There’s something very wrong with marriage in England and Wales that you’re probably not aware of. I wasn’t until this year, when I was asked to fill out some paperwork ahead of my wedding in June. Take a look at the example marriage certificate below to see whether you can pinpoint what makes this document utterly anachronistic. (Hint: mum’s the word.)
If your eyes have studied the part reserved for parents and you’re wondering where the area saved for mothers is, you’ll be looking a long time. That’s because it’s forbidden to list your mother on a marriage certificate issued under the jurisdiction of England and Wales. Yes, that’s right: forbidden.
This astounding fact applies regardless of the type of wedding, or what kind of officiant marries you. Yet in Scotland and Northern Ireland, both parents are listed on marriage certificates. What’s going on with this seemingly un-united anomaly within an ostensibly forward-thinking, inclusive part of the United Kingdom? What about people who have no relationship with their father? Whether it’s because they genuinely never knew their father, or because they wish to preclude him from getting a name-check (no, family dynamics can’t always be fixed with a good old cup of tea and a resolute heart-to-heart), there’s a spectacularly Dickensian solution to this scenario. In the acceptable absence of a biological father, the box marked ‘Parent’ will bear the word ‘Unknown’, regardless of a mother’s solo triumph at raising an individual.
Stepfathers don’t qualify either, unless they’ve officially adopted the person in question. As for two female parents: my guess is that this is frustratingly complicated – possibly even distressing – to get around.
This draconian piece of legislation exists in 2016 because, basically put, it’s the way it’s always been since certifying marriages became a legal requirement around 1838. The details established back then at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign have never been changed. In 2014, the issue was raised in Parliament after a petition on Change.org was signed by nearly 80,000 people.
Like him or loathe him, this is what PM at the time, David Cameron said: “The content of marriage registers in England and Wales… require details of the couples’ fathers, but not their mothers. This clearly doesn’t reflect modern Britain – and it’s high time the system was updated.”
But as adamant as Cameron was for redress, the Home Office rejected it. Their reason? HO Minister Richard Harrington claimed that changing the law to include mothers on marriage certificates “wouldn’t allow for different family circumstances”. Which begs the question: what different family circumstances? Same sex male couples? At least the box grants male couples their gender. And what about non-binary parents?
Two centuries on since certifying this rite of passage became requisite, there are some things about marriage that have come so brilliantly far within the last 10 years; while something as quietly heroic as the work of mothers still fails to be recognised. To me, a feminist by definition for the reason that I’ve always assumed I can, it’s a sobering realisation that, maybe, we’ve still got a very long way to go.