For the past two months, British newspaper readers have been riveted by the sage of Vicky Price and Chris Huhne. Here’s the story in brief: Price and Huhne were a British power couple. He was a liberal democratic member of Parliament and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, while Price, an immigrant from Greece, was a high-flying academic who had served as Chief Economist in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Reform. They divorced in June 2010. During the divorce proceedings, Pryce gave a series of interviews alleging that they had had an abusive marriage in which he had coerced her on numerous occasions. According to Pryce, he forced her to sign a legal document saying that she had been the driver of the car when he was arrested for speeding in 2003, claiming that being convicted of such a charge could cost him his career. She also alleged that he pressured her to have an abortion on two occasions – the first time she complied while the second time she refused, going on to have a son.
In the legal trial which followed – both were tried for perverting the course of justice due to the fraud committed when Pryce took the speeding points for her husband – she adopted an unusual legal defense. She claimed that she was not liable for her unlawful behavior because it was an act of marital coercion. The coercion defense dates back to the seventh century in Britain when women had no legal rights or independent social, political or economic identity. In the original case, a husband hid stolen goods in the family home and the wife claimed that she felt forced to go along with his larcenous behavior since she had no independent means or recourse. She was found innocent by reason of marital coercion.
However, in 2013 (some thirteen hundred years later), Pryce lost her trial and now faces jail time, along with her ex-husband. The situation has led to a debate in Britain about the notion of martial coercion. At present, legal analysts claim that the defense is outdated for two reasons: First women today have independent legal status, along with incomes and careers. It is difficult to see how a woman could be coerced, they argue, when she clearly has the option of leaving the marriage. In other words, the law is outdated because marriage is no longer a patriarchal institution.
Second, some analysts argue that it is wrong – and in violation of European Human Rights legislation – to claim that only women can be coerced in an intimate relationship. Thus the law is discriminatory since it does not afford the same protection to everyone– including those in non-traditional partnerships. It improperly privileges both marriage and the rights of women in according this protection to them alone.
The stance advocated by both the jury and the judge in the Pryce case represents a clear shift from traditional 1970’s feminist thinking. Back then, scholars described marriage as an inherently repressive institution which did not benefit women and always oppressed them. Later, marriage was deemed to be an irrelevant institution, which conferred no utility upon the participants, and which should not be treated as in any way special or unique. In current debates about gay marriage, the thinking has changed again – with advocates noting that marriage benefits the participants and society, and that this benefit should be available to all. This argument against marital coercion legislation also represents an end to feminist essentialism arguments which suggested that women were inherently more peaceful or more fragile and that masculine behavior was inherently more belligerent. The new viewpoint suggests that both sexes have the potential for violence, aggression and coercion within marriage and that therefore women should not be afforded special protection.
The problem with both of these arguments is that they ignore other worldwide/global realities. Those who pillory Price and ask why she did not simply leave sound a great deal like those who would blame a woman for being raped.
It is also far too simplistic to argue that coercion no longer exists and that protections are no longer required. Even in Britain, statistics presented by Plan UK note that ten percent of adolescent girls in the UK marry before the age of eighteen. They note that worldwide, “every three seconds a girl becomes a child bride,” with the average age of marriage in some African nations hovering around fifteen. In addition, gendercide of female fetuses still exists – in India, in China and even in the US and the UK. Just this week, the British press reported on women in England who were pressured by their husbands and families to abort their female fetuses. (Even a prominent female physician felt powerless to resist deeply ingrained cultural attitudes and family power structures.) In another high profile case a surrogate was pressured to abort a child with birth defects. In addition, we can still identify situations where husbands will not ‘permit’ their wives to work, and feminist analysts have suggested that domestic violence within marriage represents a sort of internal terrorism.
So how do we reconcile these two conflicting views of marriage and intimate relations? Clearly, the jurors believed that Vicky Price could not have been coerced within the bounds of marriage because she was wealthy and educated. And certainly it upsets the feminist ‘party line’ to believe that even wealthy, educated women might be coerced into making reproductive choices by other people. Similarly, it is disturbing to contemplate that despite strides being made in women’s political representation and education, marriage may still be harmful to at least some women both in the UK and worldwide.
The problem is that in establishing an upper-middle class, educated, white woman as the standard for feminist thinking, we have (once again) failed to focus on the fact that she herself is an anomaly. It would be wrong to adopt universal policies regarding marital coercion or indeed marriage in general by making reference to this one isolated and atypical case. As we think about issues of human security, about the vulnerability of women who are refugees, immigrants and victims of war, we need to acknowledge that women are often uniquely vulnerable and deserving of special protection. Admitting this does not make anyone a bad feminist, nor does it affect the agenda of those who wish to provide more opportunities for women everywhere.
The danger is if Western policymakers continue to see middle-class white women as the ‘typical woman’ and to assume that policy prescriptions in the West will work equally well elsewhere in the world. For example, rolling back legislation which protects women within marriage in the UK might establish a standard which could then become a universal norm. This does not create a positive worldwide precedent.
Mary Manjikian is an Assistant Professor at the Robertson School of Government in Virginia Beach, VA. She is currently a Fulbright Research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University in the UK. She is the author of three books on international security.