I recently got engaged to someone who is absolutely perfect for me. I was visiting home for the first time since moving across the country for a job. He proposed, we were ecstatic, and we were able to share that with family and friends all weekend long. I have never had a better weekend in my life.
Then came Monday morning, back halfway across the country, at my job. I work for a large feminist organization that I am deeply passionate about. I had heard co-workers speak negatively about marriage before, so I was a little scared to show people the gorgeous rock on my finger. And I was right to be scared. Once the news was out, I felt little support from those around me. Some were excited for me, but most didn’t even attempt to fake excitement. Mere days after sharing my news with the office, lunch conversations consisted of everyone bashing marriage.
I felt horrible. Coming off of the extreme high from my weekend and the excitement and support from my family and friends, I all of a sudden felt extremely alone. At one point I wondered if the engagement had really happened, all the while staring at my ring that I love so much. I felt much better after my roommate threw me a surprise congratulations party with my non-work friends, but I still feel the sting of judgment when the topic of marriage comes up in the office. And it does. Quite a bit.
I myself am a feminist. I have had the marriage discussion a million times. I have read the books, taken the classes, been in the consciousness-raising groups. I agree that the government shouldn’t be so involved with such an intimate part of our lives. It feels so unfair that I have the privilege to legally marry while others do not. I get it. In spite of all of it, I want to marry the man that I love more than anything. I don’t have a great argument for why. I just know that it hurts to not feel supported. To be criticized and judged.
I constantly feel like I have to prove myself as a feminist now that I am engaged. But, the ring is conflict free! We are going to hyphenate our names! No one will be walking me down the aisle! My fiancé is super into wedding planning! However, no matter how many feminist tidbits I sneak into a conversation, I have not once stuck up for my choice to marry. Because I don’t know how. Do I say something when someone makes me feel guilty for choosing to marry? If so, what? I’m tired of most of the time pretending like the engagement doesn’t exist, and when it does come up, keeping my head down and hoping no one straight up asks me to justify my decisions.
The big problem of sexism is the world telling women all of the things they can’t do.
When women develop a list of things women can’t do, they’re contributing to the problem rather than eradicating it.
So, here’s what I’d like to know. What are their issues? Why do they think marriage is in opposition to feminist ideals? I think we all are pretty much on the same page with what “feminism” means, but let’s appease my teacher-self and Webster it. “Feminism” is a “theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” Cool, so, a feminist is just anyone who wants men and women to have equal rights. Nothing in that definition seems to exclude the idea of marriage. That is, unless you think that marriage always puts women at a disadvantage. I do not.
Marriage isn’t inherently oppressive to women, although it’s been used as a tool to oppress women before. But really, what hasn’t been used to subjugate and disenfranchise women? Sex, money, education, even our own appearances have been used against us. We don’t remedy the situation by doing away with all of it because of the sordid past of inherently morally neutral things. We take those things and use them for good. We take marriage, strip it of its anti-woman traits, flip it around, and use it to empower women rather than oppress them. And like sex, education, make-up, we use it only if we want to. That’s the real beauty of feminism. A woman can choose for herself what is the best route for her own life.
Of course, I can’t tell you why getting married is important to you. But, I can tell you why it’s important to me, and how I think marriage itself can be incredibly empowering for a woman. While we chat about that, let’s also talk about some of the misconceptions of what it means to be married.
I think some folks equate marriage with the piling on of additional responsibilities. As in, “Okay, now I’m married, so not only do I need to make money, and also cook and clean (for two, now!), but I also need to make and raise a few babies. There’s so much to do!” But that’s simply not true (at least not always). First of all, some women have the privilege of choosing which of those responsibilities to take on or not. Marriage in and of itself doesn’t mandate all of them. Second, you now have a partner to help shoulder the burden. Sure, there are two people to cook for and clean up after. But, hello, there are also two people to contribute to that cooking and cleaning. You’d need to make lunch and wash laundry if you were single, anyway. It’s just that now there’s an extra set of hands to chip in. Teamwork!
