Anna Rawhiti-Connell considers Clementine Ford’s latest book, a manifesto against marriage.
Of all the balls and chains I have attached to my ankle over my life, the notion that marriage is hard and we do not talk about that enough is a truth I will take to my grave, the hill I will die on.
Women who dare expose anything about their marriages beyond the strictures of domestic comedy are generally not welcome in the public sphere. Men do not have a hope of speaking truthfully about it in public unless they adopt a stunted language steeped in socially sanctioned misogyny. The kind that originated in cartoons and sitcoms and is rolled out in carbon copy on TikTok or Instagram these days.
Last year, Heather Havrilesky released her book Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage. It’s ultimately an affectionate portrait of marriage where she concludes that it “requires turning down the volume on your spouse”. She was savaged by the mainstream press in the US, subject to a dressing down by Whoopi Goldberg on The View for describing her husband as a “smelly heap of laundry”. She also describes him as her favourite person.
Clementine Ford, a self-described “very online feminist”, doesn’t just have a hill to stand and die on but a fortress from which to speak her truth, built over the years of a very public life. In her latest book, I Don’t: The Case Against Marriage, Ford isn’t interested in talking about marriage within its confines. She is launching a full-scale war against it. No matter how desirous of evolved public conversation I might be in picking up this book, Ford doesn’t care. She is consumed only with condemning marriage and tearing it down.
I Don’t is a manifesto. Ford lays that out from the start.
“I have no interest in marriage’s salvation, and I make no apologies for that. Like the nineteenth-century anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre before me, I seek to abolish completely what is a corrupt and oppressive institution.”
Such a blunt statement about her parameters, so early in the book, proved an initial source of irritation. Why not state the case, and then draw the conclusion that marriage is beyond redemption? Ford is also clear that I Don’t is not to be taken by the reader as a personal attack. She does not blame anyone for being married nor for wanting to be married. There’s a requirement that you be capable of divorcing the intellectual from the emotional, and the systemic from the personal, if you are to stomach this book.
Ford lays out further rules for reading. You must understand it as the perspective of a white woman living in Australia and that same-sex marriages will not be treated as an exceptional or sacred cow.
This unfurling of caveats is a tic often observed in writers who are “very online”. It seems to serve as a way of preemptively weakening counter-arguments and apologising for them and the pulpit you’ve been given to deliver them from, lest anyone be offended or unaware of your sensitivity towards your subject matter.
To get a couple more stylistic niggles out of the way now, Ford writes as she speaks, especially in the early part of the book, and it sometimes results in clunky bracketed asides. “What with me being a woman and all”, “Silly bitch”, “Ha ha” and “frivolous girl brain”. These attempts to collude with the reader and weaponise self-deprecation end up landing as defensive and unnecessary flinches. As a reader, they can make you feel like you’re having the obvious stated at you while also having the obvious explained. You can, ironically, feel a bit robbed of agency, a victim or villain within a scheme of ideologies and systems. These reduce in frequency as the book goes on. I also listened to the audio version of the book, as well as reading it. Listening to Ford brought the asides to life. There’s a whole other article in how audio books change your relationship with a text.
The book is in four parts, borrowing its structure from the wedding day ditty “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. The Cat Lady chapter that begins the Something Old section opens hard and fast with an already determined and unapologetic conclusion.
“No matter what euphemism our relentlessly misogynistic society has coined to describe women who choose to live alone, the underlying message from the outside world is “WE DON’T FUCKING TRUST YOU WITCH”.
Ford often does this in opening chapters, leaping from an assumed acceptance of her statement straight to a quite dramatic example.
It’s worth giving Ford time to get past this and into her rigorous and unflinching deconstructions of marriage origin stories. This chapter and the following one on Spinsters are detailed historical examinations of the Reformation, the Malleus Maleficarum, witch hunts, the distortion and exploitation of women’s labour and the development of common law. They lay the foundation for understanding how unmarried women came to be demonised and why marriage as an economic, political and societal structure persists, despite all evidence we’ve been presented with, and the evidence Ford assembles in her book.
