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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 28-Jul-14 13:52:39

Guest post: Can a wedding ever be feminist?

As Cheryl Cole (now Fernandez-Versini) is criticised for taking her new husband's name, blogger and former Feminist Times deputy editor Sarah Graham - who recently got hitched - asks whether a truly radical marriage is ever possible.

Sarah Graham

Blogger and journalist

Posted on: Mon 28-Jul-14 13:52:39


Lead photo

Sarah Graham's recent wedding

Marriage has been a burning topic in the media this year - from the introduction of same sex marriage to the campaign for mothers’ names on marriage certificates. As a recently-married feminist, it’s also been at the forefront of my mind for the last couple of years, as my (male) partner and I tried to figure out whether “marriage equality” is really possible. Weddings strike me as one of the few areas in life where some feminists are reluctant to be independent, opinionated and radical – and I didn't want to fall into this category.

My partner and I had lots of questions: Could we avoid the sexist stereotypes and traditions inextricably linked to marriage? Would same sex marriage be legal by the time we got married? And, if so, would it force gay couples into these stereotypes - “so who’s the ‘bride’ and who’s the ‘groom’?” – or could it inspire all couples to re-frame their expectations of weddings and marriage? Could we really play around with marriage enough to turn something that’s so inherently sexist and unequal into something truly radical?

Despite setting a date two years in advance, the deadline for answering these questions rolled round much quicker than expected, and here I am, almost two months into married life, still not entirely sure of the answers.

When we got engaged I was nervous about telling my feminist friends, for fear that I’d be judged as a traitor to the cause. I'm well versed in the feminist arguments in opposition to marriage; as a historically patriarchal institution, it’s not served women particularly well over the years. In the UK, women’s rights both in marriage and in divorce have been hard won, and marital rape was only outlawed within my lifetime.

Feminist approaches to marriage differ widely – ranging from a belief that two feminists in love can work towards and achieve equality in marriage, to the more radical view that falling in love with, let alone marrying, a man is the ultimate example of sleeping with the enemy. For some feminists, marriage and the nuclear family are the key patriarchal structures - the means through which women find themselves trapped in a lifetime of domestic drudgery. It’s a fear that I know many young women are conscious of, but just how far have women and our relationships really come since Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique?

I was conscious that in a sense, I'd fallen at the first hurdle - wanting the same happily married family life with my partner that I'd grown up with. As always, there's a difficult line to walk between the feminism of ideology and collective responsibility, and the feminism of individual choice.

There are certainly plenty of sexist hangovers tied up in the whole process of weddings and marriage, but many heterosexual couples do find ways to make equality work, both practically and symbolically. The engagement ring, for example, is traditionally a symbol of ownership, but alternative feminist options include either scrapping the ring altogether or, as we did at my partner's request, both having one.

Despite having a ring each, I was conscious that in a sense, I’d fallen at the first hurdle - wanting the same happily married family life with my partner that I’d grown up with. As always, there’s a difficult line to walk between the feminism of ideology and collective responsibility, and the feminism of individual choice. Would other women judge my choice as anti-feminist for going against their ideological position? Or would they respect my decision and recognise the equality of our relationship? On the whole, my anxieties proved unfounded; many feminists sympathised with the dilemmas involved, and shared their own experiences, and if any did object to my treachery they at least chose not to voice it!

Once you've tackled the ring dilemma, navigating feminist wedding planning in a non-feminist world is full of pitfalls. First there’s the body shaming: the influx of 'wedding diet' ads appearing on your Facebook sidebar, and the seemingly innocuous “you've got a wedding dress to fit into” comments from your mother while you’re stuffing your face with cake. No amount of body-positive feminist theory can make you completely immune from those messages. Then you have to tackle the traditionalists. If I was nervous about talking about the wedding with my feminist friends, I was utterly petrified of telling the more traditional members of our family that I wanted to do things differently: that I was keeping my surname, that I wouldn't be wearing a white dress. “Why are you being so awkward?” one friend asked, “stop trying to prove a point.” “You’ll look like a bridesmaid!” others warned, in bafflingly concerned tones. If anything these conversations made me more obstinate, and I married in teal.

