Feminists should embrace marriage

Rather late in the day, I happened to come aross an article in the Guardian written a year ago by Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism and proud new owner of a British Empire Medal.

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.


One thought on “Feminists should embrace marriage

  1. Harry, your right the traditions are not a legal requirement, but something that has been discovered to be a sound basis for this significant institution we call marriage.
    Many of the traditions reflect centuries of the out working of this practice, which recognise the critical features involved.
    A man, a woman, a husband, a father, a son, a daughter. The Equality agenda of our last decade or two has unfortunately dispensed with recognising the diverse elements each of these represent, taking into consideration not just physical differences, but emotional and psychological differences between a man and woman. Equal value, does not mean equal function. This may not be politically correct, but even the physical nature teaches us this. Men and women differ.

    This has become more evident to me as father of 4 children. 2 boys and 2 girls. My relationship with my girls differs to that of my boys. I know the needs of my daughters from me as a father, differ to that of my boys. My daughters need an affirmation and endorsement that differs from the boys. It also differs from that which my wife gives. I model toward my daughter, what she see comes to expect in a man. That is a fact. If I treat women with dignity and respect, she sees that as a standard, to look for in a man, and how men should treat her. (All men, not just a potential husband) This is the formative principles that shape a life in childhood through parenting. Our children, boys and girls, receive their perspective on their own gender, and opposite, through the behaviour of their parents. The mother and father compliment both the son and daughter, so each has an understanding of the other.
    This is how traditional marriage has established the principles we know and recognise.
    While my daughter is only 12, I have come to realise what it means for the traditions outlined in your article.
    For a man to marry my daughter, as her protector, defender, provider of her material, spiritual, and emotional needs, as a man, ( differing, not exclusive to that of my wife and her mother) for another man to come on the scene, I want to know he will treat her with the same dignity and respect I have shown her during her time. It is only when I am satisfied that this man intends to treat her with dignity and respect, as a man, that I am prepared to consent, and allow him to marry her.
    That is symbolised in me “giving her” away to another. Having invested the previous 18, 20, 30 years in being that male role model for her. (Depending on the age she marries.)
    Therefore, it is not a case simply that any “parent”, either mother or father “gives away” the daughter or son, because to make it “equal”, fails to consider or reflect the true relationships involved, and the human psychology that is being represented by such symbolic actions. The giving away is symbolic of how father has treated daughter.
    Unfortunately elements of the equality agenda destroy and undermines the truth, that has been discovered by centuries of traditional marriages. Men and women are equal, but not the same. A husband and wife, son and daughter, father and mother, are very different, and to undermine their unique characteristics and make them equal in “function”, rather than equal in “value”, destroys the strength that comes from the unique features of each aspect. The idea a mother can give away her son, and man wears an “engagement ring” to show a woman has promised to marry him, is just a farce. It just pushes equal function for the sake of it, instead of reflecting the truth of the relationships involved.
    Now for many, people, go through these “rituals” perhaps in ignorance of what they represent, but that does not mean they are to be done away with or can simply be changed. Many fathers may not treat their daughters as they should. They may not be good role models, they may not protect and defend them from males who may treat them wrong. But that does not mean we abandon the truth of what we have discovered over centuries, that has been refined and reflected in our traditions.

    I hope to one day I may give away my daughter in marriage. But it will be a symbolic act, that reflects the reality of my relationship with my daughter. I will honour her, show her love and affection, and treat her with dignity and respect. I will only give her to another man who is willing to do the same.

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