Reconciling marriage as a feminist: Does everything about the wedding have to be a feminist battle?

Guest post by ladylabrat

Cake Topper is AWESOMEI have always considered myself a staunch feminist (thanks, Mom, for all of those “I am Woman” sing-alongs). Feminism as I see it (certainly third-wave feminism) is about equality of opportunity, partnership, and choice — both between the sexes but also with respect to race, gender, sexuality, etc. But this is an identity that I have found more and more challenging (and challenged) as I have grown older.

I could talk for ages about sexism and feminism in academia in general, and science in particular (the fact that “work/life balance” is discussed in any woman's career panel but is never discussed among our male counterparts says volumes in and of itself). But, of course, the area that is forefront in my mind as of late has been the dreaded Wedding Industrial Complex.

Although a proud feminist, I have always envisioned myself spending my life with a male-bodied person, and I view marriage as a legal acknowledgement of a deeply emotional and personal choice that is in no way contradictory to my feminist identity. I consider myself unendingly lucky to have found a partner in life who also calls himself a feminist, and views our relationship as one of equals — equals who bring different talents and shortcomings to the table.

Nonetheless, when E and I first began to talk about the wedding, I found myself more than a little overwhelmed with a squicky feeling.

Weddings are inherently seeped in a tradition of patriarchy — don't let anyone tell you differently. Historically, weddings were about property transfer and sexual rights. Even today, in our “enlightened” world, weddings are filled with reminders of this past, some subtle, some not. From our conception of the wedding as “the bride's day“, to our focus on the bride's outfit, to the “giving away” of the bride, to the un-ending wedding day “humor” (“ball and chain”, bachelor parties, “bridezilla,” the un-ending refrain that sex dies after the wedding).

There are reminders everywhere that a wedding, apparently, should mean very different things to the male-bodied and female-bodied participants (and that's completely ignoring the possibilities of same-sex marriage, polyamorous relationships, etc.). Place all of these ideas in the context of a wedding industry that is forever telling you that you absolutely must have organza chair ties, and cherub-cheeked flower girls, and a 40-foot veil, and it's enough to make even the most mild-mannered feminist begin to hyperventilate.

As we began to plan our wedding, we had long talks about what traditions mean something to us and what didn't. Some were easy to decide… We were vehemently against me taking E's last name (in a truly feminist world, we believe that some women would change, some men would change, some couples would both change, and some would both not change, but today, we feel our choice is the most reflective our relationship). We dislike the idea of a bouquet toss and a garter toss, and the idea of any “obeying” never needed to be mentioned. The more difficult discussions are the ones where tradition reared its ugly head.

Now, there's something beautiful to be said about tradition. It's comforting. It feels timeless (regardless of whether that's true). It feels… respectable. And respectful. Because we're not trying to be radicals here. Although our views of marriage may differ from the more conservative viewpoint, we nonetheless view this decision we are making to spend our lives together as something to honor and respect. And admittedly, as a girl, when I vaguely imagined a wedding, I assumed that my father would walk me down the aisle, I assumed wearing a veil, I even assumed that I would become a “Mrs.”

But today, I feel that each of the choices we make for our wedding need to be conscious choices. We need to weigh the comfort of tradition against the statement (overt or otherwise) that it may make. Not every feminist wedding is going to look the same — and certainly one can be a feminist and have a more “traditional” wedding. I don't decide who is a feminist and who is not — I only get to determine how my feminism manifests itself.

I was asked (more than once) if EVERYTHING about our wedding had to be a feminist battle (I was also accused of being ashamed to get married because I'm ambivalent about wearing a ring). And the answer, I think… is yes. And no.

Yes, because I am a feminist, my partner is a feminist, and we want our wedding (and our marriage) to be representative of us as a couple — a joining of equal individuals working towards a common goal. And no, because sometimes in life (as in relationships), we have to choose our battles.

And so while I will always fight for a woman to keep her last name in marriage, on our wedding day I will be in white because it will make the colored crinoline really stand out. And while we both wear engagement rings, only I am going to carry a bouquet because I like to have something to do with my hands. And while I may elect to be escorted by both parents, I will process in last to my waiting partner, because that's a “moment” he very much wants.

