A Few Good Men

Photo credit: Scott Webb

I am twelve, or thereabouts. For the first time in my life, I have become aware of a particular social norm, whereby it is considered traditional that if ever a man would want to marry me, he might expect to ask my father for permission.

I find this distasteful. As yet, I do not understand why, and as I get older I will learn about the historical legal ownership of women by men, the Married Women’s Property Act, and suffrage. For now, all I know is that I do not like the idea of my father having a say over how I lead my life when I will be a grown-up.

My father promises me that, if ever a man comes to him asking permission to marry me, he will give no answer other than: ‘Have you asked her permission?’

I am fifteen, or thereabouts. There is a particular teacher in my school, of whom most students are a little bit afraid. He teaches history, he has a fierce temper, a cutting wit — and a streak of kindness a mile wide. He is one of the largest men I have ever met.

One day, a male student in my year pushes a female student in the playground, and tries to grab her breast. He does this right outside the window of the history teacher’s classroom. The next thing he knows, the history teacher is roaring in his face in front of a hundred other students. He is forced to apologise to the girl, which he does so stammeringly. The history teacher makes it abundantly clear that, should he ever catch the boy raising his hand to a girl again, his parents will find a letter landing on their doormat.

I have witnessed countless acts of sexual microaggression (and not-so-microaggression) in the playground and the classroom, and this is the first time I have seen a teacher speak out against it.

The history teacher also teaches citizenship. Under his guidance, we discuss the division of domestic labour, analysing the housework our fathers do compared to our mothers, and find the situation wanting. In one of my final lessons with him, he has one message for every girl in the room: ‘If a man ever raises a hand to you, leave. Walk out. Take your children, if you have any. Don’t look back.’

I am twenty. I am sitting in a restaurant, opposite a young man I quite like. It’s a cheap restaurant, because even splitting the bill that’s all we can really afford. We talk about the things that young people talk about when they are beginning to fall in love — our hopes for the future, our beliefs both negotiable and non-negotiable. I mention that I like my name, and would never change it if I got married.

‘Why not?’

‘Why should I?’

He thinks for a moment, then nods, and the conversation moves on.
Weeks later, I ask him about it, trying to gauge his thought processes. He confesses that it had never really occurred to him to question the social norm of a woman changing her name on marriage, but I have made him look at it differently. I am the first openly-identifying feminist he has been close to, and I cause him to hold up his opinions and analyse them through a new lens. He realises his privilege, and that awareness changes him.

When we are married, I do not take his name. It does not even occur to him to ask my father’s permission.

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