Having that extra manpower (…people power? kidding, kidding) in the house doesn’t just contribute to more efficient housekeeping. It frees you up! You have two people worrying about the bills. So, if you’re lucky enough, one of you can work while the other finishes up grad school, or pursues that crazy idea for a small business, or volunteers at an important social cause. And even if you both do need to work right now (this stinking economy, man), chances are you’ll still have a bit more free time for things you enjoy. You know. Furthering your education, becoming a successful career woman, or contributing to social causes. Woman-empowering stuff. With a second person on your team, you might have more time, more help, and more support to do all of those things.
But wait, there’s more! Not only does a relationship mean that you’ll have help with the mundane and more time for individual pursuits, it also means you may have someone to partner with you in giving back to your own community. I know I already mentioned volunteer work and social causes, but what about your own friends and neighbors? That pal from high school with the flu, that could really use some homemade soup? Too bad you’re a terrible cook. Oh WAIT, your partner is amazing in the kitchen. Your friend that needs help moving? You’ve got four arms to carry boxes now. Partnership and teamwork strike again.
Another misconception about marriage is what we talk about all the time with Reclaiming Wife. There’s this underlying assumption that when you get married and you become a wife, instead of ratcheting up your responsibilities like I described above, they all get swept aside and replaced with one task: Housewife. “Homemaker.” No longer are you a person with career goals, preferences, hobbies, interests, but instead you get relegated to this narrow little box of a woman. You’re a dishwasher, laundress, and crockpot maven. And that’s all. But hey. It’s not marriage that’s limiting us here, it’s our concept of what a “wife” is and what the role entails. That stuff isn’t intrinsic to the role. All that is required to be a “wife” is being a 1) woman who is 2) married. The rest of those bits play out however they may, individually and personally. You’re not stuck just whiling away the hours darning socks. Unless you want to be, which you might. I don’t even really know what sock darning is, anyway, so maybe it’s a blast.
So yeah, all of that is lovely, but you’re probably thinking, “Great. That’s all a terrific rational for being in a relationship. Why get MARRIED?” Well, being recognized as legally married offers a bunch of protection for you if anything goes wrong. I’m sure you’re familiar with them (since the discussion about what rights belong to married individuals, and why we all should have those rights is discussed quite a bit around here), but starting with “next of kin” rights in the hospital all the way to joint tax return filings, there are an estimated 1,138 statutes that determine rights and benefits based on marital status. To encourage women to forgo those rights because “marriage” is an icky word seems short-sighted. Some straight couples opt not to get legally married till everyone can, others protest in different ways like talking to people, giving money, supporting businesses that support gay rights, and on and on. It’s up to you to decide what sort of protest is right for you, not up to your co-workers to mandate what decision you should make.
Finally, there’s an assumption that by choosing a path that most conforms to the expected mold, we accept it and perpetuate it. We just fall into line and make it impossible for the rest of womankind to do anything else. But to be that woman—the woman who is making traditional choices but for her own individual reasons, and to kick ass at it? That’s what will change our perceptions of women and their roles. That’s what will make room for women to be successful singles, dedicated wives, career women, working mothers, stay-at-home mothers, aunties, stay-at-home wives, and whatever else they’d like to be. Eschewing traditional options, even though they genuinely work for some women, will not. That’s a revolution that only benefits half of womankind. Determining that no woman could ever be a kick-ass, powerful, thinking woman while also being a wife is limiting in the same way that sexism has limited women for ages.
So! Should you speak up when people say these things to you? Sure, if you’re up for it! Maybe a good place to start is to ask them what they think is inherently antifeminist about marriage, and go from there. But also, think about it for a bit yourself—why are you getting married? Sure, you’re in love. But being in love could just mean that you spend a lot of money buying roses for each other. Marriage is a tangible, real world, decision. What made you take the steps toward marriage and how does that empower you as a woman?
While you’re figuring that out, I’ll ask our readers to help get the wheels turning for you.
You heard me, Team Practical! What are your reasons for choosing marriage? How do you think marriage can be a pro-woman institution? Have you faced any resistance from friends and if so, how do you handle it?
Photo by APW sponsor Corinne Krogh Photography.
If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email Liz at: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!