Marriage is no protection for women



Marriage has been in the news a lot lately. Marriage equality consumed the headlines for months amid a divisive public debate. Now, as the first tranche of marriages take place under the new marriage equality laws, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has split from his wife of 24 years, moving in with his new partner who is expecting their child in April.

Barnaby JoyceAmid speculation about whether and why the DPM's relationship is in the public interest, is a much more interesting and foundational point about the nature of marriage as an institution. I am not canvassing its spiritual elements as a sacrament, but rather its cultural and legal connotations.

Prominent conservative politicians have proclaimed marriage as a form of protection for women. In 2017, Tony Abbott said that marriage 'is something that evolved many centuries ago to protect women and children'. In 2011, Joyce himself addressed a function held by the Australian Christian Lobby, saying, 'We know that the best protection for those girls is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband.'

Whatever your views about marriage, its history as a coherent regulated institution at law does not lie in the church. Rather, it lies with the state. Lord Hardwicke's act was passed in 1753 to regularise the solemnisation of marriage in England in response to a property scandal. The act clarified property rights through guidelines to determine spousal, and therefore filial, relationships.

Marriage laws did benefit women who might otherwise be unable to establish their spousal relationship with a man. Their children would at least be recognised as 'legitimate' and thus have standing in society. As for direct protection — married women were not legal persons, they had no right to hold property in their names, and their husband had a right to sex regardless of the woman's consent. Further, while their husband controlled the family's economic means he was never under any legal obligation to provide for his wife or children.

The Married Women's Property Acts in the late 19th century gave married women legal personality and the right to hold property. Laws concerning rape in marriage were slowly introduced over the 20th century. Since the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, it is no longer lawful to discriminate against women based on their marital status. Consequently, women can now hold on to their jobs once they marry.

These legal reforms, over a century, bring married women up to a basic level of equality with men. Yet entrenched attitudes to women in general, and married women in particular, diminish the real impact of these laws. To suggest that marriage somehow protects women is a gross misrepresentation.


"It is not marriage that protects women. What will protect women is adequate social and economic support to take control of their own lives."


A lot of this rides on the implicit understanding of the roles of wife and husband. Traditional, gender-based roles include an expectation that the wife contributes to child-rearing and homemaking while the husband is the primary breadwinner. Even women in the paid workforce do more housework than men.

Husbands in high pressure, high status jobs are known to rely heavily on their wives' contribution to running their household, and to supporting their career. For politicians like Joyce, the family — managed by their wife largely on her own — is also part of their marketable public persona, contributing to their success. Joyce's estranged wife Natalie Joyce, in a public statement, has confirmed her role as supporting Joyce's career. Further, she says that she has done so at the cost of her own career aspirations.

Where a wife devotes her time to running the household, and to advancing her husband's career, marriage is no protection at all. By contrast, if the marriage ends through death or divorce, or if the husband becomes too ill to work, these women are vulnerable. While undoubtedly such women are highly competent managers with a host of skills, the reality is that their skill set is refined to the personal needs of their own family and spouse. These are unlikely to be recognised in the open job market, leaving such women with few options.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has, confusingly, defended Barnaby Joyce's actions by pointing out that by joining his new pregnant partner, she will not be a single mother. He ignores the reality, of course, that for all her personal sacrifice for her husband's benefit, Natalie Joyce is now herself a 'single mother'. Being married is no protection at all.

If marriage is no protection for women, what is? As a society we need to consciously step back from our demand that women play the 'wife' role. We need to support women's reproductive labour, to enable them to be educated and to work in fulfilling and well-paid careers. Women need to have full reproductive rights, and access to quality, free (or cost-effective) child care. Women need access to well-paid work and equality of opportunity in the workplace. Women need superannuation at the same level as men.

It is not marriage that protects women. What will protect women is adequate social and economic support to take control of their own lives. What better investment can we make as a society?