I also didn't want to conform to the gender segregation of ushers (who help) and bridesmaids (who stand around looking pretty). We had brideswomen and men, groomsmen and a groomswoman. Our bridesmen read a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and our groomswoman, a fellow feminist, read a WH Auden poem with the refrain “you’re my cup of tea”. We also requested a female registrar, to help counter the history of marriage as the proprietorial transaction of a woman between, and conducted by, men. Neither of us was “given away”, neither of us promised to obey. I loved the idea of my groom and I walking into the ceremony together, but couldn't bear to disappoint my dad so, instead, we asked my mother-in-law to escort her only child down the aisle as well.

Do I believe you can be a feminist and get married in white? Sure. But not if you're doing it because someone else insisted that “you have to because it’s tradition.” Why do you even have to wear a dress at all, if that’s just not you? If I've learnt anything at all, it’s that the key to feminist wedding planning is making your own decisions, rather than following the crowd.

A million and one other details are of course open to feminist critique if you over-analyse enough. Can you be a feminist and get married in heels? Is it anti-feminist to wear bridal make-up or shave your armpits before donning a sleeveless wedding dress? Probably not, in the grand scheme of things, but equally don’t feel that you have to. And can you be a feminist and still throw your bouquet, or have your groom publicly remove your garter with his teeth? I didn't want to do either, but I'm sure it would have been possible to instigate a mixed gender scrum for the flowers.

Ultimately, there is no hard-and-fast rule for a ‘perfect’ feminist wedding, but it is a lot of fun to swap the role of bride for ‘creative director’ and give tradition a feminist re-imagining. Of course, whatever expectations you brilliantly subvert on the day, the most challenging part is yet to come; you've signed up to a lifetime of feminist marriage, so just make sure he’s committed to shared housework and childcare before you put a ring on it.

Image: Copyright Polly Thomas, (Polly & Simon Photography) and Owain Thomas.

By Sarah Graham

Twitter: @SarahGraham7

Scousadelic Mon 28-Jul-14 14:51:57

I don't see why women tie themselves in knots agonising about whether their behaviour is feminist enough or not. Surely feminism, in its simplest terms, is about giving a woman the freedom to choose the paths she wants to follow in life whatever those paths may be.

I had a traditional church wedding, changed my surname to DHs (we were living abroad and it made visas, etc easier back then) and have lived, on the surface, quite a traditional life. Does that mean I am less feminist? I don't think it does as those paths were followed by choice and I would defend the right of other women to choose too, whatever their choice might be.

You don't have to wear dungarees and conform to stereotypes to be a feminist and until women take that on board we will never win the battle

Thurlow Mon 28-Jul-14 15:22:31

There have been a few threads about this topic lately. One conclusion I have seen several posters reach is that, no, feminism is not about giving a woman the freedom to choose the paths she wants to follow in life whatever those paths may be. It is not about freedom or equality but rather about ensuring that you always do the feminist thing.

Interesting blog though. I agree about the genders of bridesmaids and ushers. The last wedding I went to had a female usher who wore a wonderful tailored womens tuxedo with massive heels and fifties hair and she looked incredible. Interestingly not one person at the wedding made a comment about one of the groom's closest friends being female.

HeinousPieTrap Mon 28-Jul-14 15:31:18

I reckon ( like with most things ) so long as you question why are you are doing something and make sure you like the answer, you'll be OK.

So do I want to wear white? Do I want to be given away by my Father?Do I want to sit quietly while the men make speeches? (and etc) - once I realised I was answering no to these, it got me to wondering why we were getting married at all - and the actual outcome I wanted was in fact just to have the state recognise that we were a couple when it came to who was called when one of us went into hospital, who was responsible for the children, how the tax affairs would be sorted if one of us died. It had nothing really to do with a "day" at all.

But someone else could come to a different conclusion and i wouldn't say they were necessarily less of a feminist than me. I would always (if asked) urge a bride-to-be to think about it seriously though, so she doesn't make a mistake she might come to regret.

FamiliesShareGerms Mon 28-Jul-14 15:38:34

Isn't this just another area where we have to make personal choices about what works for us as individuals and as part of a wider group of friends and families who we also care about ?

Eg I told DH that if he asked my dad's permission in advance I would refuse to marry him on principle. I refused to be "given away" on the day. But it meant a huge amount for my dad to walk me down the aisle - more than it meant to me to walk alone or arrive with DH.

msrisotto Mon 28-Jul-14 15:46:46

I don't think feminism is purely about choice as it is a political movement after all. I don't think it is about doing the feminist thing all the time either, that is too hard in this society.

