The Big Issues for Feminists Who Are Getting Married

back of bride's head

I’ve considered myself a feminist for as long as I can remember. And I mean that literally. I used to lecture other little kids on the playground (in my dress, because I only ever wore dresses) about how girls could do anything. This sounds somewhere between pushy and adorable, until you realize that I didn’t grow up in some liberal enclave, but in a hyper-conservative part of inland California that is more or less part of the Bible Belt. My tiny outspoken feminism was met with raised eyebrows in elementary school, and with outright hostility by middle school. This, of course, never stopped me.

But I was never as keenly aware of my feminism as when I got engaged. Culturally, major life transitions have been set up so that the woman has the more visible role (see this excellent article from The Rumpus about the public implications of being a pregnant woman). Weddings are the kick-off. After the flurry of excitement when we announced we were getting hitched, things calmed down considerably for my (now) husband David. He got the traditional back slap and “Congrats, man” from friends and then conversation moved on to other things. For me, not so much. Now, mind you, I was pretty excited to talk about pretty wedding stuff with my girlfriends, but what I wasn’t expecting was that I would suddenly be in a very public spotlight.

When I got engaged, I happened to be at a very old-fashioned workplace. And suddenly, not only did I feel like public property, I felt like public property in the 1950s. Men routinely warned me not to spend all my my fiancé’s money on my dress (I was supporting both of us). When I showed my carefully selected small-for-my-small-hand estate ring, eyebrows were visibly raised at its size (wasn’t my fiance supposed to be a provider?). And then there were the endless questions (or really, assumptions with a question at the end) about my dad walking me down the aisle, my brides-”maids,” and my impending name change.

What I wouldn’t have given for a back slap and a “Congrats, lady.”

At the same time that I was uncomfortably standing in my new found lady-spotlight, I was trying to sort through my feelings on feminism and weddings. If there is one moment in our lives where we’re forced to confront how we feel about gender equality, it’s weddings. Let’s be frank: weddings don’t have the Very Best History when it comes to women. The issues range from the basic: women being traded from man to man as property, right up to women not being able to hold a credit card except in her husband’s name (true until the 1970s). So, when we decide to get married, we decide to reclaim and remake the institution of marriage, and shape it into something that works for us. And, of course, we have to deal with wedding traditions with problematic histories. The toughest part is, whatever decision we make on a given issue, our resulting choice is going to be very very public, and we’re going to have a lot of ‘splaining to do.

In case you were wondering if agonizing over feminist wedding choices is widespread, well, while working on this article, I did a snap poll on Twitter and Facebook, asking women which decisions were painful for them. The answers poured in faster than anything I’d ever seen (200 in an hour), with rather visible agony.

Here is  short list of the big deal issues for women getting hitched:

The Engagement Ring: It starts on day one. Of course. Why is the tradition that you wear a ring that marks you as taken, while he wears nothing? Why do people act like the bigger the ring, the better a provider he’s going to be (or that it even matters)? Why in the face of all this unequal junk do many of us decide that we want a ring anyway? (The. Sparkles. Are. So. Pretty.) How can we learn to own our decision no matter what choice we make?

The Name Change: I’ve written reams about the name change issue, but in short form: it can be difficult no matter what your situation is. Some of us don’t change our names and deal with people who refuse to acknowledge our choice (not to mention the endless assumptions that we will). Others do change their names, but really mourn the loss of identity. And still others change their name without fuss and agonize over whatthat means. And through it all, most men remain blissfully unaware of how damn hard it is for women (red flag, there).

Who Pays: The tradition that the bride’s parents pay for the wedding, while the groom’s parents skate by relatively unscathed, has troubling roots in, say, dowries, and getting rid of that female kid that can’t earn any money, anyway. But the thing is, you may be in a situation where the bride’s parents are paying, and chances are that has nothing to do with a bride price. My parents (who contributed in an equal fashion to the wedding) actually pulled me aside to tell me that “it was very important to get to help pay for my wedding, and I needed to stop trying to take that away.” (Whoopsy.) Still, wrapping one’s head around this can be tough.

So what is a marrying feminist to do? Or say, a woman getting married who just realized she might be a feminist, since none of this is actually equal at all? In my book, I quote Clare, a Scottish theologian, on her thoughts on her own wedding. As she said, “The Latin origin of tradition, ‘traditio,’ means not only to hand on, but to hand over. The meanings of practices such as those within weddings are not rigid, but given on to us to value and interpret in our own contexts.” In other words, weddings come with baggage, their own history of inequality between the sexes. It’s up to us to claim the traditions we like (history be damned), and let go of the traditions that don’t work for us (and bother the relatives!). We have to use our wedding as our first opportunity to shape and claim our marriages and our family life: to balance our beliefs with custom.

As for me? Well, both parents walked me down the aisle, and I never even considered changing my name, but I wear my sparkly, sparkly engagement ring proudly (at least on most days). I am, at heart, ever the tiny bossy feminist on the playground, insisting women can do whatever they want, and wearing a pretty dress just to prove my point. That is what I hope for all of you: the ability to embrace who you are and what you want with zero guilt (and a really pretty dress, if you want it).

“So what is a marrying feminist to do?”

The women who came before us handed down this mish-mash of traditions, some of their choosing, some not. And since they also gave us the hard-fought right to vote and the ability to shape our own lives, they gave us the responsibility to choose. Not to choose exactly what they chose, not to complain that we have the right to choose, but to embrace the evolving nature of tradition and choose what’s right for us. But if we do our job, we’ll pass the next generation a slightly improved, slightly modified version of tradition. So choose without guilt, and choose for our future daughters. Maybe some of them will wear pants at their wedding, with no one even batting an eyelash. We can only hope.

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