As a childless, single 19-yearold looking forward to a life of freedom and possibility, I had no desire to be part of what we called ‘the nuclear family’. I can’t speak for others in the 1970s women’s movement, many of whom were older, married and with children, but I understood the nuclear family and the traditional, heterosexual contract of marriage – based on a woman’s obedience to a man – as the foundation stone of the gendered division of labour. This division relegated women’s duties to housework and the primary care of children. The rejection of marriage went hand in hand with the demand for public provision of childcare and the full and equal rights of women to paid employment of their choice.
Being active in the women’s liberation movement meant refusing, in our own lives, to be complicit in reproducing the institutions that oppressed us. This enabled us to experiment with prefiguring the alternatives that we desired for all. These debates were often abstract. I remember hours of discussion on the implications of Marx’s labour theory of value for understanding housework.
Independence in marriage
The issue became personal for me when, in 1970, my partner Roy Bhaskar and I decided we’d like to live together. We hoped to do so in a way that respected each other’s independence. In the words of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, ‘to be together in our separateness’ (later read as part of our marriage ceremony).
Previously, I had had to climb the impossibly high walls of my ‘in loco parentis’ college in Oxford in order to spend the night with him in his adult graduate college (where you could wander in and out at will); and to live together in our small house required us to deceive our parents as to who we were actually living with. We decided that, paradoxically, to fully achieve our independence we should get married.
We both had deeply religious parents – Hindu in Roy’s case, Methodist in mine. To varying degrees they expected we would at least follow their customs. They were aware that we did not share their beliefs.
I had no desire to be part of what we called ‘the nuclear family’
Roy’s mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, so we wanted to do all we could to make her content in her final months. Our marriage would certainly give her significant happiness. For me, marriage would be a comfortable way of saying goodbye to any power or influence that my father had continued to hold over me as an adult. But we were determined to go into the marriage on our terms, prefiguring and making explicit the way we intended to live together.
Wedding arrangements were a minefield – though quite fun on the day! First, there had to be two ceremonies: a Hindu one led by Dr Bhaskar, a devout Hindu and Theosophist. This was to be held in their house, ‘Nirvana’, in Weybridge. And a Methodist one at the chapel that my parents attended in the east Leeds council estate of Gipton.
Feud of the fathers
Then, significantly, came the feud of the fathers. Roy’s father wanted me to change my name to Sita – the name, in Hindu mythology, of the wife of Ram (Roy’s given name), and to wear saris rather than jeans. We contemplated neither, though I liked the red and gold sari I wore for the Hindu wedding. My father, on the other hand, was exceedingly miffed by the fact that Dr Bhaskar had organised ‘his’ wedding before the one organised by the bride’s parents. He didn’t attend. All went smoothly, however, if somewhat disingenuously, with me feeding Roy yoghurt and honey (the vow to care through domestic labour) and putting my foot on a stone (the vow to monogamy).
Then came the Leeds wedding, over which we had rather more influence. This was more contradictory and as it turned out, mildly explosive. The guests were a mix of the Leeds bourgeoisie, stalwarts of the Yorkshire Liberal Party (as the Lib Dems were then) and my and Roy’s revolutionary and socialist feminist friends.
No pure white wedding dress and veil for me. As the Vietnam war raged, I wore a cap based on the colours and design of the National Liberation Front flag. The minister was a woman, and my father just blew me a kiss rather than ‘giving me away’. We arrived, however, at the modest Gipton chapel in a Rolls Royce lent by my grandfather’s best friend and neighbour.
As the Vietnam war raged, I wore a cap based on the colours and design of the National Liberation Front flag
The reception, a mix of contradictory symbolism, was a marquee on the lawn, champagne, speeches, a cutting of the cake. Then, unrehearsed, my African National Congress friend Shirley Mashiane appeared in military camouflage and pulled Roy and I into a waiting jeep driven by my brother Martin. Martin drove the jeep round the marquee while my late brother Andrew and Shirley aimed the toy guns loudly at the assembled Liberals and Leeds businessmen and their wives, who no doubt excused themselves to ‘look at the garden’.
This was not my most vivid memory. More dramatic was a moment during the evening party in the marquee for my and Roy’s friends only. I’d issued an open invite to friends on the Leeds left. The party was packed. About an hour into the party, someone alerted me and my sister Tessa, still in our wedding gear, to a fire steadily making its way up the walls of the marquee. I grabbed the nearest tureen of soup and threw it at the blaze. Somehow we managed, eventually, to stifle the flames. Breakfast the next morning was cheerful but a little tense.
The wedding, with all its contradictions, probably did prefigure the way that Roy and I lived together: separate in our togetherness and through a collaboration in which we shared ideas and politics and not always our bed. We decided not to have our own children, a decision that no doubt made being autonomous less complicated, both in day-to-day life and in relation to the law.
As it turned out, being married made no difference to our relationship, beyond questions of property following Roy’s death. We certainly did not internalise the values of male domination and female subordination that traditional marriage represents. What enabled me to continue to develop my autonomy were the friendships and socialist and feminist values of the women’s and labour movements of which I have long been part, strengthened as they were by constant discussion and collective action.
This summer, I’ll be joining a ‘Not a Wedding’ celebration of several cousins and their partners. Like many contemporary reinventions of marriage, it promises to be bolder and more straightforward than the ‘In and Against the Wedding’ compromise that Roy and I only just managed to carry off.