On Marriage (Part One)

Saturday, 14 November 2009

This week I remembered that I once said I'd blog about my marriage and what it means to me from a Christian, feminist perspective. This year, Jessica Valenti tied the knot. Several newspapers and websites featured the story; from her engagement to the planning to the day itself, people were fascinated to see how a 'feminist wedding' was going to pan out. Many were eager to congratulate her and wish her all the best, but others felt her decision was a betrayal of her feminist ideals. Would she take her partner's surname? Would she wear a 'traditional' dress? What was she going to do about the fact that same-sex couples are denied the right to marry? In blog posts and newspapers, people debated whether a feminist marriage is even possible.

I married Luke on May 19th, 2007. This shocks people. Sometimes it's because I'm a feminist who's married, but usually because we were both 22 at the time. I've lost count of the number of people who have asked me, in complete shock, why I could possibly want to get married so young. They ask why I wanted to 'settle down' before having 'lived a bit', as if getting married means the end of having a life. Or how, at just 22, I could commit to one person - never to date anyone else again. For some, their 'shock' barely masks their snobbery - nice, middle-class professionals don't marry until they're at least 30. No really. Look out for the slight sneer. This happens a lot. Yes - baking, all things Cath Kidston and imploring each other to 'make do and mend' may be en vogue but going retro by marrying before your late 20s isn't the done thing.

The only place my married status isn't a shock to people is at church. Christians love marrying young if they can. In some churches, it's very much the norm. When we were at university one of my pet peeves was the culture of 'marrying off' which existed in some Christian unions and churches. The pressure to get hitched (or at least be engaged by) the same year as your graduation in some quarters was ridiculous. It was almost as if we'd gone back to the days of being firmly 'on the shelf' at the ripe old age of 23. It used have everyone over the age of 24 sick with worry that there was no-one out there for them and wondering if it meant God wanted them to be single...FOREVER. That Stuff Christian Culture Likes post about hoping the rapture doesn't happen until after your wedding night? It happens. While I was totally against this sort of pressure and still am, I was also very much in a relationship.

Luke and I went on our 'first date' in November 2001. By late 2004, having survived the first year of university intact (just), we were starting to talk about 'the future'. Yes, we were one of those couples who discussed it all first. I knew he was going to propose, he knew I was going to say 'yes'. Luke had decided he was going to do the whole thing 'officially', though. So I was proposed to - in the manky kitchen of his student house in February 2005, in case you're interested. The next day, we told our parents. After discussion with them we agreed that we were going to get married in 2007, giving us time to have finished studying and (hopefully) have been working for a while. My mum in particular was pretty concerned about any effect getting married might have on my working life; she worried that 'settling down' could negatively impact my career choices and independence which of course is true and something I have had to deal with over the past couple of years.

So I'd got a ring on my finger. Off goes the starting pistol in the Feminist Marriage Olympics, right? I could definitely lose points for an engagement ring. In our favour, Luke didn't ask for my dad's 'permission' first. Jokes aside, I think it's so easy to get like this, analysing each choice couples make for its links in patriarchal tradition and while this isn't wrong at all, it can mean focusing on small things at the expense of the bigger picture. Something which invariably came out of online discussions on weddings earlier this year was a rejection of 'traditional' weddings, weddings 'the way they've always been done'. I'm in agreement with this one. There can be so much pressure from family, friends and companies who just want you to buy their stuff to have the expensive dresses, the huge reception and the 'perfect' cake. I can't stand the hype around weddings perpetuated by women's magazines, wedding shows and even the wedding-themed television channels which now exist. I didn't want to spend several months beforehand having skin treatments or fork out a small fortune on personalised favours, all in pursuit of 'being like a princess for the day'. For several years now the beauty industry has been using weddings as an opportunity to make us spend money on yet more things we don't need. Skin peels, anti-cellulite treatments, 'countour wraps', you name it and somewhere, a company will be telling brides-to-be that they need it to feel and look their best on the big day. Not going to lie, after nagging on my mum's part I did make futile efforts to scrub and moisturise away the keratosis pilaris which covers my upper arms through the winter. Did it work? Not really - much like all those anti-cellulite, anti-ageing products.

For us, our wedding day was about being united and committing to one another for the rest of our lives, not putting on some sort of show for the benefit of our families and friends. All too easily these days weddings start to revolve around what the guests would want or how best to please them when it's about the couple and the vows they're making to each other. Our Christian faith meant we wanted a church wedding and the religious aspect of the marriage was, and continues to be important for us as a couple (more on this in Part Two). I wanted the focus of the wedding to be on the service and we spent a lot of time choosing which songs and readings to use, picking ones which were of personal significance to us. A dear friend of Luke's family provided the music, along with two violinists I knew from my time playing in local youth orchestras.

