Feministing‘s Jessica Valenti recently wrote a piece for The Guardian describing the difficulties she’s encountered while trying to craft a feminist wedding for herself and her fiancé. While I can appreciate some of the creative ways in which they aim to subvert the traditional ceremony, to, in Jessica’s words, take an ‘institution so wrought with sexism and […] make it our own’, I can’t help but question why one would want to do such a thing in the first place.
A younger Jessica could never picture herself getting married but, she says, you should:
…never underestimate the power of being in love. Andrew is fabulous and I want to be married to him – due in no small part to the fact that he also identifies himself as a feminist and that an equal partnership is just as important to him as it is to me.
Which is lovely, and I’m glad they are both so happy. It’s clear that this has been a huge and difficult decision for Jessica, and I do wish to make it clear at this point that I’m not trying to attack her or suggest that she is outright wrong, or antifeminist, or anything of the kind (though I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t disappointed to see one of the most well known feminists of my generation (ish) defending marriage in a national newspaper). As I’ve said previously, not all feminists will come to the same conclusions about the big issues, and I accept that. But considering Jessica has been able to defend her position in The Guardian, I think it is entirely legitimate for me to explain my own, differing opinion here.
When I feel any kind of desire to get married, when I feel it might be nice to make that kind of commitment to my partner, I question why I feel the need to take part in such a patriarchal institution in order to do so. And the main answer I come up with, once I’ve shrugged off all the patriarchal romantic stuff which I’ve never really been into anyway, is legitimacy.
Following centuries of women being considered male property, unvalued without this stamp of ownership, of children born out of wedlock being seen as a shameful stain on their mother, of the heterosexual nuclear family being viewed as the most acceptable social grouping, a married couple remains socially more legitimate than an unmarried one. My relationship would be considered more serious, more committed, more worthy of respect if we got married than if we remained happily unmarried. On a subconscious level perhaps I even feel that myself.
Needless to say, I resent that. I resent that other people’s judgements should affect my feelings about my relationship, and, what’s more, I really do believe that however hard I tried to make my (hypothetical) wedding and marriage as alternative and feminist as possible, I would not be able to escape from the centuries-ingrained connotations of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. I would not be able to stop people looking on my wedding day as the best day of my life, the pinnacle of my achievements. I don’t want to have to spend hours explaining why I’m not taking my husband’s name or asking my Dad to walk me down the aisle. Why spend so much energy fighting to remould this patriarchal institution when I can just reject it?
However, my rejection of marriage is not just about me. It’s also about refusing to accept the social and economic privilege bestowed on me simply because I am in a relationship, and, more significantly, in a relationship with a man. Jessica says that she and Andrew considered not getting married because their gay friends are unable to, instead deciding to use their engagement to talk about same sex marriage, asking guests to contribute to organisations fighting for its legalisation. Again, that’s her considered decision, but personally I don’t want to benefit from becoming part of an institution that non-heterosexual people are barred from. Yes, we have civil partnerships in the UK, but as a friend was saying last week, these can be seen as a compromise on the part of the heterocentric powers-that-be: ok, you can have a ‘pact’, but don’t think we’ll let you in on the real deal.
As far as I can see, all I would gain from being married is more heterosexual privilege (despite being bisexual), a patriarchy and Friends induced fuzzy romantic glow and a hell of a lot of gifts and cake. Sure, gifts and cake are nice, but I’d prefer to get them on a day that really was about me and my partner, and for me, a wedding day just isn’t it.