Sarah & Feminism & Weddings

The rest of Sarah’s wedding graduate post ran yesterday, but when she sent it to me, she said something like ‘I wish I’d been brave enough to talk about the ways I had to think and re-think what I believed and my attitude towards to feminism, sexuality, and relationships during the wedding planning process. So I dared her to do it. And she did. And, by some magic, in the survey one of you asked for *exactly* this post. So, whoever you are, this one’s for you:Our wedding was the happiest day of my life (so far) and I wouldn’t change a thing about that phenomenally beautiful day. The huge, almost cartoon-ish grins on my fiance’s and my faces in just about every photo taken that day say it all.

That said, I found planning the wedding to be a huge challenge, in large part because I had decidedly mixed feelings about weddings and the institution of marriage itself. Let me explain. For almost 10 years prior to meeting the man who is now my husband, I dated only women and trans-guys (who identified as queer), and I could not imagine myself in a “straight” relationship. By the time we got engaged, I felt less concerned about what labels I wanted to apply to myself, but I still felt skeptical toward weddings and the institution of marriage, which I associated with a stereotyped version of heterosexuality. Straight weddings, to my mind, symbolized the idealization of heterosexuality over other forms of loving relationships. Also, I was really bothered by how much we celebrate the couple, rather than the individual, at a wedding. Why don’t we celebrate the achievements of single and independent men and women with as much fanfare as we celebrate a wedding? It bothered me that women, in particular, are supposed to see our marriages, and thus our wedding days, as the singular greatest achievements of our lives—except, perhaps for becoming mothers.

When my fiancé and I got engaged, I had no doubt that he was the person I wanted to spend my life with and I found myself really excited about both the marriage and the wedding. But I also found myself feeling guilty and embarrassed about being excited—I couldn’t reconcile that with the skepticism I still felt toward weddings and marriage on a political level. I can say in retrospect that even the most basic decisions we made in planning the wedding were emotionally fraught for me because of this. At the time, however, I did not let myself fully explore the dilemma I was facing, I think because I was afraid that if I examined it too closely I would be forced to choose between my feminist politics and my excitement over the wedding and marriage; in other words, that I could be either an unmarried, or reluctantly married feminist, or an enthusiastically married non-feminist, but not both.

Now that we are married, I cannot say I’ve entirely worked out this dilemma, but my perspective on the cultural and personal significance of weddings and marriage has definitely shifted since we first become engaged. I feel, for one, much more comfortable with the idea that relationships are the singular greatest achievements in our lives—all of our lives, men and women. I think we must all pursue our individual dreams and use our own talents to the best of our abilities and that these dreams and talents must be nurtured and celebrated, but I have also come to realize that we need deep, mutually caring relationships with others to live fulfilling lives. These do not need to be marital relationships. But what my own wedding showed me was that weddings are not actually about the marital relationship alone. Weddings are usually public, communal celebrations because they exist to celebrate the family and community of the couple—not just the couple themselves. Our wedding was the most amazing day of my life not only because I got to celebrate my love for my husband, but also because I got to experience the depth of the relationships we have with so many other people, the closeness and love that surrounds us on all sides. It filled me with gratitude and helped me to take all of my relationships more seriously, less for granted. There is nothing in this that challenges my feminism at all—I’m still just as committed to female autonomy and gender egalitarianism. It’s just that I now think that “autonomy” is best achieved in the context of a web of loving, committed relationships, not by separating oneself.

The other thing I worried a lot about was whether I was being too materialistic in thinking about the aesthetics of our wedding as much as I did during the planning process. Was I shallow, for instance, for seeking out a beautiful set of four white birch branches to use as chuppah poles, rather than using the free plastic ones we could have gotten from our synagogue? Now that the wedding has come and gone, I’m glad we used the (stunningly beautiful) white birch branches. I think it is fine to want our weddings to be rewarding to all of our senses: caring about the way things look, the tastiness of the food, all the textures and colors of the day is fine. In Judaism, it’s called “beautifying the commandment”—it means that there is actually an ethical value in making rituals, such as the wedding ceremony, pleasing to the eye and other senses. This does NOT give us license to flaunt wealth or break the bank if we don’t have it; there is a subtle but real line between ethical and unethical uses of aesthetics, I think. In the end, we had a wedding budget that we stuck pretty closely to, and we had no wedding debt. I wish I had given myself less grief over not throwing the lowest cost, most Spartan wedding possible!

One last piece of advice: one of the best things that Josh and I did during our engagement was to go see a couple’s counselor together. In the two and a half years we were together before our engagement, we had hardly ever fought—but this was because we tended to avoid areas of conflict, not because we didn’t have any. Counseling gave us a safe space to explore these areas, understand each other and learn how to communicate better and find compromises and/or resolutions to conflicts. It helped us understand how we each want to give and receive expressions of love. It really helped ground our relationship and make us so much more ready for marriage than we would have been without it. I would recommend it to all engaged or newly married couples.

