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Why gay marriage is good for straight women

By Samantha Stevenson - posted Monday, 19 July 2010

When Julia Gillard ascended to the Prime Ministership, the first woman to do so, many of us triumphed at this ultimate smashing of the glass ceiling in Australian politics.

Others chose to see it (perhaps tongue in cheek) as a progressive step forwards for the marginalised red-haired population, who now had an Australian celebrity to crow about with more serious credentials than Nicole Kidman or Geelong’s Cameron Ling.

One Punch writer declared “Gillard is doing it for all the unmarried barren atheists”, and that she clearly understood “that the Church and the State should butt out of people’s private relationships” in regards to marriage.


Indeed, amidst this feeling of optimism that Gillard’s multi-faceted difference to her prime ministerial predecessors apparently represented, Australia’s GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community dared to hope that this refreshing lack of religious affinity at the highest government level would mark a different approach to gay marriage rights than that which had become the norm during the social conservatism of the Howard and Rudd years.

They were wrong. Gillard even took time out from her prioritisation of mining tax deal-brokering to declare that it was still the government’s view, as well as her personal one, that gay marriage should not be legalised in Australia: “we believe the marriage act is appropriate in its current form, that is recognising that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Yet treating marriage as the grand prize of heterosexuality reinforces the ultimate dichotomy between a man and a woman. Because while obviously gay marriage rights are a progressive step forwards for our homosexual community, they also represent the smashing of another cultural norm - the gender inequality of marriage.

Even in today’s most liberated households women predominantly take on the bulk of domestic and childrearing duties, even if they work in some capacity outside the home. Some may choose to do so. But while fighting over whose turn it is to clean the toilet after mutually busy days at the office may seem insignificantly mundane compared to fighting (as our mothers did) for the right to work outside the home in the first place, for many married women choices remain much more dangerously limited.

Bettina Arndt recently chose to deride Gillard's de facto status, claiming that as Australia’s most significant female role model, she was doing it all wrong. Apparently the idea of Julia and Tim “playing house” in the Lodge without a marriage certificate sets a bad example for us women, as de facto relationships limit our choices whereas marriage strengthens them.

Yet same-sex relationships will remain under Gillard de facto-by-default, and obviously cannot be characterised by a lack of choice for one partner based on gender difference. There’s more at play here than the absence of wedding rings.


Marriage’s ceremonial exchange of “till death us do part” prevents women, according to Arndt, from “wasting precious breeding time in such uncertain relationships” as de facto ones. Marriage remains essential, then, for legitimising a woman - with the status of being a wife and mother, in it for the long haul - just like it did in any Jane Austen novel.

It is one hell of a cultural narrative to disrupt.

Ultimately it’s not the relationship form that’s the problem. Arndt’s proclamations aside, marriage doesn’t magically equalise gender inequality apparent in their de facto underlings, just as de facto relationships aren’t necessarily any better at overcoming such imbalances - no doubt because they inevitably mimic marriage with all its historical gendered baggage (albeit minus the precursory paperwork and pretty dresses). They didn’t reinvent the wheel, they just called it something else.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 17, 2010.

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About the Author

Samantha Stevenson teaches in cultural studies at Curtin University.

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