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, marriage, Barnaby Joyce, marriage equality



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Existing comments

I am surprised that the issue of "marriage" is taking centre stage on the Barnaby Joyce saga. Yes, there are problems for women in marriage, I don't deny that. For Natalie Joyce it must be heartbreaking and humiliating. What surprises me is that there is no comment (apart from the independent MP , Kathy McGowan?) that a significant and worrying issue is the sexualisation of a relationship between a boss and employee. The employee will always be at a disadvantage and be vulnerable to a boss. The response of government and opposition in calling it a "private matter" is a licence to other bosses outside the parliament to see these relationships as ok. They are not. For every relationship of this nature which becomes "official", there are dozens where the employee is forced to leave the workplace. I'd like to see this addressed by Eureka Street and others. It is not ok.

Vivienne | 12 February 2018  

There is a huge power imbalance between an MP and the MP's staffer. The US Government are considering making it illegal for an MP to have sexual relations with a staff member. I think Australia should follow suit. In the meantime, I think Barnaby Joyce should resign as a Minister because he has lost the respect of the public.

Grant Allen | 12 February 2018  

The word 'protect' is, or has been, part of the marriage service. Both man and woman say this word. How that protection actually works in a marriage is a matter between husband and wife. Being married to a man of influence within society, or a segment of society, can afford protection to a wife in terms of greater respect being afforded because of her status as wife. This is not always conducive to equality within society. However, as marriages can fail, or through the death of a husband, the protection crashes. I would suggest that when a marriage fails, or death deprives a woman of her husband it is the emotional fallout that devastates. It can be very helpful to have career skills to rebuild a life, however the first priority for society should be a respect for privacy and, if sought, social and economic support.

Pam | 12 February 2018  

I doubt that my mother, who was happily married for over fifty years until my father died, would describe marriage in terms of women taking control of their own lives; she would, I think, have spoken rather in terms of sharing.

John | 12 February 2018  

Well said, Vivienne. Kate, this is all a bit 'clinical' and 'economically rationalist' and 'human resource-ish'. Marriage and family should be primarily about 'love' and commitment chosen by the individuals involved, and regardless of what the state wants to do with it. Also, for me, the issues being discussed here are firmly based on a very narrow concept of 'love' as something we feel and want from ourselves. That's not love, it's emotion and self-directed emotion at that. I think Erich Fromm's "The Art of Loving" should be a book on everyone's reading list. Read that and then reconsider, re-contextualise the demands we are placing on our modern selves, our relationships/marriages, and our families/child rearing. Even more so, more and more we need to be asking ourselves 'why we are following those particular demands' and 'expectations' and 'rights' and 'whose concepts of 'demands', 'expectations' and rights' are they anyway. Also, how 'Christian/Catholic' are they would be a good added question for this forum. So often we just follow the common think without thinking, 'who came up with it, why, and why we are following it'. Is Kate's, which is the current accepted academic/social formula at least, is it the only formula?

Stephen de Weger ( | 13 February 2018  

Thanks Kate. I found out the hard way.

Patricia Taylor | 13 February 2018  

Spot on. Marriage does not protect women or their children and nor does the law. The system is antiquated and unresponsive. Designed by men for men. Its interesting to note that women are bailing fast which can be seen by the big increase in numbers of same sex women in relationships. When having children they are choosing to select a donor not a man for a lifetime. Such increases and social change makes me ask myself this - if women feel so protected and loved in a hetro marriage why then would there be such a big increases in the numbers of women choosing to be with other women?

Carol | 13 February 2018  

Yes, Stephen. Erich Fromm an excellent read.

Patricia Taylor | 13 February 2018  

Carol, I suggest that the reason we are seeing, in your words, ‘an increase in the number of women choosing to be with other women’ is that lesbian women are only now beginning to feel free enough to ‘come out’ and be their true selves. They have, for countless years, been in the closet.

Elizabeth B | 13 February 2018  

Stephen, your position dichotomises justice from love. The Catholic tradition is surely that one cannot stand without the other. Thank you, Kate, for arguing this point so cogently as well as coherently.