Photo: One Love Photo, of course (Sponsor, but this is not a sponsored post)

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  • Thank you so much for this post. The pushes, pulls and pokes of sexing, dating and marrying men, women and other queers has been a theme throughout my young adulthood and for those of my friends. To my consternation, there's been no satisfying answer or justification or rationalization for whats right, wrong or just ends up happening, but reading this post from the woman I met yesterday, re-enforced two things for me. 1.) You just never know where the queers are at, do you? and 2.) the satisfying answer is probably just creating a community where everyone can talk about the pushing, pulling and poking with almost total confidence and the mostly absence of doubt, shame and judgement. Here's to living the questions!

  • Amen. I might have been the person who asked for this very post. I also dated mostly women through my twenties and am about to marry a straight man. If you call yourself a bisexual, sometimes you have to live out the ramifications :). And we should all be lucky enough to have our ramifications be this sweet.

    Almost nobody talks about being bisexual in the wedding world. I've come mostly to terms with how my life is different in a straight relationship than it was when I was single (this is an adjustment for most people one way or the other) or dating women. But the gender expectations in weddings themselves are really difficult (we've sorted out a lot of the gender stuff in marriage/our relationship after four years of living together).

    One thing that surprised me about this process is how genuinely happy people are for our engagement. I agree that there is a lot of love in my community and I hope our wedding will give us a chance to strengthen all of those bonds.


  • Thank you so much for sharing all of this.
    Honestly, in over a year of being engaged, this is the first wedding-related post or article that I've printed out to have on paper and be able to physically touch (and re-read over and over). And I don't even identify with a lot of your personal struggles… there's just something about the feelings and how you've expressed them that has resonated with me.

  • B.

    I so rarely comment on these posts, but am blown away by this one and couldn't help it. Your comment about achieving autonomy through a web of relationships is exactly it. YES! YES, YES, YES! No matter what those relationships are (straight, bi-, gay), that is a truth to be celebrated.

  • MWK

    Thank you for being so thoughtful and eloquent and honest. That was a really wonderful post.

  • LPC

    What a smart woman. Wonderful post. And applicable even to those of us who have only ever dated biological men.

  • this post was so special to me to read – leading to my first comment here! my boyfriend and i are in the nearly engaged phase but i have been struggling so much with letting it happen and feeling happy about it. i'm so tempted to feel guilty or embarrassed because of how much i advocate women not letting their wedding day become their life goal. this explanation of being a feminist and still having a wedding and coming out on the other side happy and guilt-free was such an encouragement to me, thank you!

  • I think the biggest thing that I took from your experince was that even though I have always been in heterosexual relationships, I can completely relate with being a feminist struggling with the idea of MARRIAGE.

    It seems like there are so many schools of thought on marriage, individuality and feminism that I don't really feel like I'm ever going to win.
    I want to be BOTH. I want to stand up for my fellow woman and still be happily married to my man and not be judged by either group.

    Also, I just want to say that the “beautifying the commandment" statement you made also struck a chord with me. I don't want to look back on our wedding day and see PLAIN but I also don't want to exude the idea that I poured a ton of money into the esthetic of ONE DAY.

    I'm really thankful for all of you wedding graduates in these next few months I will be leaning on your words to ground me and remind me WHY we are going through this crazy, huge event.

    Okay, I think I'm done now… :)

  • Great advice. Very honestly put. Awesome post! Bring on more like it.

  • Thank you all for your comments. It has been enormously therapeutic for me to finally put some of my feelings about this down on paper, and to be able to share them with this supportive community. Knowing that what I wrote actually resonates with other people means a lot to me.

    I think you're so right that those of us who identify as bisexual, or just plain 'queer' and fluid in our sexualities have to figure out who we are again when we get in a committed relationship of any kind–suddenly our sexualities are defined by this one relationship. Its especially hard when that relationship is, by most definitions, "straight." It's a peculiar kind of closet. I'd love to hear from other folks dealing with these kinds of identity questions.

    Reading your comments, its heartening to think that WE are actually re-making what weddings and marriages mean as we get married–whether with or without the approval of the state. I'm working on a PhD in women's and gender history, and if there's anything we know about marriage historically its that it is a changeable and changing institution. So here's to us as history-makers, making the old institution something new and righteous and brave.

  • Wow. Thank you for posting this!

    I am a long time lurker (i am embarrassed to say that i have read through the entire archives, though i only discovered this blog 2 months ago). This post encouraged me to come out of my hiding.

    This is beautifully written and tackles exactly all the stuff i am going through. While i am not yet engaged (though well on the path), i am also in my first heterosexual relationship. It has taken me a lot of time and angst to accept that it is what it is and allow myself to be happy. I am sure i will have many of these same issues when the time comes for me to plan my own wedding with my man. It will help to have this (and the rest of this amazing blog) to look back on.

    Keep up the terrific work Meg!

  • What a fantastic post, as a queer woman who has dated both men and women, but am now engaged to a lady, your story really resonated with me. Thank you for sharing!

  • wow. what smarts. thanks.

  • This is super interesting – I can see how being LGBT becomes a part of what "defines you" to other people as part of owning it, but I'd never thought of how that would change when someone enters into a marriage (particularly a hetero) where so often the outside world chooses to use that relationship to define people.

