17 Jan 2009

Jessica Valenti, one of the editors and authors of the excellent Feministing.com, has announced on her blog that she is getting married. In amongst the joy, there's a wry tone and some apprehension about the potential feminist backlash that this might entail for her. Reading the comments below the post though, it seems the majority of the sistas are overwhelmingly supportive, and are happy to candidly share their own marriage success/failure stories too. I think this is positive insofar as it shows feminism does not always have to be negative, deeming every action to be loaded with meaning and ripe for ripping to shreds. However, what the post and its comments brings out to me is that getting married and maintaining your feminist beliefs will always be something of a minefield. No matter how many girls posted on how they had a wedding devoid of white puffy dresses, big diamond rings, fathers giving them away etc, I couldn't help but think - yes, but you - and I mean you as the female party - are still going to have to deal with the inevitable misconceptions after the big day. And that makes me think, why bring the hassle upon yourself - why not just cohabit happily ever after?

For instance, as soon as you tell people you are married, they will assume the two of you share your name. I illustrate this with a fantasy conversation, using some assumed names.

Bloke in the Bank - "Right Miss Smoosh, you just need to fill in these forms and we can open up a new savings account for you."
Me - "Actually it's Ms. Smoosh."
B.I.T.B - "Oh OK, so are you single, divorced or married?"
Me - "I'm married."
B.I.T.B - "In that case, we offer a very good joint account, would you like to open one with Mr. Smoosh?"
Me - "He's not called Mr. Smoosh, his name is Mr. Thang, and if I wanted a joint account I would have asked for one."
B.I.T.B - *awkward silence, shuffles papers*

Silly, but probably entirely accurate. The cult of the last-name exchange is still so strong, that you will find yourself having to explain yourself over and over again. Why let other people's misconceptions bother you - surely you're getting married for you and not them? Absolutely, but I just can't help thinking - why invite it? If you cohabit, or own a property together, don't believe in religious reasons for marriage, and are secure in your relationship, surely you're just as tied together as a marriage would make you? I dunno, I guess it just pisses me off that the onus will always be on the lady to explain herself for making 'alternative choices', that society's assumptions will always be that we can't wait to get ourselves kitted out with a piece of bling and give up our last names.

A lot of ladies commenting on the blog suggested that it's important feminists do embrace marriage, in order to re-shape an institution that has previously oppressed women, and reclaim it as a positive union of equals. A noble ambition for sure, and I support those who pursue it. I just don't know if I want my life to be the experimental laboratory for changing the minds of those who will probably never be able to break their social conditioning long enough to understand why I want to remain Ms.Smoosh and also eschew white dresses, churches and engagement rings (not to mention the gender-dividing tradition of stag and hen parties.)

I'm just not sure what marriage brings to the table any more, at least in the UK. Most of the posters on Feministing are USA-based, and several of them made the disturbing point that, without a marriage licence, you may find yourself with no right to visit your beloved as they lie mortally wounded in a hospital emergency room. I can certainly understand why the refusal to recognise any legal importance of a long-term relationship rankles with gay men and women, who are currently fighting Proposition 8 in the States. However, in the UK where marriage gains you very few rights over those who co-habit, and where the option of civil partnership is there for those who want legal protection, weddings begin to seem dated and superfluous. I also don't really buy the defence that the act of the wedding is about expressing love and having that love recognised by family and friends - to my mind it's the staying together long-term that expresses your commitment perfectly well for all to see, on an everyday basis. What does one day, which is largely suspended from reality because of all the excitement involved, really show? It is all symbolic after all, and if we refuse to subscribe to the symbolism, the whole thing becomes surplus to requirements pretty quickly.

Perhaps I'm angry because I can't just tie the knot with Mr. Thang without anticipating a lifetime of having to explain and justify my choices to people who have no business demanding this from me in the first place. I already have to specify Ms over Miss/Mrs at least 20 times a year on the phone to my car insurers, home insurers, doctors, mechanic etc. The marriage/name confusion would probably push that figure towards more like 100, and the demands wouldn't just come from people in official positions, but acquaintances and family alike (my real friends would be far too smart to even start with me, and that's why I love them). A petty concern it may seem to some, and surely no real barrier to marriage if you really want to do it. I agree - my problem is I'm not that sure on marriage in the first place, precisely because I can't quite shake its history, its misuses and abuses of women, in order to reclaim it for myself. This is probably exactly why more feminists should be embracing and re-shaping marriage for women, in order to give the next generation of girls some positive role models to look to when making life choices. For me, unfortunately, marriage still far too often seems to represent drudgery, being taken for granted, the death of spontaneity, the assumption of rigid and offensive gender roles, and of course - children. I'd like to see it change - but somewhat paradoxically, I may value my relationship too much by using it as a platform for an experiment that may fail.

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