I'd like to think we've considered every decision we've made, but no doubt there are constructs of which even we have been oblivious. Nonetheless, we both believe that we have created a day that is reflective of us and our relationship — one that works within the circumstances of our historical perspective, is created through conscious decision making, is decided upon after long discussion and many compromises, and, most importantly, is the celebration of two people and their mutual love and respect. And that makes my feminist self proud.

Comments on Reconciling marriage as a feminist: Does everything about the wedding have to be a feminist battle?

  1. I struggled with a lot of this during my wedding planning as well. I knew I wanted to keep my own name, so I had to gently remind relatives ALL THE TIME that we were not going to be announced as “Mr. and Mrs. HisLastName.” The invitations were not going to be our parents inviting folks to the wedding. He wanted to wear his (dress police) uniform….but I was uncomfortable with that (For more than one reason. First, I ALSO have a badge and a uniform, but I was going to take it off to wear fancy clothes, so dammit he could too! And second…in his line of work, there is a definite culture of “Officer and Wifey”. I did NOT want this wedding to be Officer So-And-So…and Wife. It was me AND him as equals. So his wearing an officer uniform while I wore a dress just felt….off). My sisters were adamant that if I didn’t have my dad walk me down the aisle, he was going to be crushed (again, I was hesitant partially for feminist reasons, but also for just…me reasons. I’ve always had the independent streak, and had been living on my own for years. If wedding is all about symbols, why would I support the symbol that I was all of a sudden Daddy’s little irl being handed from one mad to another man?). I had to do a LOT of explaining that it was only because I never envisioned being escorted down the aisle, and that this was about me wanted to walk myself down the aisle, and this was NOT about me NOT wanting my dad.

    In the end, I kept some traditional elements, but not others. My husband waited for me at the head of the aisle, and my dad walked me TO the aisle…but then my parents and his parents walked down the aisle together as pairs, and I followed on my own alone (symbolizing that I was walking into the marriage under my own steam, not under my father’s). Neither of us wore uniforms, but his boutonnieres were made of conifer sprigs and cones, mixed with copper wire and metal nuts to symbolize his outdoorsiness and his mechanical size. I wore a white dress, but it was a short dress and all of my accessories were colorful (green shoes, turquoise sash, blue shrug). I kept my last name, but took his last name as a 2nd middle name. We wrote our own wedding script (no obeying crap, and no religion) and our own equal vows. We were announced as husband and wife or “the newlyweds” but not Mr. and Mrs anyone’s name.

    So yeah, the “traditional wedding stuff + feminism” can be hard to swallow. I guess the important thing is that IF you include a traditional thing, it’s because YOU want it there, not because society says you have to have it. I wore a white dress, not because I’m a virgin, but just because my husband said that he always envisioned our wedding with me in a white dress and I felt that it was more important for him to have that moment than it was for me to worry about white=purity.

    • I’ve struggled with my fiance wanting to wear his (military) uniform to our ceremony, for the exact reasons you wrote. I’m choosing to marry *him*, not his job; I’m not wearing my PhD sash down the aisle. He was very adamant about wearing it though and I’ve given up arguing about it. In the end it is his body, but I wish I could articulate to him just how icky it makes me feel.

      And seriously, what is it with being announced “Mr and Mrs So-and-so”? Or even worse, “man and wife” ::shudder:: We’ll just be announced “the newlyweds, Jenni and J” and that’s it.

      • I’m cool with husband and wife, because that is what we are now, and it’s a description that describes us equally. Same as being introduced as Mr & Mrs. Last Name (as opposed to Mr & Mrs HisFirst/HisLast)

      • I’m just curious, what about him wearing his (I’m assuming) dress uniform bothers you so much? Where I live, it’s pretty standard for military men to wear the dress uniform in leu of tux to formal events. Not just weddings, but formal dinners and fancy parties and such. I think it’s good for all but the strictest black tie; it’s also an expensive uniform, at least in my experience, right up there with buying a fancy regular suit. Maybe he feels handsome in it, just like I’m sure you picked out a dress that made you feel beautiful.

        • To my fiance, it’s all you said–equivalent to a tux, an expensive thing he paid for, he looks good in it; it reminds him of his family members who were also in the military; and it represents his success and achievements in his career.

          To me, it also represents his career. All of the challenges and the difficulties that it has brought into our lives. All of the days that we could share that get taken away. I’m proud of him and his job, and I’m glad he does work that he loves and finds meaningful. But I want our wedding day to be *our* day. Not the military’s. (Not my job, either.) They get enough of our days.