    Also, this kind of brings the point which is my major issue about being defined by a relationship, which is hard, but I think possible to avoid, and would require much more space to write about…

    Another thing I found fascinating was how when I was first reading your post I didn't get when you said it bothered you that the wedding celebrated the couple rather than the individual because I feel every day is a celebration of individuality, and the point of a wedding is specifically to honor the commitment. By the end of your post I was so moved by how much better your take on friend and family being so inegral is.

    I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us, and it's something that's clearly struck a chord many of us who consider ourselves feminists and have had similar struggles.

  • JOC

    I especially liked the part where you talked about "beautifying the commandment," and I think it definitely speaks to most of us on Team Practical. Your white birch branches are similar to Meg's food at her wedding (i.e., reflecting their values and tasting like heaven). I think it's an important distinction – it's NOT materialistic to spend what seems to be a lot of money on something that means a lot to you.

    For example: I intend to hire a bagpiper for my ceremony. It's going to cost around $200-300. For free, I could play bagpipe music from my iPod. But, it's just not the same.

  • Great post. Thanks for this. It validates a lot of the questions I have about how to handle a wedding. I'm also a big proponent of acknowledging the individual. I call my PhD defense celebration my academic wedding because my family and friends came, watched me say some stuff, then celebrated. We should do individual celebrations more often, maybe.

  • Meg

    @The Social Commentator
    Re: the birch branches being almost the same, that's because we were also beautifying the commandment. It's funny that I never talked about that concept here, because I think it's pretty integral to Jewish celebrations. And yes, I think it's totally applicable to what we're talking about here.

  • Loved this post. I have to agree with what Sarah and Crescent both have said. Loud and clear…

    @Sarah: if you see this, can you shoot me an email? I'm exploring the possibility in a PhD in gender history, and would love the chance to chat…


  • @Sylvia, Coming out as being in a straight relationship was almost as hard as coming out as bi for me (although way easier when it came to my family :).

  • Hannah

    This is so fantastic. I have felt so much that I should be laid back and kind of cynical about the whole wedding thing (not to mention the whole love thing) and not be too girly or happy or silly about it. Because I'm a feminist and I don't want to be associated with those biddies on Who's Wedding Is It Anyway? I want to be me, getting married. This post is fantastic.

  • Nina

    Thank you for that incredibly thoughtful post. It's amazing the dialogue that opens up when we are forced to reconcile our fears, beliefs, and politics with the idea of marriage. Though I would say I've always been marriage-ambivalent, I had no idea I was going to feel so much conflict along with excitement through this process.
    I love thinking about the wedding day as a celebration of all our relationships – it keeps me grounded and reminds me of why we are doing this – and you expressed that so eloquently I might have to print it out as a reminder.

  • great, great post!

  • @Crescent

    Ditto! It was so much harder to "come out" in a straight relationship as it ever was when i came out for real…

    Glad to hear there are others out there!

  • Moz

    What a fantastic, well written post! I particularly love the bit where you explain that weddings aren’t just about celebrating the love of the couple getting married, but all the love in your lives.

    The weddings that are most beautiful and memorable are the ones that are about more than the couple in a broader, community sense. You expressed this really well, thanks x

  • Brook

    So glad to read this! I wrote something kind of like this as an update on the Offbeat Bride Tribe and am cleaning it up for public consumption. I’m at the beginning of my journey with my y-chromosomed beau and am struggling with many of these issues.

    I did not even consider marriage an option, period, until some good friends and my ex-girlfriend got married. It opened me up to the idea that a wedding plays an important role in ritualizing a life transition and the wedding doesn’t have to play by the rules I learned as I grew up.

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Christina

    I’m sure this won’t get read since this post is so old by now… but I feel inclined to comment regardless.

    Sarah, you said in the comments here that it’s difficult to have a fluid sexual identity/orientation and then to be defined by a long-term relationship, and by that relationship only. You said, “It’s a peculiar kind of closet.”

    I am so struggling with this right now. As a woman who dated mostly women for near a decade before I met my now fiance (a straight man), I have had such an identity crisis during this engagement. I feel like a lot of people in my life, (distant friends and family) are relieved that I’m marrying a man and that frustrates me so much. Like I’ve finally come around and decided to be straight and stop fuddy duddying in the queer world. But the truth is, I still identify as a bi-sexual. But can I? It’s only in theory now since I’m with this man. I’d like to think I can still identify as queer because my fiance COULD have been a man or a woman. Because, honestly, I don’t want to give up my queer-ness. It’s a big part of my life and my heart. Take this year at gay pride – I felt like a phony there all of a sudden. I go every year, even with my H2B (he’s very supportive of my queer-ness), but this year I felt some sinking feeling that people didn’t want me there. I know that’s my own insecurity, and maybe a little ‘straight-guilt’ regarding Prop. 8. I don’t know.

    And you’d think I would have had this issue sometime in the four years prior to now that I’ve been with this wonderful man. But it was only when marriage came into the picture that I began this struggle. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because of all the gendered constructs surrounding marriage and weddings. I’m still struggling, but it’s getting easier with time.

    Sorry for the novel, I had to just get that out.

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  • EF

    love everything about this. brave and intelligent; this is what reading old posts is all about.