11 Nov 2023

Clementine Ford: 'I want to prevent marriages'

From Saturday Morning, 10:06 am on 11 November 2023

Why do so many women still believe a successful life involves being chosen by a man?

That's the question being interrogated by Australian feminist author and podcaster Clementine Ford in her new book I Don't.

Her previous books include Fight Like A Girl, Boys Will Be Boys and How We Love: Notes on a Life.

Clementine Ford

Photo: supplied

The most dangerous place for a woman is her own home if there is an adult male there, Clementine Ford tells Kim Hill.  

“Statistically speaking, the most dangerous thing that a woman can do for her own safety is to partner with a man and live with him.”

Marriage formalises such relationships which are also financially punitive, she says.

“You have to pay to end a marriage, you have to pay to get married. In Australia, the average cost of a wedding is $36,000 and the average length of a marriage is 8.4 years.

“Sixty percent of couples here take out a loan in order to get married and pay for their wedding, and one fifth of couples pay for the entire thing on their credit card.

“Many people are liable to still be paying off their wedding long after they've paid for their divorce.”

The traditional white wedding isn’t that old, she says, and goes back to Queen Victoria's wedding.

“If we look at Queen Victoria as the original influencer, maybe unwillingly, the reason we associate white dresses with a wedding now is because Queen Victoria wore a white dress to marry Prince Albert.

“And the reason that she wore a white dress was in part because she wanted to distinguish her marriage to him as something separate from a royal protocol, normally royals would have won the purple robes of state.

“But Queen Victoria was deeply in love with Albert, and she wanted it to be clear that she was marrying him as a woman, not as a monarch and she chose a white dress.”

 Prior to this, women often wore black to get married, she says.

“Because they wore their best dress and your best dress was something that was dark, so that you could cover any stains.”

The big, lavish, white wedding became about symbolising class status, she says.

“For a lot of these young women to have a white wedding dress that could only be worn once and then put away in a box as a keepsake for a daughter indicated the kind of class status where you might have a lady's maid, or you had the economic ability to buy a dress that you would only wear once.”

Now Hollywood and celebrity culture takes on the royal mantle, she says.   

“We can see now it playing out still in social media where people compete for who's had the most beautiful wedding, we've got socialites and Hollywood stars and celebrities who just very generously invite us, the mere plebian public, to come into their wedding via photographs and feel just like we can be there a little bit.

“I describe it in the book as you're being invited to come in and look at the skirts of the rich, but not touch them.”

Ford rails against the idea that being unpartnered is a sign of failure.

“I hate that women are out there saying ‘who's gonna want me now’ as if the purpose in life, although this is what we're told, this is the success of the PR machine, the purpose in life is for women to be wanted by someone, as opposed to wanting ourselves, as opposed to creating and carving a life out for ourselves.”

This is often the motivation for getting married and staying married, she says.

“This would be a reason to not leave a marriage that maybe at best is just unhappy and unfulfilling. And at worst, is actually punitive, punitive and exploitative, and potentially abusive.

“There is a fear that some women have had drummed into them, that at least it's better than being alone.”

Women are mocked for being single, she says.

“I talked about the cat lady trope in the book, that if women grow old, alone, what a terrible tragedy, and also if they do it by choice, what a horrible monster she is, that she's going to grow old alone, enjoy your cats, enjoy having nothing as you age.

“And I find that incredibly offensive and problematic. I think that that's something that we should rail against, this idea that women without men around, or without even a partner, whether or not they're a man, qualify us, that just by ourselves alone, it's a wasted life.”

It's a persuasive lie that has entrapped women over the years, Ford says.

“There is many a woman, if they're truly honest with themselves, said yes to a proposal, or they embarked on that kind of relationship with a man because they reached an age in their life, and they thought no other options would come to them.”

Marriages were historically for the purpose of building a tribe, she says.

“The melding of two people together was about growing a tribe, making it safer for a tribe, bringing together the tools and skills and also assets that two tribes may have to make a safer environment.”

Ford advocates for a similar approach now.

“I actually think that to reimagine, not even as a romantic thing, but to reimagine, or to understand that the success that we have in the world as humans is through relationality.

"Carol Gilligan talks about the relational origins of humans being the success of our species, not this idea of us all, in competition with each other.

“So, if we would actually think maybe women who want to have children, but who haven't found a suitable person to do that with...maybe they have children in groups of friends, where they raise their children together, single mothers living together, people creating communities together to mimic the original intention of the success of marriage, which is to grow families.”

Marriage in the modern world confers a flimsy status on women, she says.

“One of the arguments that I make for why marriage is so dangerous, or even just minimising, for women, is it's assumed to be the greatest thing that we can do.

“If you think about the celebrations that are attached even to wedding announcements that people are getting engaged, there so much more effusive than the celebrations that people might offer if a woman is to get her PhD, or to have had an incredibly successful career in radio, or to have written a book or to have done anything in her life outside of attaching herself to somebody else.”