Michael Furtado | 13 February 2018  

Let's not forget that this is a man who thought the institution of marriage was so precious that other couples should be denied the opportunity just because they were of the same sex.

Ginger Meggs | 13 February 2018  

It is not the infidelity so much as the utter hypocrisy at work that seeks to legitimate BJ's continued place in National's politics. The due public backlash will in time determine BJ's future there. I hope for his sake he grows up soon and can henceforth curb his untoward inclinations. He is paying a heavy price for these non well considered indiscretions.

R Zeilstra | 13 February 2018  

Spot on Vivienne. Arguably there is 'no problem' with the inequality of power in this case ... time will tell ... but the reality is that the person with less power comes off second best in these sorts of relationships. Barnaby should have been shown the door just on the basis of having such a relationship. In a moral sense too, especially for one touting himself as a 'conservative Catholic', Barnaby should have resigned so as to spare his family, including his new partner and child, the scrutiny that they don't deserve. Barnaby wants to have his proverbial cake and eat it.

Faz | 13 February 2018  

A couple of days ago I supported Barnaby Joyce - not because I agree with anything he stands for politically - but simply his right to live free of hypocritical scrutiny just as I would like to live a s a gay man - whether I'm married, single, having a fling or what-have-you. But Joyce's statement today has tested my tolerance too far and I now see his hypocrisy which I had tried to deny by giving him the benefit of the doubt. The way he draws a neat line between before/after, partner/not partner just doesn't make sense. The fact is you can't draw a neat and distinct line between commitment and fling. And the fact that he's denied the LGBTI community from making any legal commitment to their bond only serves to highlight his hypocrisy. Because I come from a truly liberal perspective on politics, I stretched the limits of my good will to the limits as Joyce would have been taught throughout his very expensive Jesuit education. The Jesuit ethos is always to find ways to cast a positive light on an ambiguous moral dilemma rather than immediately follow the letter of the law and condemn someone. This has also been the basis for our modern common law legal system that allows for mitigating circumstances and degrees of culpability and decisions by juries. Well, now that Joyce has declared he's drawn a line between fling/partnership - I've withdrawn my support for him and now agree that he is truly a hypocrite, and the statements he made in support of "traditional marriage" and against marriage equality are now so evidently convoluted that I don't even have the space and time to articulate them right now.

AURELIUS | 13 February 2018  

Actually, Michael, what has been dichotomised in this article, is the men and women in relationships. Marriage seems to be more abut a battle for equality between concepts of man and woman rather than a commitment towards unity between a man and a woman, (and yes, if you want, same sex couples, thought his article is not about that). Isn't it a little odd that we are seeking full equality and yet somehow keep inadvertently pointing out the differences between men and women, mainly because of women having children, coming into the equation? No longer is it 'the two shall become one, (in flesh and as a unit), it is we will live our own projected lives and if we can't do that as a couple and even when children come into the scene, then we split so we can pursue our personal individual desires. That's not love or justice for the adults but especially not for the children involved.

Stephen de Weger ( | 13 February 2018  

I was agreeing with you, Kate, until you got to the end and reverted from your sound exposition to "reproductive rights" and then "childcare". Huh? You say that marriage does not protect women and it does not. Mrs. Joyce has indicated that after years of supporting her husband's career she now has no career of her own - i.e. she has no income of her own. Child care, had she wished to used it, would not have helped Mrs. Joyce. Her husband was apparently hardly ever home, given the demands of his role. Someone needed to be there for the couple’s four little girls and Mrs. Joyce was a stay-at-home mother. What Mrs. Joyce needs is not greater reproductive rights or more childcare. What she needs is for society to recognise her carer role - in a pecuniary sense. This does not happen in Australian society. Family Law courts rarely award spousal maintenance in a divorce settlement and, thanks to the Howard government, high income earners, such as BJ, do not have to pay much in child support payments either - capped to a modest sum in 2006. Hence, many income-less women, who’ve supported these high-fliers in their careers, end up on the Centrelink queue, where they are forced to jump through many and demeaning hoops in order to try to self-support (through the Newstart unemployment benefit) and to supplement their children's support (through Family Tax Benefit). It happens a lot. Many women believe that staying home to raise their children is the most valuable thing that they will ever do with their lives, yet it a risky thing to do in Australian society and it is time that changed.

