dik dik.jpg

Have you heard the news? Weddings have just become less sexist! Or they might become less sexist, if renowned feminist campaigner David Cameron has his way. He’s pledged a change to the marriage certificate, which in England and Wales currently names the fathers of the bride and groom and gives their occupations while skipping out any information on the mothers. Well, not for much longer! Soon (maybe) a new version will give just as many details on both mum and dad.

Let’s be realistic though: when I say weddings will become “less sexist”, I’ve set the bar pretty low. This is an event where, traditionally, a woman wearing virginity-signifying clothing is given by one man to another and assumes his identity. Creepy stuff, I’d say, but apparently I’m in the minority.

The thing is, while pretty much everybody acknowledges the sexist trappings of marriage, two prevailing ways of thinking tend to dominate the response.

The first is that it doesn’t really matter. Tradition has this effect on people. I mean, sure, it’s a bit weird that wearing white is supposed to indicate my sexual purity, but it wouldn’t feel like a real wedding if I wore a different colour! And nobody really cares about that stuff anyway: it’s just kind of quaint now.

This probably stems from how conditioned we are to appreciate traditional weddings. From Shakespeare to Cinderella, weddings mean a happy ending. That ‘perfect day’ is held up as an ambition (particularly for women) and when it comes to it, the fairytale wedding matches the fantasy much better than attempting to shake off the sexism. It’s not uncommon to hear people who otherwise espouse completely feminist principles to justify their white wedding by saying it’s what they wanted all along. I understand that – even I, with my apparently stony heart, can appreciate the attraction – but we know that no choice is made in a vacuum. If we had never encountered weddings before, how many of us would now redesign the traditional way to express your hopefully unending devotion to your partner?

The other widespread approach is to attempt to have a feminist wedding. Don’t like the bit where you promise to honour and obey? Bin it! Think it’s kind of prehistoric to have only men giving speeches at the reception? Give granny that microphone! Find the idea of proposals a bit one-sided? Get down on one knee, sister – to hell with leap years!

Ok. That’s kind of cool. But why are we even bothering? Marriage is an institution imbued with sexism – right from the origins of being used as a convenient way to transfer property to the modern day connotations exploited by shows like Don’t Tell The Bride. You might do everything you can to subvert tradition but you can’t escape the way society will interpret the action of wedding. Pretty much every woman who’s been married for a few years can reveal some way in which society attempts to undermine their independence and dictate their decisions – whether it’s the insistence of misnaming them as Mrs Husband’s Name, the assumption of a bank that their husband will need to be consulted, the expectation that after wedding comes babies…the list goes on.

At the most basic level, most couples getting married are doing so because they want to be publicly committed to each other – it’s an act of love. As far as I know, most are not doing it for the bonus sexism. To me, that means we don’t need to keep ourselves tethered to this unfortunate exercise. I believe that it’s quite possible to feel the strongest of loves for somebody and express this to others if necessary, without getting married. It’s just that getting married is what we do.

Every wedding contributes to the societal idea that weddings are how we communicate love and lasting partnership. Even a super-feminist one reiterates that getting married is the thing to do – and in some ways, it probably does this even more strongly, as it suggests that weddings can be separated from their unfeminist heritage.

It’s hard to be the odd ones out. But it’s time to acknowledge: we don’t have to do this. The more of us who reject an institutionalised take on relationships, the less marriage will be seen as a rite of passage. We don’t need feminist weddings if we aren’t resigned to having weddings in the first place. It’s time to disengage.

The image is by Michael Hummel and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows two dik diks standing together from behind. Dik diks are antelopes that are monogamous but do not participate in wedding ceremonies. Although, of course, marriage doesn’t imply monogamy. I just liked the antelopes.

Comments From You

Liz Smith // Posted 22 August 2014 at 7:34 am

Brilliant piece. Sums up many of the reasons myself and my partner have decided not to get married. However we still have to deal with people who assume that our unmarried status means we are not committed or not that serious about one another.

Ronia // Posted 22 August 2014 at 9:55 am

Unfortunately it’s not as easy as all that to say ‘let’s just reject marriage’ when the truth is that for many women in particular it offers a legal security that’s necessary and makes good sense to buy into.

