Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Now that it’s June, a predicted record-breaking wedding season is officially in effect. After two years of pandemic disruptions, couples are again tying the knot in front of family and friends, and many of us are spending our springs, summers and falls juggling various marriage-related events, from bachelor and bachelorette parties to various bridal showers to the weddings themselves.
But weddings can also be fraught, especially for feminists and anyone else who believes women should have equal rights in society, and that women and men should be equal members in a marital partnership.
So much of wedding culture is steeped in patriarchal traditions and conservative expectations – perhaps not how a lot of couples want to mark the beginning of their life together. And yet, when it comes to weddings, even many equality-minded couples go through the patriarchal motions.
That’s a mistake. Weddings are expressions of cultural, religious and family traditions, but they’re also events that represent a couple’s values and their hopes for their lives together. That isn’t to say a wedding determines the course of your marriage – a wedding is one day, and a marriage is, at least ideally, for a lifetime.
But a wedding is, for many people who marry, one of the most significant rituals of one’s life, meant to set the tone for a life-long partnership. And so, couples should take seriously the question of which traditions they want to keep, which they want to skip and how the wedding itself can set the tone for the rest of their marriage.
It’s hard to make the case that marriage itself is a feminist endeavor. Marriage either seems to make people more conservative, or more conservative people are more likely to get married: Married men and women are more likely to vote for Republicans, while single people, and particularly single women, are more likely to vote Democrat. Married women do more housework than women who cohabitate with their partners: “It is not simply the presence of a man that is associated with women’s spending more time on housework,” researchers have found. “It is the presence of a husband.”
Historically, marriage has meant the passing of a woman (or girl) from her father’s authority to her husband’s. Not so long ago, married women in the US could be denied a credit card if they didn’t have their husband’s permission to get one, and marriage gave a husband the legal right to rape his wife – marital rape wasn’t criminalized in all 50 states until the 1990s, and loopholes still exist today.
Early American marital law was governed by the principle of coverture, which was summed up by English jurist William Blackstone thusly: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.”
Feminists have spent several centuries trying to change the many laws that rendered women legal non-persons by virtue of marriage. We have not yet fully succeeded: Across much of the world, wives still don’t have the same rights as their husbands when it comes to everything from divorce to property rights to child custody to inheritance to the ability to choose to get married in the first place.
In many countries, women cannot marry who they wish, including other adult women. In many conservative religious traditions, marriage remains explicitly patriarchal, with wives instructed to submit to their husbands and the husband considered the top authority in the family.
In spite of all of this, many feminists (this author included) have still gotten married. But how we do it matters. There’s no perfectly feminist way to walk oneself into a pretty un-feminist institution. But there are a series of choices to make along the way.
For example: Is marriage something you discuss in-depth and come to a mutual agreement on before you get engaged, if you get engaged? Or is it, among heterosexual couples, a “he asks, she says yes” situation? Does the female half of a heterosexual couple wear an engagement ring, while the male half doesn’t? Does he ask her father for permission – and is getting a grown woman’s father’s “permission” to make one of the most important decisions of adult life really how you want to start an ostensibly egalitarian, ostensibly grown-up marriage?
Before you marry, do you have honest and serious conversations about the division of household labor? About children, and who plans on doing how much of the work? About the fact that even couples who intend to be egalitarian often end up very unequal when children come into the picture – a dynamic that leads to a lot of miserable moms?
If you’re the bride, does your father walk you down the aisle? What does that symbolize? How do you balance a ceremony that feels true to your beliefs – among them, hopefully, that marriage is not an act of a father turning his property over to another man – with parental expectations and potentially hurt paternal feelings?
If you’re a woman getting married, do you change your last name? (You shouldn’t; your name is your identity, and replacing it with your husband’s is a pretty literal representation of, as Blackstone put it, the legal suspension of a woman’s very self in marriage, and her consolidation into her husband’s identity).
Whose last name is bestowed on future children? Even though many women now keep their names when they marry, nearly all American children are given their father’s last name, despite the fact that it’s women who do the physical labor of pregnancy and childbirth, and tend to spend much more time with their children, including navigating school, doctors and other institutions – all made easier when mom and kids share a last name.
What do you vow to each other when you exchange rings, if you exchange rings? (Even if you go the traditional route, you are entirely free to join the millions of couples who have chosen to strike the word “obey” from their vows.)
Who presides over the ceremony, and where do you hold it? If it’s held in a house of worship or officiated by a religious leader, does the place and the person share your values and views when it comes to gender roles, equal marriage rights and what the institution of marriage is for? To put a finer point on it: Are you getting married in a venue that, or by a person who, refuses to marry same-sex couples? (If you believe in gender equality and LGBTQ rights, I’d reconsider that choice).
This isn’t to say that every single detail of your wedding has to broadcast your politics, and it’s certainly not to say that you’re a bad feminist if you hew to tradition (feminists who wore white dresses aren’t in any position to throw stones). It is to say, though, that it’s 2022, and if a marriage can be what you choose to make it, so can a wedding.
“It’s tradition” isn’t a particularly good reason to do anything – least of all something as important and life-shaping as getting married.