Originally published at Mumsnet.
Marriage has been a burning topic in the media this year – from the introduction of same sex marriage to the campaignfor mothers’ names on marriage certificates. As a recently-married feminist, it’s also been at the forefront of my mind for the last couple of years, as my (male) partner and I tried to figure out whether “marriage equality” is really possible. Weddings strike me as one of the few areas in life where some feminists are reluctant to be independent, opinionated and radical – and I didn’t want to fall into this category.
My partner and I had lots of questions: Could we avoid the sexist stereotypes and traditions inextricably linked to marriage? Would same sex marriage be legal by the time we got married? And, if so, would it force gay couples into these stereotypes – “so who’s the ‘bride’ and who’s the ‘groom’?” – or could it inspire all couples to re-frame their expectations of weddings and marriage? Could we really play around with marriage enough to turn something that’s so inherently sexist and unequal into something truly radical?
Despite setting a date two years in advance, the deadline for answering these questions rolled round much quicker than expected, and here I am, almost two months into married life, still not entirely sure of the answers.
When we got engaged I was nervous about telling my feminist friends, for fear that I’d be judged as a traitor to the cause. I’m well versed in the feminist arguments in opposition to marriage; as a historically patriarchal institution, it’s not served women particularly well over the years. In the UK, women’s rights both in marriage and in divorce have been hard won, and marital rape was only outlawed within my lifetime.
Feminist approaches to marriage differ widely – ranging from a belief that two feminists in love can work towards and achieve equality in marriage, to the more radical view that falling in love with, let alone marrying, a man is the ultimate example of sleeping with the enemy. For some feminists, marriage and the nuclear family are the key patriarchal structures – the means through which women find themselves trapped in a lifetime of domestic drudgery. It’s a fear that I know many young women are conscious of, but just how far have women and our relationships really come since Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique?
I was conscious that in a sense, I’d fallen at the first hurdle – wanting the same happily married family life with my partner that I’d grown up with. As always, there’s a difficult line to walk between the feminism of ideology and collective responsibility, and the feminism of individual choice.
There are certainly plenty of sexist hangovers tied up in the whole process of weddings and marriage, but many heterosexual couples do find ways to make equality work, both practically and symbolically. The engagement ring, for example, is traditionally a symbol of ownership, but alternative feminist options include either scrapping the ring altogether or, as we did at my partner’s request, both having one.
Despite having a ring each, I was conscious that in a sense, I’d fallen at the first hurdle – wanting the same happily married family life with my partner that I’d grown up with. As always, there’s a difficult line to walk between the feminism of ideology and collective responsibility, and the feminism of individual choice. Would other women judge my choice as anti-feminist for going against their ideological position? Or would they respect my decision and recognise the equality of our relationship? On the whole, my anxieties proved unfounded; many feminists sympathised with the dilemmas involved, and shared their own experiences, and if any did object to my treachery they at least chose not to voice it!
Once you’ve tackled the ring dilemma, navigating feminist wedding planning in a non-feminist world is full of pitfalls. First there’s the body shaming: the influx of ‘wedding diet’ ads appearing on your Facebook sidebar, and the seemingly innocuous “you’ve got a wedding dress to fit into” comments from your mother while you’re stuffing your face with cake. No amount of body-positive feminist theory can make you completely immune from those messages. Then you have to tackle the traditionalists. If I was nervous about talking about the wedding with my feminist friends, I was utterly petrified of telling the more traditional members of our family that I wanted to do things differently: that I was keeping my surname, that I wouldn’t be wearing a white dress. “Why are you being so awkward?” one friend asked, “stop trying to prove a point.” “You’ll look like a bridesmaid!” others warned, in bafflingly concerned tones. If anything these conversations made me more obstinate, and I married in teal.
I also didn’t want to conform to the gender segregation of ushers (who help) and bridesmaids (who stand around looking pretty). We had brideswomen and men, groomsmen and a groomswoman. Our bridesmen read a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and our groomswoman, a fellow feminist, read a WH Auden poem with the refrain “you’re my cup of tea”. We also requested a female registrar, to help counter the history of marriage as the proprietorial transaction of a woman between, and conducted by, men. Neither of us was “given away”, neither of us promised to obey. I loved the idea of my groom and I walking into the ceremony together, but couldn’t bear to disappoint my dad so, instead, we asked my mother-in-law to escort her only child down the aisle as well.
Do I believe you can be a feminist and get married in white? Sure. But not if you’re doing it because someone else insisted that “you have to because it’s tradition.” Why do you even have to wear a dress at all, if that’s just not you? If I’ve learnt anything at all, it’s that the key to feminist wedding planning is making your own decisions, rather than following the crowd.
A million and one other details are of course open to feminist critique if you over-analyse enough. Can you be a feminist and get married in heels? Is it anti-feminist to wear bridal make-up or shave your armpits before donning a sleeveless wedding dress? Probably not, in the grand scheme of things, but equally don’t feel that you have to. And can you be a feminist and still throw your bouquet, or have your groom publicly remove your garter with his teeth? I didn’t want to do either, but I’m sure it would have been possible to instigate a mixed gender scrum for the flowers.
Ultimately, there is no hard-and-fast rule for a ‘perfect’ feminist wedding, but it is a lot of fun to swap the role of bride for ‘creative director’ and give tradition a feminist re-imagining. Of course, whatever expectations you brilliantly subvert on the day, the most challenging part is yet to come; you’ve signed up to a lifetime of feminist marriage, so just make sure he’s committed to shared housework and childcare before you put a ring on it.
Sarah Graham: Feminism, journalism, literature, culture, life, love, and interviews with interesting women. Twitter: @SarahGraham7