t the natural order of things, what should be allowed and what will bring down the wrath of the heavens, always bearing in mind that when women were finally allowed to vote – and for the first time ever be represented in Parliament and not left unrepresented as though they did not exist or were children – there actually were people who thought that the end of the world was nigh.

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