Laura was about to get married. In her article, she discussed the dilemma she faced that marriage and feminism might be mutually exclusive.
As she wrote, “Loving someone, and saying that in front of family and friends, shouldn’t be controversial. Yet the whole ritual is riddled with patriarchal symbolism“. And yet on the other hand, “… it was a commitment my partner and I wanted to make. It felt right for me. And surely at least a small part of being a feminist means forging new paths through old traditions?”
So quite how sexist is marriage?
It is easy to see how some of the traditions of a wedding – as the beginning of marriage – could be viewed as sexist, if you choose to see them that way.
- The groom proposes to the bride.
- The groom asks the bride’s father for permission to marry her.
- Only the bride wears an engagement ring, supposedly as a symbol of ownership.
- The bride is ‘given away‘ by one man to another man.
- Only the bride says ‘obey‘.
- Only male voices are heard at the wedding speeches.
- The bride takes on her husband’s name and thereby loses part of her identity.
(Actually, the bit about the bride ‘obeying’ has long gone, unless the couple wishes to reinstate it. In any case, my wife said it to me when we married 29 years ago and (a) I didn’t ask her to obey, (b) I’m not entirely sure she meant it, and (c) I’m certain I would neither want to – or be able to – enforce it!)
None of these traditions are set in stone. They are not the law on marriage. The legal minimum requirement for marriage is to give 28 days notice beforehand and make a ‘declaratory statement‘ that you can legally marry and a ‘contracting statement‘ that you take each other as husband/wife. All you need is two witnesses, £81 in fees, and an extra £4 if you want that magic ‘piece of paper’.
And yet all (or almost all) of these traditions are actually rooted in sound human psychology, good sense, or just plain niceness.
Let’s leave aside the asking for her hand in marriage bit. All those years ago, I asked my prospective father-in-law. More recently, my prospective son-in-law asked me. I don’t think any of the various mothers or daughters involved thought of this as sexist. The important decision between fiance and fiancee had already been made. The rest was tradition. For me, it was nice asking as a groom and nice being asked as a parent. If it needs to be different, then so be it. It’s just a nice thing to do.
Likewise the ‘giving away’ bit. Walking my daughter up the aisle two years ago was one of my greatest ever lifetime experiences. I highly recommend it to all. Had my wife asked to do it, I might have fought a bit over this. But in the end, it’s about the bride and groom leaving their families to form a new family. Anyway, there’s two ways of looking at this. I don’t remember feeling left out standing at the altar waiting for my bride. If a crowd of brides and grooms both want to walk up the aisle with both sets of parents, or any combination of the above, that’s fine by me. I suspect one bride and one parent is for practical reasons as much as any other.
Let’s also dispense with the male speeches. Had my daughter, my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law made any noises whatsoever about doing a speech, their contribution would have been welcomed. Did they feel inhibited? I doubt it. I think they were just glad somebody else made the jokes.
Finally the name thing is all pretty sensible. Keeping maiden names to maintain an established work identity can make sense. Equally, changing names to reflect a new identity also makes sense. After all, you have formed a new family unit. There is an argument that taking on the husband’s name allows a continuation of family history. But that could apply equally well to the wife’s family name. In Iceland, your children are named somebody-daughter or somebody-son. So I’m not sure it’s so essential. The whole double-barrel thing is a fairly new phenomenon that, I confidently predict, will come a cropper when the next generation try and work out what to call themselves! Most of us have one surname to keep things simple. In the end, it’s whatever works for you.
However one potentially sexist tradition remains very important. And that is for a man to propose to a woman, rather than the other way round. Modern research (pdf) is confirming what traditions have been telling us for millennia. If you want a man to commit, you need him to make a decision for himself. He’s got to step deliberately across a threshold, really buy into it, to ‘decide‘ he wants to commit rather than ‘slide‘ into commitment. That’s much less true for women whose commitment seems, on average, to be much more about attachment, physical contact, and bonding. There’s a good reason why women are traditionally only meant to propose on a leap day every fourth year. There will always be exceptions. But when men don’t decide, they tend not to stick around.
I’ve come across this many times with couples whose marriage is on the brink. Get them to tell the story of how they met and how they got married. All too often you can see the problem started right there. I’ve no idea what the percentages are. But it happens a lot. When the going got tough, or merely everyday mundane, it was the husband who either sought solace elsewhere or ran. He never bought in in the first place.
That leads to the single most important reason why feminists should embrace the wider concept of marriage with open arms. It’s a reason Laura Bates missed in her article but may have intuitively recognised in her desire to get married.
- Marriage is the most equal of all relationships.
That’s because – for those who do ‘decide‘ rather than ‘slide‘ – the expectation and plan for the future is so clear. Both parties buy in. Both have explicitly agreed to spend the rest of their lives together. There’s no scope for doubt in terms of intentions. Of course not all couples achieve their plan. Of course many couples divorce. But all couples start off with the same plan. And that’s what makes marriage equal.
If you doubt this, think for a moment about who holds the power in any relationship. Both power and control are held by the person who is least committed. Whenever the less committed person feels slighted or hurt or unhappy or unfairly treated – whether real or perceived – they are the one who is most likely to threaten to pull the plug. The more committed person will instinctively know this and jump through hoops and tread on eggshells to avoid difficult situations, so that they don’t walk away.
The more committed one is thus controlled by the less committed one. Typically, this involves more women being controlled by men than the other way round. The ‘sliding/deciding‘ research shows how it tends to be the men who are less committed.
How do you minimise this problem of control? By having equal commitment.
And that’s why feminists should embrace marriage – where commitment is clear and mutual and power is equal – and reject cohabitation – where, more often than not, commitment is unclear and ambiguous and power is lopsided, usually in favour of the man.
How you celebrate it at the wedding is up to you.