Can a traditional wedding ever be compatible with feminist principles? Beth Anderson negotiates the minefield of surnames, dresses, cakes, throwing the bouquet and "bad luck" – and chooses not to blindly follow tradition.
I’ve been going out with my fiance for over three years now and we’re getting married next spring. It’s a big step, and we’re both nervous, but very excited. We’ve only started planning the actual wedding quite recently though and it’s come as quite a surprise just how difficult it is to plan a wedding that is representative of the two of us but that doesn’t offend my feminist sensibilities, my family or my future husband!
It’s hard to believe how many people seem to believe that all women have been planning their wedding day practically since they came out of the womb, but believe me, that’s not always the case! (Obviously I’ve just been wasting the last 27 years…!) When it came to planning our wedding, we were both pretty stumped as to what we wanted our day to be like. Things only started falling into place after one of my colleagues mentioned the place she and her husband had got married which we decided on pretty much straight away. I have a horrible feeling if it hadn’t been for that we’d still be vaguely trying to decide where to book!
There are so many things to consider – not only wedding organisation, but things that’ll make a difference to your everyday life. One of the most important from a long-term point of view is whether to change your surname, and if so, what to? When you read articles in women’s magazines about this issue, they never seem to find anyone who keeps their name under all circumstances – it’s always either ‘I took his surname’ or ‘I kept my surname for work but use his for everything else’. There are never any examples of husbands taking their wives’ names, or both changing to something different. Surely there are other people in the UK that go through this dilemma and don’t just choose the status quo? I know women’s magazines in the UK aren’t exactly a feminist haven, but still!
Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of having the same surname as my husband, and we do intend to end up with the same surname. But the fact that only women can change their surname via the marriage certificate in the UK bugs me. Men can change their surname generally, but although it’s possible to change your name by usage, that isn’t normally sufficient for banks and employers, so they have to pay to change by deed poll to change officially.
Luckily, my fiance understands that I don’t want just to take his name blindly and he doesn’t really want me to either. But that still leaves us with the problem of deciding what name to take. We’ve looked back through family history to find a surname but not found anything we could both live with. We did consider just dispensing with surnames altogether, but then we thought about famous people who did that and decided we didn’t actually want to follow in their footsteps! So we’re left with either choosing a name at random, or amalgamating our names somehow. But coming up with viable alternatives has not been easy. So far the one I’m most partial to is Spaniel. Hell, it’s noticeable, and would always raise a smile. For some reason, though, he isn’t keen – can’t think why!
It really annoys me that a few people seem to think that if I don’t just take his surname, that somehow makes me less committed to him. Surely the amount of thought that’s going into this shows that I’m not taking this lightly? Anyway, if not taking his surname did show that I was less committed, wouldn’t that therefore mean that him not taking my name makes him less committed to me? It really annoys me that in the eyes of society it’s the woman who’s in the wrong if she won’t just change.
And don’t even get me started on the Mrs/Miss/Ms debate! I go by Ms because I don’t see my marital status as anyone else’s business, and I won’t go by anything else until the day someone dreams up male alternatives denoting single and married that get into widespread usage (I could be waiting a while!). But many people I’ve spoken to see people who go by ‘Ms’ as spinsters in denial, even knowing that I’m engaged and will use it even after we get married. I was kinda hoping that knowing someone who smashes up the stereotypes might make people think again, but it just doesn’t seem to be happening.
Superstitions also wind me up, such as it supposedly being “bad luck” to see your groom before the ceremony on the day (incidentally, isn’t it back luck for him, too? Or do men just not care about bad omens? Hard to say!). It’s a throwback to the times when the bride and groom hadn’t even seen each other properly before the wedding day, in case the groom caught a glimpse of his prospective wife before the ceremony and pulled out at the last minute. It seems really quite silly to me to suggest in this day and age that the couple will somehow jinx themselves if they see each other before the ceremony. My fiance and I don’t get married till 5pm, and the thought of not spending at least some of the build up to our wedding with him just doesn’t seem right. And yet I know that we’re going to have to spend time explaining to horrified relatives and friends that our marriage is too important to leave to the fates and that instead, we’ve spent time and effort talking about what marriage will mean to us to ensure that we have a long and happy marriage.
I can understand if people want to remodel the custom (and other customs too!) – we did talk about staying away from each other on the day of the ceremony to give ourselves time to make sure this really was what we wanted to do, and to show to everyone that we came to the wedding on our own terms. If you want to reclaim the customs and make them your own, great, go for it! But don’t just blindly do them all because ‘that’s what you do at weddings’.