BPLF | 13 February 2018  

Joyce/Hawke Hmmm? One's hated for what he did, the other was somehow forgiven. Which one is which? Both just gave up and their wives suffered deeply as a result. Is this the fault of marriage or individuals? Is it perhaps merely a reflection of what we've come to accept as 'normal' until someone we don't like does it, or it happens to us. Almost every show we watch on television has people cheating on each other - it's the drama we live for, that we 'accept', that we even expect. Who or what is at fault? Is it individuals, is it society's, is it 'marriage', is it men, is it the state? Our society 'encourages' infidelity indirectly. It should be encouraging fidelity, moderation, self denial and self sacrifice of both in the relationship, for the sake of Love/the other/the children. We also learn the nature of God (the verb) in the process.

Stephen de Weger ( | 14 February 2018  

Thanks, Stephen. I would hardly contest the grim reality of the Judeo-Christian injunction on sexual moderation and restraint. However, my sense is that your view is rather overbalanced in favour of the kind of disapproving biblically-commanded heresy-hunt that brings to mind the prurient outriders of a protestant god, relentlessly stripping today's global villagers of our foolish idolatry, especially in regard to our weakness of the flesh, and casting all who dare to transgress in that regard into Jansen's deathly lake of condemnation, banishment and misery. We are surely called, as Micah and Brueggeman espouse and Kate Galloway implicitly reminds, to 'walk humbly, love tenderly and act justly' with our God in all our dealings with others, whether maritally or in any other walk of life, while not, as I recall being taught, to judge.

Michael Furtado | 14 February 2018  

I have just spent some time in the South Australian Bush. There may be many aspects to the Barnaby Joyce case but what is particularly galling to me that he and like people of power have and are continuing to sermonise about and then circumscribe and punish the lives of the poor and how they need to behave better. Punishments like the Cashless Card; the pitiful amounts of New Start and other Centrelink income which have not risen in line with inflation for years; the new methods whereby fines automatically increase to astronomical levels; the slave like income of CDP etc etc are par for the course. And all while some of the lawmakers can live their own disordered lives with little comeback.

Michele Madigan | 14 February 2018  

The results of the cashless card pilot study have shown a decrease of 50% in alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence in the communities where it was implemented. Further, the card is not exclusive to the Aboriginal people in the communities where it was trialled. Thank God that the trial is being extended into other communities, some of which requested it, particularly, as I understand it, by the women of those communities ! I suppose it is human for those who have nothing other than what others donate to them [read taxpayers] to always want more. Hopefully some are grateful that they live in a country where others do support them through New Start and Centrelink even if not in the life style they would desire. I seem to recall that Christ pointed out to his followers that there was always some good to be found in the midst of rottenness and stench. [The dead dog with the very white, perfect set of teeth] We should all look to find the good rather than pick up the stones to throw at those we perceive to be less good than we ourselves. I think Christ also haD a bit to say about that.

john frawley | 14 February 2018  

Nah, Michael. I just wish people would grow up and take more responsibility for their own actions (Joyce and Hawke included), and, to just say 'no'. Children find it difficult to say no, but adults shouldn't. We have been brought up with the belief that's it's sort of OK to be unfaithful, so we are, even though we scream and cry when it does happen to us. While the heart feeds the head, the head needs to reign the heart in this matter. It is possible. We also need so much to relearn what real Love and commitment means. Seems everyone is too afraid of the latter at least, these days, which then makes the former more difficult because you cannot have one without the other.

Stephen de Weger ( | 14 February 2018  

Indeed marriage does not sufficiently protect women, especially where they have sacrificed much to raise children. It is certainly a risky business and much hinges on the reliability of a woman's partner. One of the axioms is that men don't change after marriage, so knowing one's prospective spouse without rose coloured glasses is vital. Kindness and consideration are probably the vital qualities. As for the DPM, he needs to resign forthwith. A man able to cheat and deceive his nearest and dearest cannot expect voters to believe anything he says. The depths of his hypocrisy are also revealed by his move to block Gardasil on the grounds that it might lead to promiscuity.