I don't think going along with traditional ceremonies is necessarily anti-feminist but it is tricky. I squared it to myself by being openly critical of the misogynist traditions and having more meaningful reasons for others. So, I didn't wear a white dress because I was critical of those connotations but I did have both my parents walk me down the aisle as a symbol of moving from one family to the creation of a new one. I doubt many people gave a shit about my principles though so how much does good intention count for?

rinabean Mon 28-Jul-14 15:55:13

Message deleted by MNHQ. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.

AnneEyhtMeyer Mon 28-Jul-14 16:01:35

If you had written this 20 years ago you may have had a point. There is nothing original and uniquely feminist about your wedding.

Your wedding was 2 months ago - get over it and move on.

DrunkenWhore Mon 28-Jul-14 16:50:43

I have to say I agree with rinabean. I got married 15 years ago and absolutely none of this entered my head, but then it never ended my head to have all the other numerously weird things you see people posting on here about weddings. I just got married, in a registry office, no one gave me away, no bridesmaids (although we bought DSD a pretty little white dress to wear), and then we all went the pub ate till we were stuffed and got pissed.

I did change my name when I got married. Why? Because I was madly in love (ha ha I was very young) and wanted his name. As feminist as I have always been I just did what I wanted.

Any women who criticise another woman's choices as "non-feminist" isn't a real feminist. They're just a judgemental person who thinks they're better than everyone else.

Lesuffolkandnorfolk Mon 28-Jul-14 17:11:09

Why 'get engaged'? Why not just marry?

Surely engagement in itself could be eliminated (unless of course you want a big 'ole diamond ring?) wink.

MummyBeerest Mon 28-Jul-14 17:52:52

Why must women justify absolutely everything we do?

What kind of wedding you have, if you have children, how you raise said children-everything is up for speculation. By other women, no less.

There are bigger feminist issues in the world that all women should be working together to make a difference. Nitpicking at each other's personal choices completely demeans the whole feminist concept.

Viviennemary Mon 28-Jul-14 18:04:18

I thought I was the only one to be mystified by this. You entered into the marriage of your own free will so I can't see why the issue of feminist principles even applies. It wasn't an arranged marriage that you were forced into by males.

thecuntureshow Mon 28-Jul-14 18:30:05

MNHQ: it would be great if we could see who wrote these guest posts on the app. There's no intro or name or anything anywhere.

thecuntureshow Mon 28-Jul-14 18:37:40

The blog post basically sounds like you're trying to justify your choices. And they're pretty standard choices. You wanted a pretty ring and dress and lots of traditional stuff but I don't think the fact it was a green dress makes it particularly feminist.

But then I speak as someone who got married in black with no guests/bridesmaids/walking of an aisle etc etc so I think weddings are bullshit. It was the marriage I was interested in. My justification for a big diamond was that I wanted a big diamond. I don't wear it much. DP on the other hand always wears a wedding band.

Do what you want.

Maybe I am just so bored of weddings. Endless weddings where everyone thinks they're doing it in an original and cool way but really it's all a sea of bland

Ignore me though OP. I am almost entirely without joy

CoreyTrevorLahey Mon 28-Jul-14 18:50:48

Of course it can. You choose how you want to make it so. Do your own speech, make sure you and your partner take an equal role in planning, don't buy stuff or use services at your wedding that perpetuates the exploitation of poorly paid women.

One thing that really stuck out at me from the Laura Bates article was that, despite everything, she still went down the bridal industry road, which I was completely against. I didn't want people prodding me, telling me to lose weight and eventually charging me thousands of pounds for the privilege. Do it yourself: support local business, local makers, local caterers. Put some money back into your community.

I walked down the aisle with my dad not because I felt I had to but because I love him. I completely, utterly consider myself a feminist

Lally112 Mon 28-Jul-14 18:51:08

Why cant feminists just accept that sometimes we CHOOSE to do these things, I wasn't bloody forced to take my husbands name, I welcomed it and wanted it. I wasn't forced to take a part time job when we had children so I could spend more time with family - I wanted to. My choice.

CheerfulYank Mon 28-Jul-14 19:45:37

I wore a white dress because it was tradition. I took my husband's name because I wanted to. I stay home with my children.

I am a feminist. Part of being one is that no one gets to tell me that I'm not.