          Like I said, although I would prefer otherwise, I’ve accepted that he wants to wear it. He also understands where I’m coming from, and thus there will be no other military aspects at our wedding. He decided that he’d like to switch into a regular suit for the reception and dancing. So the groom will be doing a wardrobe change instead of the bride!

          • I can certainly see where you’re coming from. I’m glad that the two of you seem to have worked out a compromise that you can both feel comfortable with.

        • For me and my husband’s (game warden) uniform, it was just that I didn’t want the whole thing to be a “warden wedding”. It’s a unique job, I get that, and in some ways I’m marrying “the life” (like Jenni said, the jobs get enough of our days, the jobs aren’t getting THIS day too!)….but I didn’t want the wedding to symbolize that it was Warden and Wife. I had bad enough identity issues as it was (what with the borderline-sexist Warden Wives Facebook group, Warden wife roles at funerals/graduations, etc…and almost never any thought to warden HUSBANDS for the few female wardens out there) that I really REALLY did not want him to wear his uniform. I have seen the pics from other warden wives that DID have warden weddings (the groom and all groomsmen wore their scarlet wool dress coats, the bridesmaids all wore camo dresses, there was a blue-lights-and-siren escort to the church, the warden service chaplain performed the ceremony, shotgun salute after the wedding, etc). All of that is fine for those wives that I have met whose WHOLE LIFE is that they’re a warden wife. They’re housewives to a warden, period. They press their husband’s uniform and pack him a lunch, and wait up until 2am when he’s out on a night-poaching detail. That’s fine, that’s their choice, but that’s not me. I have my OWN identity outside of being a warden wife, so I just felt super uncomfortable with our wedding in any way symbolizing Warden and Wifey instead of Husband and Wife with equally important identities. And again, I also have a uniform and a badge…but I wasn’t going to wear MY uniform, so why would he? I do NOT like the groom-in-uniform thing when it particularly excludes the wife’s career. Like, only HIS career aspirations matter, so he wears he uniform while she puts on the traditional dress and pretends she doesn’t also have a cool job.

    • Funny related anecdote: Snuggles is in the Navy, and even though he’s absolutely drool-worthy in his dress whites, we decided to have him wear a grey suit (also droolworthy) to the wedding instead. (There’s a lot of reasons for this, but they boil down to the fact that we don’t really want to make his Being In The Navy a defining characteristic of his identity.) My dear grandmother, however, is a huge fan of Men In Uniform (I don’t blame her) and keeps trying to trick Snuggles into promising to wear his uniform to the wedding. At Thanksgiving dinner, she told him he could only sit next to her if he promised to wear his uniform, and then when he went to sit somewhere else, she changed seats and chased him around the table! XP

  2. THANK YOU for posting this! I’m a queer lady who always thought marriage was sort of icky and now I’m wearing a diamond ring, planning a wedding. (No, he didn’t buy it, it was inherited, and yes, it’s beautiful, but I would have never wanted or asked for one that didn’t have the sentimental history associated with THIS ring. anway…) I’m starting to feel a little squicked about how people talk to us about the wedding, and the whole idea, even though I think he’s the very best one. Nice to know others feel this way.

  3. Those “feminism battles” are also more important to you than your guests, just like the fact that your confetti is heart-shaped and hand-punched from a vintage copy of Winnie the Pooh. Sure, your guests are likely to notice the big things (the white dress, the name change, the venue) but all of the meaning behind what you choose and don’t choose is about YOU, not the guests. So why not make them as meaningful to you as you want? But that doesn’t mean that your wedding will look any more or less “feminist” on the big day. Although I think it would be totally cool if you included a panel on wedding symbolism as part of the bridal shower.

    • That…. is kind of a brilliant idea. It keeps the shower about the wedding, but is a great time to talk about the ideas you have behind your wedding and the reasoning behind your choices. SUCH a neat idea!

  4. I don’t necessarily call myself a feminist on a daily basis, but I firmly believe in gender and sex equality. I also happen to be very not religious, so when it came time to plan our ceremony we changed quite a bit. The thing I didn’t want to do the most was be given away. My dad was pretty upset, but he got over it. My husband and I walked into the ceremony together, hand in hand. We wrote our own ceremony, and our vows. I specifically didn’t want to say anything about “obeying” and we wanted to show through our ceremony that we were entering our marriage as equals. I know a lot of my conservative family members disapproved, but they were kind enough not to say anything to ruin the day, and I feel better knowing that I defined my marriage and no one else.

