My big feminist wedding
When Jessica Valenti started planning her wedding, she was determined to avoid sexist traditions. But she hadn’t predicted the strength of reaction from family, fellow feminists and the blogger who termed her a ‘ball-cutting cybersuccubus’
One of the first things people ask when they find out that I am engaged is what the proposal was like. (The second is not so much a question, but a speedy grab for my left hand to inspect the diamond they imagine they will find there.)
The problem is that there is no proposal story to tell. At least, not the kind most people expect. There were no rose petals scattered on a satin-sheeted bed, no trips to the Eiffel tower, no ring hidden in a champagne glass. There wasn’t even any kneeling. My partner Andrew and I made the leap in the way that suited us best – we talked about it, and jointly decided that we should get engaged. For us, it was perfect. But, as I soon learned, there is no such thing as perfect when you are a feminist getting married.
Andrew encountered confused faces when he talked about our non-traditional proposal; my extended family looked similarly quizzical when I mentioned that I would be keeping my last name. The fact that Andrew and I had had conversations about the misogynist traditions that accompany marriage made us a bit of an oddity, it seemed. Then there were the fellow feminists who felt that getting married was a sop to the patriarchy, and the problems that we encountered as a couple. Because, with the best will in the world, kissing goodbye to gender roles can be more difficult than it looks.
As a kid, I wasn’t sure that I would ever get married – I was not the kind of little girl who played at being a bride. My parents have a wonderful marriage, but they have been together since my mother was 12, married when they were just teenagers and are barely ever separated. They even work together. As a result, I have always thought of marriage as involving the loss of a certain amount of autonomy. Not to mention that, as feminist as our household was, I grew up seeing my mother do the majority of the domestic work and her paid day job to boot. That did not exactly sweeten the deal.
As I grew up and began identifying myself as a feminist, there were plenty of issues that continued to make me question marriage: the father “giving” the bride away, women taking their husband’s last name, the white dress, the vows promising to “obey” the groom. And that only covers the wedding. Once you get married, women are still implicitly expected to do the majority of the housework and take care of any future children. I remember reading one study that said that even couples who had been living together for years in equitable bliss ended up with a more “traditional” division of household labour if they got married – as though signing that piece of paper somehow skewed their sense of fair play.
But 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. So when we decided to get married, we talked about the traditions to avoid (white dress), what to incorporate (both parents walking us both down the aisle) and, of course, how to plan the wedding.
From the beginning, Andrew and I agreed that we would not be one of those couples in which the woman ends up doing all of the wedding-related work because she is the person who is supposed to care about it the most. No, we were going to do this fairly. He would take care of booking the music, I would handle the flowers. I would cover the invite list, he would deal with the invitations. Several months later, when I found myself up to my eyeballs in sample invitations and band websites – while Andrew read the newspaper or dallied online – I was ready to throw in the towel on so-called domestic bliss.
As founder of the website feministing.com, I have written online about everything from vibrators to the form of birth control I use, but I had been worried about blogging about our engagement. When you address personal issues, especially those so fraught with politics, you are sure to cause a stir. But all of a sudden, touching on the woes of feminist wedding planning did not seem such a bad idea. My feminist friends and community online took the announcement well – with the exception of several commenters who felt my getting married was antithetical to feminism. One, with the username looselips, wrote that she was disappointed that I “seem to find flaws with patriarchy, but fail to find a way to bring it down”. But mostly there were plenty of congratulations and hundreds of comments from other feminists on the ways their political beliefs had informed their weddings and marriages. EmilyKennedy wrote about her purple wedding dress, lack of a diamond ring and her decision not to have a “crap-tastic white cake”. ShifterCat told of a friend’s wedding where, as a small memento, every guest received “a little scroll saying that a donation has been made in their name to Habitat For Humanity”. Another reader told me about a website – offbeatbride.com – that was a good alternative to the frou-frou sites that seem to dominate the wedding-based blogosphere. This was the kind of advice I was looking for.
Emboldened, I blogged again – this time about the ways I was incorporating feminism into the wedding. I wrote about keeping my last name and buying a not-quite white dress from a store that gives all the money to charity. I blogged about the struggle Andrew and I had getting engaged in the same month that California overturned same-sex marriage rights. We had actually discussed not getting married until everyone could; instead, we decided to use our impending marriage as a way to talk about same-sex marriage among our friends and family. In our engagement announcement, for example, we asked anyone considering getting us a gift to instead donate to an organisation fighting for same-sex marriage rights. It felt good, feminist even, to write about an institution so wrought with sexism and discuss ways to make it our own.
To others, however, the way I was approaching my wedding – questioning old traditions; creating new ones – just made me a bridezilla. Kathryn Lopez of the conservative publication National Review, wrote a post entitled “You’ve Never Met a Bridezilla Like a Feminist Bridezilla“, mocking my attempts to subvert traditional wedding standards. Another blogger wrote about Andrew, featuring his picture and a link to his personal website, in a faux contest – “Beta of the month” – the idea being that a real alpha male wouldn’t be caught dead marrying a feminist. (Or a “ball-cutting cybersuccubus”, as I was, in fact, described. Think I can get that on a business card?)
But as it turned out, it was posts such as these, which mocked us for being thoughtful about our decision to get married, that brought Andrew and I closer. And the dismissing of our feminist values made us discuss and embrace them even more. Andrew took a renewed interest in his wedding-planning tasks, recognising that it wasn’t just important for the sake of my sanity, but as a political statement too.
Because we do want our marriage to be a partnership, with bumps in the road to be sure, but bumps to be taken together.
So, while our wedding will be politicised, it won’t be a feminist caricature: I won’t be sporting Birkenstocks under my dress and we won’t ask the “Goddess” for a blessing. But we will head into the wedding, and the marriage, as equals. Now, when our friends and family give us strange looks when we discuss our non-proposal, or the hyphenated last name options for our future children, we just smile. Because whether it’s an old-fashioned aunt or a stranger online, we realise that the only opinion that matters when it comes to our marriage is ours.