Written by Sophie Scott


The thought of marriage… made me a feminist

Standard Issue writers are exploring when they knew they were feminist. For Sophie Scott it was the ‘traditions’ of a marriage.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

The earliest time I can recall thinking vaguely feminist thoughts was when I was a child and asking my parents about marriage.

Everything I heard seemed unbelievably unfair, such as:

a) Losing your original surname
b) Getting assigned either Miss or Mrs depending on your marital status
c) Being given away
d) Having your father, your husband and your husband’s friend talk at the wedding, but no women giving any speeches.

I thought I must be hearing it all wrong. It made no sense. Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves through this? As far as I could see, everything I learned about marriage (as an institution) suggested a lack of opportunities for women, doors being shut, identity lost.

It’s unfair to of me to imply the only reason I did a PhD was so I got the title ‘doctor’ (a real Dr as well, not those courtesy titles we give medics). But I still get a kick from saying, “IT’S DOCTOR ACTUALLY,” when asked if my title is Miss or Mrs.

Why should anyone want to know if I am married or not? I don’t ask people if they own their own homes (at least not when I first meet them), and we somehow get by without knowing about the martial status of men.

We were having these discussions in the early 1970s, not long after the Marriage Bar ended (around the 1950s, though longer in some jobs). The Marriage Bar meant women had to stop working when they got married. The civil service would not employ married women, for example.

“I thought I must be hearing it all wrong. It made no sense. Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves through this?”

This meant there were quite a lot of women around – such as many teachers at my school – who had never married because they wanted to work. There were also quite a lot of women who had wanted to work but had to stop because they got married (like my partner’s mum, who had to stop being a government scientist when she got married to his dad, also a government scientist but luckily the one that got to keep his job).

There were even women who had to keep their marriage secret for fear of losing their jobs. The bar was always a slightly moveable feast, was widely relaxed during wartime, and was not applied to poor women, who were always allowed to do menial work. The Marriage Bar was a fucking mess. Of course, now it’s 40 years later and women at work experience no problems at all any more *coughs, looks brightly around the room*.

The 1970s were a time of great change and women’s pressure groups led to some great changes for women. But birth control was not available on the NHS until 1974 and, until legislation in 1975, women could be sacked if they became pregnant.

Not all of the change was fast: rape by someone you are married to only became a crime in 1994.

Many of my reservations have lifted – women can chose a wider array of titles (though I note that men still do not have to choose and that Mr still comes at the top of most lists). People often keep their name. I also appreciate that marriage has generally remained hugely popular despite my reservations, and that it means a lot to people that they have the choice to get married or not.

Same-sex marriage was only made expressly illegal in 1971, UK marriage fact fans! I never did get married, but if I did – and I won’t, but if I did – I still don’t want to be given away, and you can guarantee that some women would definitely be doing the speeches.

Read about more of our writers’ feminist lightbulb moments here.


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Written by Sophie Scott

I am a cognitive neuroscientist at UCL, and I study brains, voices, speaking and laughing. In my spare time I try to turn theory into practice with science based stand up comedy. @sophiescott