    • My husband and I planned on writing our own ceremony and vows…and then we both got super lazy and stressed out with writer’s block and it didn’t happen. So I emailed the officiant and told him to use just the “standard” wedding. He was a Baptist minister (I’m a buddhist and my husband is an atheist, but we wanted this specific guy to marry us for the purely nerdy reason that he was a wrestler we both admired as kids) and I got to thinking about it like three days before the wedding and called him freaking out because we did not want “obey” in our vows. He laughed at me and said “Nobody says that anymore. I only include it if someone specifically asks, and they never do.” That made me feel better, the idea that “obey” is at least in some places an anachronism that even Baptist ministers laugh at.

  5. We struggled on the name issue, because we really liked the idea of both changing our names to something completely new… but we’re planning on building a blended family, and FH’s son already bears his last name. For the sake of family unity, I decided I was ok with taking his name. The symbolism of it doesn’t bother me, because it’s a way for me to declare my bond not just with FH, but also with his son. A way to say to my new step-son, “I recognize that you and your dad are a family with your own bonds, ones that pre-date my relationship with you two, and I’m happy that you want me to join that family.”

    And it’s ok because my partner and I are both feminists too, and I know that if the situation were reversed, he would just as easily take my name instead.

    And feminism/gender equality really is all about choice. Being openly able to consider all the possible choices and choose the right one for you, rather than having it chosen for you. If I were to choose to be a stay-at-home-mom/housewife, knowing that career options are out there and are equally valid choices, then my choice would still be an expression of my feminism. And if anyone tried to tell me, “You are a feminist and therefore cannot and should not ever have anything traditional, you must go the opposite way” I see *that* attitude as anti-feminist.

    A feminist wedding is really just a wedding with one or more feminists in it, and can look and feel however it wants to 🙂

  6. My daughter is just beginning her wedding planning, and as someone who was married in a totally traditional wedding, I’ve so enjoyed that she and her fiance are making it about them. I have a hard time labeling her as “feminist” because it’s not just about being a woman – it’s about being her own person, and about the two of them being equal partners. It’s so refreshing to see and hear her ideas, and not just going along with all the customs and the “have to’s” that so many other weddings do. As others have said, they can chose which traditions are meaningful to them. In the end, I know it’ll be a beautiful day and I know it will reflect them both – which is what it should be all about.

  7. Our wedding looked pretty traditional, and for the most part I didn’t worry too much about it. We knew what it meant to us, and purposefully decided not to care what it looked like from the outside. I did have a bit of a crisis with having my dad walk me down the aisle. Property, the weird daddy guards daughter’s chastity, all that icky stuff. But that’s not MY relationship with MY dad. I just wanted my dad by my side to support me in this important moment. So I chose to ignore the history and the implication of what people would think my choice was about, and just made my choice. It wasn’t without some feminist hand-wringing, however.

    • I had the same concern. So my compromise to have my dad walk with me in, so he was with me in the lobby waiting to enter and I had him to hold onto, but I then hugged him, he went to be by my mom and I walked the last ways to my partner alone. I am sure I overthought it, but to me it said “Dad helped me on the path to who I am, but I am my own person. And today I am joining paths with this man.”

    • Thank you for putting into words exactly what has been going through my mind lately regarding the whole dad-walking-me-down-the-aisle thing. My fiance and I both abhor the historical implications of it, but I didn’t want to ask my dad to NOT walk me down the aisle, because I’d like him there and also I think he’d be hurt if I didn’t want him to. If my parents were still together, I’d definitely have them both walk me down, but my dad is remarried to my stepmom and three people is too many to walk me down, lol! So although i’d love to also have my mom walk down with me too, I think it’ll probably just be my dad.

      • At my first wedding (yep, I had a starter marriage) I had my mom and dad (who have both been married to other people happily for 20+ years but still can’t stand each other) walk me down the aisle. I wanted them both to do it because I wanted to recognize them equally for their contributions to my life, but wow did it freak them both out at first! Thankfully, they got over their initial reactions and chose to honor my wishes. And they’re actually nicer to each other when they have to see each other now! At my second wedding, I walked by myself into the ceremony. It was a really beautiful moment for me, very symbolic of choosing to walk a different path by myself to join my partner for an adventure we took on together.