Llewellyn Davies | 14 February 2018  

The card may not be exclusive to the Aboriginal people in the communities where it was trialled John, but is exclusive to those Australians receiving support from the Commonwealth. If it's good enough to deny booze to those of us on welfare why is it not also good to deny booze to the rest of us? Surely booze is booze and dangerous for all. The reality is that these punishments that are made conditions of welfare are no different to the English Poor Laws of 1834 that made 'relief' conditional on entering the workhouse. And they are both based on the assumption that the poor are poor because they are too lazy to be anything else.

Ginger Meggs | 14 February 2018  

Llewellyn. If the DPM must "resign forthwith" so should a large proportion of the parliamentarians. Our parliamentary history is coloured by many more flamboyant, newsworthy, sex-based intrigues than poor old Barnaby's. If we are genuine in our self-righteousness, then we should be prepared to clean out a goodly portion of all parties in the house from the front benches down - including members of both sexes.

john frawley | 15 February 2018  

Tx Kate for articulating the obvious that marriage is obsolete in modern society. It merely perpetuates an out dated myth. Women are equal until they bear children or start doing the housework giving up work is suicidal. How come men dont race us to give up their jobs and raise the family upon marruing. Whether every woman has a job and keeps working beyond marriage or not, women largely do the wotk of caring and servicing the community on low wages Educated and better paid women can afford to pay mainly women to do what they wont or cant at lesser money than they earn. Why do women still name their children after the father many cultures do not. Why do we take mens names are we that insecure. It speaks volumes of what we tnink of ourselves. Most abuse in society is by males against women and children yet we perpetuate this outdated custom. How can women ever rise above this system of injustice and be denied equaluty that can never be. Lets call it for what it is.l

Jill Hutt | 15 February 2018  

I disagree with Kate - marriage in the Christian sense ( as against the Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu/ Jewish etc. sense) which is the form we have been used to in the West - is monogamous, heterosexual, and for life. This has meant that children were mostly cared for by their biological parents, and women were supported financially and in other ways while they raised young children, and then on into old age when they were not as attractive. Predatory men were made to commit and not given all their own way. Yes we have improved a lot in terms of the rights of women in marriage, but that doesn't mean dismissing Christian marriage as something of little influence on the flourishing of women. If it wasn't for these expectations Barnaby could have had many more progeny and abandoned women and children in his history.

Anne Rampa | 15 February 2018  

Some here disagree with the author's advocacy of women's rights and depiction of marriage as a recent and as yet inadequate secular and religious institution. There being a variety of daunting cultural, legal, and economic explanations for marital breakdown - individualism; widespread cohabitation, delayed marriage, easily available divorce, loss of lifelong employment, and the strain of political savagery, one shouldn't wonder at the turmoil in Barnaby Joyce's personal life. Catholics are formed not to condemn but to counter the prevailing culture with the Church's teaching on Love. “Only in love can I find you, my God. In love the gates of my soul spring open, allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom and forget my own petty self. In love my whole being streams forth out of the rigid confines of narrowness and anxious self-assertion, which make me a prisoner of my own impoverished emptiness. In love all the powers of my soul flow out towards you, wanting never more to return, but to lose themselves completely in you, since by your love you are the inmost centre of my heart, closer to me than I am to myself.” (Rahner, 'Encounters With Silence'). Let's show Barnaby that love.

Michael Furtado | 16 February 2018  

If 'the form [of marriage] we have been used to in the West' has any merit over other forms Anne it has nothing to do with it being 'Christian'. For centuries, the Church has used marriage to keep women in their place, barefooted, pregnant, and uneducated. Even the use of of marriage as a metaphor for the the relationship between Christ and his Church is one of superior/inferior, ordinate/subordinate. Every move to lift the stars of women to one of equality with men, be it concerned with property, divorce, political rights, access to employment, equal pay, or reproduction, has been resisted by the Church which for most of history has preferred to see them barefooted and pregnant, uneducated and unemployed.