StampyIsMyBoyfriend Mon 28-Jul-14 20:19:29

What a load of baloney.

>>nodding along at all of the above<<

BOFster Mon 28-Jul-14 20:43:30

I think it's perfectly acceptable to try and eliminate some of the more obvious patriarchal elements which surround wedding traditions, if you want the ceremony to reflect your own values more closely, just as trying to carve out a more equal relationship in this society is something that many feminists strive to do.

[post edited by MNHQ]

PetulaGordino Mon 28-Jul-14 20:55:02

"I think it's perfectly acceptable to try and eliminate some of the more obvious patriarchal elements which surround wedding traditions, if you want the ceremony to reflect your own values more closely, just as trying to carve out a more equal relationship in this society is something that many feminists strive to do."


if you are a feminist who doesn't believe that marriage in its modern form is fundamentally incompatible with feminism (which i don't), then i think you have to accept that different feminists will have different views about which elements of "tradition" are more patriarchal and/or harmful to women, and will opt for different strategies to correct that if at all according to those views

and of course we have to accept that we don't make decisions in a vacuum, and not all decisions made by women are feminist ones. but if/when i get married, i would like the decisions we as a couple make about how we would like to conduct the wedding to be well-considered in terms of how they reflect our equal relationship and feminist values. i don't think there is anything wrong with examining the traditions associated with ceremonies and celebrations and adjusting them

i don't think the OP's choices were that unusual either, especially in a non-religious wedding. but that is surely a good thing, if people aren't shocked that couples are choosing to eliminate the aspects of tradition that don't fit with their philosophy?

Madcats Mon 28-Jul-14 20:58:28

Do feminists have such angst? I'm beginning to wonder if I might be a "hard core" feminist, though I had never really thought long and hard about it.

I think our engagement lasted about 18 years. Yes I wore a ring, he didn't. We lived/worked on other sides of the country for at least 10 years of this from time to time. We both had similar disposable income/assets (possibly I had a bit more). I worked in a fairly male-dominated workplace so it was an easy way to signify "let's be friends, but I just want to be workmates". It wasn't a feminist issue.

When we finally bought one house we set up a new joint bank account ("the cat") with a hefty standing order from each of our accts for utility bills and food etc. We kept our own bank accounts and investments and felt free to do what we wanted with it. Strangers and relatives often asked about babies, never about marriage after the first year or 2.

An impending baby prompted us to consider us to think about marriage again. We did it to make sure our children always had a roof over their heads and that my husband gets custody in case I die without worrying about where the latest will might be.

The wedding ceremony was simply a "family and immediate friends" get-together to let them witness our marriage. Friends, feminist or otherwise, didn't bat an eyelid.

We wouldn't have cared anyway.

PetulaGordino Mon 28-Jul-14 21:04:39

i went to a wedding a couple of weeks ago (in a church) where they did the "who brings this woman..." etc with the dad handing over the bride. that did surprise me i have to say, as i didn't think that happened really these days. so that may have been an active choice (it was a methodist church, might be part of the ceremony for them, i don't know?), but definitely not a feminist one

PetulaGordino Mon 28-Jul-14 21:07:08

madcats i think angst is a bit unfair, but i definitely do examine my actions and assumptions daily (not just related to marriage grin) to try to think about whether choices i make are likely to cause harm to other women, and to what extent. i don't always get it right.

Scousadelic Mon 28-Jul-14 22:09:51

I just think it is quite sad that women feel they still have to justify their choices. If we are not answering to men we are answering to feminism. How many men agonise over whether elements of getting married compromise any of their principles?

Thurlow makes an interesting point, some would argue that It [feminism] is not about freedom or equality but rather about ensuring that you always do the feminist thing. I think we have a problem as long as women feel they have to conform to feminist principles rather than feminism empowering them

Vickisuli Mon 28-Jul-14 22:39:02

Really can't see why people stress about whether they 'should' do something because it might not be feminist. Surely the whole point of feminism is the right of a woman to make her own choices. If your choice is to wear a white dress, take your husband's name and let the men at the wedding do the speeches, then that is not anti-feminist. The only time you should question these choices is if you are making them because someone else or society's expectations are forcing you to do so against your will. Most people seem to have a mix of tradition and their own choices at their weddings. Mine was pretty traditional but I made a speech as well as my husband as I am much more of a confident public speaker type than he is.

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