Any women who have children and earn less than their partner, or don’t earn at all, are left in an extremely vulnerable position if they separate. Having been married affords them rights for them and their children over their home for instance that they don’t have without it. A couple can make a decision to have children and be largely supported by the higher earning partner, who may solely pay the mortgage for instance. If they separate and are not married, the low/non-earning partner has little or no rights to continue living in that property.

Cat // Posted 22 August 2014 at 10:17 am

I am a firm believer of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) so if you want to get married that’s fine by me, when’s the party? At the same time though, I agree with you completely Megan, that the idea that marriage of being THE way to show love and commitment to your partner is total balls. It frustrates me no end that people will see my relationship with my partner as less ‘serious’ and question our commitment to each other simply because we have not filled out a bunch of legal forms. And I find it quite laughable that when we eventually come to have children (out of wedlock!) there will still be people (hello, Grandma) who will be affronted that we haven’t done things in the ‘right order’.

Megan Stodel // Posted 22 August 2014 at 10:37 am

@Ronia – I completely agree! I can certainly see why there are some reasons why women decide to get married that are based in necessity/practicality – and it would certainly be interesting to have a blog post dedicated to that discussion. My contribution to that would that (a) I’d like to see legal diversification that can accord appropriate protection to people in relationship structures without privileging marriage, but I suspect there needs to be a lot more agitation around that before it becomes something any government will seriously engage with. Also, the more advantages the law confers on marriage, the harder it is to disengage with it, and I find that a problematic form of choice architecture considering that it’s not obvious why marriage is a preferable form of relationship than many other happy arrangements. And (b) I therefore think that the onus of challenging marriage is on the couples who really aren’t doing it for those reasons – the more privileged among us who perpetuate the pressure to marry as an affirmation of relationships (and thus the preferential status attached to marriage) but who would not be disadvantaged if they chose to reject the institution.

Cycleboy // Posted 22 August 2014 at 2:58 pm

One of the aspects of weddings (not marriage) that has always perturbed me is the bru-haha that accompanies them. When one sees the ceremony that surrounds weddings in such places as Yemen, Afghanistan, Arabia etc, then reflects on the position of women in those societies, one cannot help but suspect (at the very least) that weddings are something of a trick to distract the bride from the life that will follow.

Cycleboy // Posted 22 August 2014 at 3:06 pm

Ronia: “Any women who have children and earn less than their partner, or don’t earn at all, are left in an extremely vulnerable position if they separate.”

Maybe the lack of legal security would force prospective cohabitees to discuss and confront the reality of their future life a little more and the ‘fluff’ of the wedding day a little less. Akin to driving a car with a spike pointing at your chest; it would focus the mind.

The Goldfish // Posted 23 August 2014 at 3:35 pm

The “why bother?” is answered by the fight for equal marriage. I also think same-gender marriages are showing straight folk the way as to how to do make such public commitments without all the gendered baggage.

Personally, I like the public commitment aspect – even when people do this without the legal bit, it still looks like the vast majority of marriages throughout history, which were simply a public promise and celebration. I also like next of kin aspect – I want my partner to be legally recognised as my closest family member. Although you can write wills and (still, alas, legally non-binding) living wills, marriage covers everything, including property and pension rights, and protects both parties in the event of a split.

I’m glad you mentioned privilege here, as for some people, there’s very little choice (e.g. one of you is a foreign national) or immense social pressure from family or community. Meanwhile, there are folk who would very much like to marry but for whom it’s prohibitively expensive (largely because of all the gender and status-related frippery of what a wedding is supposed to look like).

However, I am firmly in agreement with the idea of broadening the contract so that any two people can become next-of-kin and have property rights, regardless of the nature of their relationship. It is fundamentally unjust that we privilege a romantic bond over a close friendship or sibling relationship where two people live together and share their lives.

Cycleboy – the trouble is the nature, distribution and cost involved in the risk. Sensible and cautious people are seduced by cheats and abusers (including very dangerous ones) for many complex reasons. Although this happens to both men and women, in all kinds of relationships, the cost of either remaining in these relationships or leaving without financial means currently falls most heavily upon women, who are likely to earn less and are likely to be primary caregivers (and, in the case of abuse, absolutely have to take their children with them).

Obviously, far better that people only enter happy, healthy relationships, and legal protection in case of a split is a very bad reason to get married (I have experience here – you can guess how that worked out). However, when things go wrong, it’s not necessarily an act of wanton carelessness on the part of the most vulnerable of two parties.

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