Ginger Meggs | 16 February 2018  

Crikey, Ginger! Thank goodness my practising, convert-to-Catholicism wife has managed to avoid the contrived control of the Church. She has never gone barefooted, is well educated and never takes a backward step for anyone. I do admit that she has seven children but reckons its sad she couldn't have more. I hope they don't find out and excommunicate her!

john frawley | 16 February 2018  

Well, that's great John. Perhaps my comment was a bit OTT but I was reacting to my reading of Anne's assessment of the superiority of Christian marriage vis-a-vis other versions. Maybe I misread Anne, but I'm not convinced that Christian marriage has a monopoly on the virtues that Anne describes.

Ginger Meggs | 18 February 2018  

Why is it that some people love to flog the Christian faith but can't bear to see it's benefits? Sorry Ginger, but Christianity is the only religion I've ever heard of that preached monogamy - including indigenous spiritualities. Monogamy is a profound statement of equality between man and woman - and Jesus was the first feminist. He broke a lot of mores around the treatment of women. He spoke to them in public, He praised a bleeding woman for touching Him, He appeared first to women after the resurrection, He rescued a woman from stoning, He praised Mary for sitting listening to Him instead of helping prepare food - just some examples ... When His disciples complained about His teaching on monagamy and life time commitment (Matt. 19:4-6), because Moses hadn't demanded the same from them - He told them that was because they were too hard to teach! It was a hard teaching then, and it still is today ... Because of Jesus women knew and know their dignity before God as equal to that of men. Some men in the Churches have found that a hard teaching too, but many people have fought for the equality of women because of their Christian faith. The Quakers told me the first Women's Rights Convention in the USA, at Seneca Falls in New York. was a group of 12 women, and 10 of them were Quakers - the other 2 were probably Christian too...

Anne Rampa | 19 February 2018  

And the answer to your question, Anne, is that the Christian faith is more than the unalloyed teachings of Jesus in regard to women, sex & gender, as most on this platform will acknowledge. From reproductive rights to property ownership, the Church has taken a back seat on women's issues, except to reinforce a socially conservative agenda and one that has for centuries assigned to women roles emphasising docility, timidity, compliance and obedience. It follows that those who support what they call the Church's teaching on women invariably support a conservative policy agenda in regard to women's rights, at best inching forward at snail's pace - one step forward and two behind - in ways that privilege gendered difference rather than equality. Such programs would work well in an environment that poses withdrawal from the world as a context in which to protect the rights of women. However, the treadmill we live on is multifaceted, allowing no scope to plead a case for a campaign of 'Stop the world; I want to get off', except for dreamers and social and economic isolationists. To be a contemporary woman and Catholic one need look no further than the example of Dorothy Day.

Michael Furtado | 20 February 2018  

Michael - I am very glad that you mention Dorothy Day - an excellent example of a woman grounded in the Gospels and nourished by the Catholic Church she chose. She was, despite being a Catholic- which is supposed to be an impediment to this - an assertive, articulate, truthful woman, strong in faith, and self-sacrificial in her efforts to build a better world for everyone, especially the poor. I was brought up Catholic, going to Catholic girls schools, and I never felt it was my destiny to be barefoot, pregnant and uneducated! I am more highly educated than my husband, and have as much chance at leadership as I want. I have never felt educated to be timid!? St Catherine of Sienna mediated in the 1300's to convince Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. The Pope did what she said - that's more influence than anyone else had in her day in the Church. As far as the banter about 'reproductive rights' in this chat line - let me say that when a woman has an abortion her own child is killed inside her body - women are intelligent, sentient, people with a soul, - think of how that affects them! Dorothy Day was devastated by her abortion, and her subsequent pregnancy, and joy at being able to conceive a child again, led her into the Church.

Anne Rampa | 21 February 2018  

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