“A new story about an old lie” is emblazoned on the cover of this book, and Ford is at her best when she traces the lines between contemporary reality, mythology, historical fact and patriarchal convenience and oppression. As Ford notes, US Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito references legal scholar Sir William Hale in the Roe v Wade opinion that has upended abortion rights in the US. Hale is the author of Historia Placitorum Coronæ, published after his death in 1736. It is the common law origin of the marital rape exemption within the justice system. Legislation was passed in 1986 in New Zealand to eliminate that exemption. It’s not a distant memory. There will be women alive today who lived with it. There are women who still live with it, despite the “protection” afforded by the law.
From Something Old, Ford deftly swings to Something New, assassinating the marriage proposal as performance. It is one of the strongest chapters in the book as it blows a hole through the idea that in this day and age, marriage is an equal and mature meeting of minds in search of mutual and lifelong partnership and satisfaction. To rationally look at the concept of the surprise proposal and still defend it as “romance” is to accept that marriage is such an indestructible and powerful force that it continues to obliterate the last century of equal rights advancement. Ford’s anecdotes about friends helping plan surprise proposals for people who have been on the record as never wanting to get married, speaks to the persistence of the not-so-secret misbelief that underneath it all, everyone really does, no matter what they say.
Something Borrowed unpacks choice feminism by examining the surname change question. As time has marched on beyond the simpler binaries of second-wave feminism, a chasm has opened up and filled with “choice”. Everything is feminist if you choose it. Skincare is feminist if you choose it. Exchanging the only name you’ve had for your husband’s name is feminist if you choose it. My husband and I made our own, which we share, by borrowing a bit of his and smashing it together with the whole of mine. He remains in a small minority of men who do that.
Something Blue turns over a few sods around popular culture. The chapter on the influence of popular film and television and the rom com is perhaps a bit light. There is a paint-by-numbers dissection of the Little Mermaid as an allegory for the fate of women, which is thin, if only because Ford’s previous chapter on social media is so strong. Ford quotes Anna Lembke, who calls social media a way to “drugify human connection”. Of all the methods deployed to buttress marriage, the repetition and recycling of marriage tropes online (male incompetence, the comedy wife) is the one that feels most potent right now. We are literally trapped in a loop.
My initial irritations about Ford’s caveats at the start dissipated by the end. If you have no familiarity with the kind of life Ford leads, the abuse she’s received for daring to have a well-educated and public point of view is laid bare towards the end. That may be the origin of her desire to speak in familiar and colloquial tones to readers and her sensitivity about what she is able to speak on. The last chapters are used to tell her own story, which does the book an enormous service. The risk of writing the systemic is you miss hitting an emotional core. Ford doesn’t owe us an explanation for why she’s so passionate about binning marriage, but she gives one nonetheless. It’s moving and soulful.
For Ford, marriage is not a soulful thing, however, and long-term, de facto partnerships escape examination in this book. It’s a deliberate choice. Ford’s thesis is that the institution of marriage is a system of oppression, an infinite stacking of rings around the bodies of women so as to choke off our air supply. It is not anti-love or partnership. It is the aggrandised and mythologised association between love and partnership and the institution that Ford detests.
Ford asserts that if we knew, we wouldn’t. If “the system was honest about what it expected of women… then women would chew off their own legs to avoid being caught in the trap”. What if we do know, but we do it anyway? The book leaves dangling questions about why we persist with marriage. The case for being single, living alone or in ways viewed as “alternative” is made, but there is a hole where a discussion of the merits of partnership outside marriage should be.
This is only a book that can be stomached if you are prepared to hold a couple of truths at the same time and sit with them. You have to be OK with your own choices while understanding that they’re not entirely a product of your own agency. That is the triumph of this book. It holds hope that we can do that. Right now, it’s so easy to swim exclusively in lanes that only give buoyancy to the views we want to hold. It’s a brave act to promote something that challenges something as pervasive as the institution of marriage, knowing it will be perceived as radical and incendiary, and still hope that is received as wisdom. Stripped back, what Ford says about marriage shouldn’t be radical or incendiary but liberatory. That should be a hill we’re all prepared to die on.