Some customs, to me, just seem to hark back to the bad old days when women were considered to be not much more than property. It’s important to me that my family is at my wedding to support us both, but I’m not being given away by my father. If circumstances were such that we could both be given away by our families, that would be OK with me, but in our situation it’s not really possible. And yet it’s going to cause ructions. It’s difficult. And what about throwing the bouquet? I have no real problem with where the custom came from, but recently society has seemed to turn it into something rather demeaning. Think for example of the John Smith’s adverts – all the unmarried women gathering round, desperate to be the one who catches the bouquet, while their partners watch anxiously or (if they’re more cunning) try and trick their partner into not being able to catch it. Women are desperate to get married, while men only get married if they’re tricked into it, obviously.
The traditional split of who does what also really bothers me. The bride is supposedly the star of the show, who gets to choose pretty much all the exciting stuff – theme, cake, flowers, stationary, choosing attendants. The groom’s job is to organise the legal side, including sorting out any necessary paperwork. It seems to me like an unnecessarily condescending throwback to the days when the man was the head of the household and women were kept in the dark about the few rights they did have. Let the women have the fun but don’t bother their pretty little heads with all that difficult legal stuff. In my opinion, both men and women would be better off in marriage if they made sure they all knew exactly how their legal status changed going into marriage.
Most of the multitude of books on how to plan your wedding don’t really help. One that my mum bought for me doesn’t even mention the groom in the list of ‘perfect things’ on the back cover! What good is a magical wedding day, being surrounded by the people you love, having the venue of your dreams, making every detail perfect, without the right man being involved? Moreover, the groom only appears sporadically throughout the body of the book. I mean, the book itself is quite useful in most areas, but missing such a vital component as the groom is just a bit mad! I’m not sure what worries me most, though – the fact that he isn’t mentioned at all, or the fact I’d looked at the back of the book many times before I actually noticed!
The amount of emphasis the wedding literature puts on things like makeup, hairstyles, tans (fake or real) and defuzzing really depresses me too. I don’t normally wear makeup or shave my legs or armpits, but all these being part of your big day is taken as a given. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t, but people making the assumption that I’m going to do all these things just makes me want to not bother (yeah, I’m rather contrary at times)! I find it really worrying that whole chapters are devoted to wedding hair and makeup, perfume and nails, while talking to your future husband about your respective opinions of what married life will be like or the possibility of pre-marital counselling to avert future crises aren’t even mentioned. Granted, planning a wedding and talking about your future marriage aren’t the same thing, but you would think that most people who are planning a wedding should also be talking to their future spouse about what shape their marriage will take. In a time when the divorce rate is sky high, it would seem to me that maybe the focus on the wedding day and lack of focus on what comes afterwards is a large part of the problem. How are you going to make important decisions that affect both your lives? What are the potential problem areas that you might have to focus on? How do you both deal with money? If you don’t discuss all this beforehand, it can really come back to haunt you later.
Weddings are sexy though, and apparently laying down foundations for a happy marriage just isn’t. It seems that our priorities really are all messed up. Your future as a married couple is normally left to a couple of pages at the end of these books which mention that after spending so much time planning a huge event, you may feel rather anti-climactic afterwards, but not suggesting anything more useful than throwing yourself into your new marriage, working hard, planning a weekend away about six months after your wedding and looking forward to your first anniversary! It just doesn’t seem very helpful to me.
Of course, there are books and websites out there that recognise that there are women who might not want to be the centre of attention on their wedding day to the exclusion of all others. Some revolutionary women even want their partner to share the glory! Sites like www.indiebride.com have been really useful to me, as they recognise that many women are looking for something different and their section on books on interest is great. Even those books and websites that are ultra-traditional do often have many useful hints and tips on (and often even the most mainstream UK sites seem to have more possible variations than US ones). I just wish sites with alternative viewpoints – that recognise that some women don’t just want to be princesses – were a bit more common. Anyway, taking part in all these traditions doesn’t somehow make you a bad feminist! As I said before, if you want to reclaim these traditions as something more meaningful to you, go for it! It’s just the blind adherence to tradition without any thought about where they come from that bothers me.
Sometimes I resent myself for thinking all these things through so carefully. I’m sure it’d be a million times easier to just go along blindly with all the customs, no matter how oppressive their roots, rather than carefully picking out the things that are meaningful to us. And would anyone really think that I was any less of my own person if I threw the bouquet or had my dad give me away? All the people coming to the wedding know that I’m really quite independent! But giving in like that just isn’t the way I live my life. I think that you should live by what you believe in, and if our wedding day didn’t reflect that and truly represent my future husband and myself, the day would be pretty meaningless. And this is one day in your life that you really do want to feel special! At the end of the day, thinking about the customs we’re going to chose to honour and which we’re not will hopefully also encourage other people to stop and think about what customs they chose and reject.