The 'major' issues I'm sure you all want to know about:

- Yes, I changed my surname to Luke's. I wanted to take his name in some way and was all ready to hyphenate, until I actually thought about it and realised how stupid the two names sound when put together. No really, they do. Whenever I tell people what my name would have been, they think it's hilarious. When I got engaged, one of my flatmates told me it sounded like 'slang for an unspeakable sexual practice'. I decided it would be better to just take his name and avoid the sniggers every time I introduced myself. Besides, I'd had my dad's surname up until then so either way I was going to end up with a man's name. I know that if I'd married a man with a less...tricky...surname, I would be using both names.

- I did not promise to 'obey' Luke as part of my vows. This was something I'd planned to talk to the vicar about because I had raised the issue with Luke and he agreed with me that it wasn't right for us. However, when we got the order of service booklet we discovered that the church did not use the 'obey' version of the vows anyway. The Church of England started to offer alternative wording in 2006, releasing a report recognising that 'obey' is a problematic word which could help to reinforce a domination/submission aspect to marriages and could also be used by perpetrators to justify domestic violence. There's some pretty interesting information on the report here.

- I didn't wear a white dress. A couple of people I know were actually slightly miffed at this and couldn't see why I didn't want to. Aside from the virginity-obsessing aspect of it all (I think I feel the same about it as I do about purity rings, purity balls and mentioning a couple's virginity as part of the marriage service), I never actually wear white. I can't imagine myself in a white outfit and wasn't going to change that for my wedding day. I did, however, wear a 'traditional' wedding dress. The colour was champagne. Yes, there is a difference between 'champagne' and 'white'.

It was a wonderful day. I'd tried not to get stressed about it and thankfully didn't until a couple of days before, when I started to wonder if I'd drop Luke's ring, or mess up the vows, or trip over my dress and end up in hospital. To be honest it's all over so quickly that anxiety for months beforehand just isn't worth it. Weddings are easy to deal with when you think about what comes afterwards.

Part Two will deal with married life; how it fits with my faith and feminism and decisions we've made on gender roles.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post! When you say that the CofE started offering alternative wording in 2006 - does that mean that prior to 2006 it was actually *mandatory* for women to obey their husbands in a CofE ceremony?!? The use of the word 'obey' should not be allowed at all.

I disagree with the idea that keeping your name on marriage is just the same as changing it to your husband's if your birth name comes from your father. This implies that women never own their names; that they either have their father's name or their husband's, while men's names are considered theirs rather than their father's from the moment of birth. I believe that whatever name people are given at birth is their name, and wish that the expectation that women change their names on marriage did not exist.

Hannah said...

What a sweet story.

Over 20 yrs ago+ I had the 'obey' taken off my vows as well. What most churches won't point out is that the 'obey' part isn't in there anyway (bible). How that portion of scripture changed over time is quite an amazing story, and it didn't use to be that way (subornation thinking). Its amazing how the church culture changed it, and do not like to correct that portion of history. Sigh.

I think a name is a name - and it is a cultural practice to take the husband's. The only one I'm worried about is the name that God calls me by, and I'm not worried about what 'society' thinks. We discussed it beforehand, and I told him if I took his name - one of our children would take my family name as part of theirs. It would either be the first or middle. My son has my father's name, which was to honor him - and which he beamed with pride over. I did that out of love, and nothing else. I guess some cultural aspects I think are silly, and since I don't have to play by those rules I don't. lol!

When you mentioned the marriage by graduation I remember my mother mentioning that for her. She was this old maid in society's eyes. I think that is why she never mentioned that to me.

Hannah M said...

I don't think it was mandatory before then; i've found stuff on the internet relating to it for several years before that, but i think the C of E only re-did the wording officially in 2006. What's scary is that i found a lot of forums with posts discussing it and many topics involved brides-to-be saying "My fiancé wants me to say 'obey' but i don't want to - what should i do?" It seemed that there were an awful lot of women whose partners were trying to pressurise them into 'obeying' :S Similarly i found a lot of unpleasant hardline complementarian websites stating that a women who does not want to 'obey' is clearly contrary to God and scripture.

I think a lot of people don't question the name change because that's just 'what's done'. Certainly when i've mentioned the consideration i gave it most people are surprised that i would give it thought as to them, the woman takes the man's name and that's that.

Hannah, i did wonder about the origins of 'obey' actually being Biblical. I know the Bible talks about 'submission' but i know people take this in different contexts. I do think that a relationship is about *mutual* submission and a lot of emphasis, in the *wrong* way, is put on how women should defer to their husbands.

Anonymous said...


Hannah said...

Hard complementarian is scary indeed. They tend to add doctrine that truly isn't in the bible. What amazes me is if you read Proverbs 31 woman? The character portrayed in the bible has more freedom than what the hard comps would allow today. Why that doesn't strike people as 'odd' is beyond me.


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