        • Yeah, I thought about still having both my mom and dad do it, but I don’t wanna snub my stepmom either. I think I’ll just have my dad do it cuz it’ll be a nice moment with my dad. i want to think of other ways i can have a special moment with my mom because she’s so important to me.

  8. I may have already mentioned this in a comment on another post, but I can’t resist – I LOVE the attention you’ve been paying to feminism and how it relates to the wedding day lately. Nothing surprising for Offbeat Bride for sure, but this is something that many women (and men!) struggle with, but somehow I don’t hear it getting discussed much.

    The line between being a feminist and still trying to have a wedding day that you love is so fraught because so many wedding traditions simultaneously come from a sexist history but also have a different meaning to us today. Thinking about this stuff is important, but it’s just as important to let go of preconceptions that “a feminist shouldn’t do that” and just plan the day how you want to experience it.

    • Haha, some wedding traditions I ditched SPECIFICALLY because of the sexist history behind them, even if our guests didn’t notice. Like, traditionally the bride stands on the right side of the church while the groom stands on the left. Supposedly this originated because the groom needed to have his right side unobstructed in case he needed to draw his sword and fight off whomever objected to him stealing his bride away. Well, that’s just silly. So I deliberately changed it so that I stood on the left and my groom stood on the right. No one noticed…but I knew. 🙂

      • Love it! I’m stealing this, gotta get these digs in even if I’m the only one that knows about them!

  9. As a 40-something bride getting married for the first time, I find the concept of being “given away” utterly ridiculous. Instead, we’re symbolically joining the families—R will be walked down the aisle by his parents, just as I will be by mine. We’ll have round of hugs and handshakes amongst both sets of parents as well as the bride and groom, then R and I will step away from our parents and stand on our own, together. I’ve always hated the bride-centric aspects of weddings—as if the groom isn’t part of the decision to spend one’s life together in marriage. So we’re doing our best to keep things equal. All the attendants will all walk the aisle (2 x 2), not just the bridesmaids. No one is agreeing to obey. There will be no garter toss (ick!) or bouquet toss because the symbolism is just so dated. And I’m going to keep my maiden name in addition to taking his, so in my professional life I’ll be Amy Maidenname and in my personal life I’ll be a three namer, Amy Maidenname Husbandsurname. We won’t be man-and-wife (ugh!) or Mr. and Mrs. Husbandsurname, we’ll just be the newlyweds, A and R.

  10. for me, planning my wedding is relatively unstressful because i didn’t grow up with all these traditions in my head (European childhood FTW?). never dreamed or thought much about weddings as a kid, never been to any weddings either. so when it came to planning my own, my mind was very unspoiled and i felt free researching different traditions and ideas for alternatives.

    this has in part to do with feminism and in part with me being my own person. the first time i got married, i didn’t take my ex’s name because i liked mine better. and this second time around, i will change my name and am really excited about it. i love veils, so i’m contemplating getting one. i may end up getting a white dress out of a few different options of white, part-white and non-white options. nobody will walk me down the aisle because i moved out at age 17.

    i despise Mr. and Mrs. HisFirst HisLast – this is one thing we’re not clear about when it comes to addressing our guests. i refuse to address mine like that, i’m going with Mrs. HerFirst & Mr. HisFirst TheirLast. my fiancé however think it’s the correct & respectful form to go with tradition here. so we’re going to end up with a mismatched guest list.

    the cake cutting (“whose hand is on top of the cutting knife will be calling the shots in the marriage”) is stupid, as it would be either mine or his (inequality presumed). so i like the idea of having our son cut the cake 😛

    no bridesmaids, no groomsmen. no dances with dad or mom.. obviously no garter tossing.. no bouquets.. we’re instead planning a spiritual union and are choosing / creating traditions which reflect that.

    the only person who has commented somewhat negatively is a surprisingly traditional friend of mine, who called me an “anti-bride”. but everyone else, and that includes both our families, are super supportive and even remind us (when the industry gets a little too much for us) that we are doing our on thing here and to toss everything that needs tossing. they WANT to see us create an authentic wedding, and not a crowd-pleasing reenactment of what everyone has seen 217 times before.

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