Concessions to the Patriarchy is a regular feature about the battles, big and small, we women choose not to fight. This instalment: getting married
’Tis the season, ladies! Chances are good that you will be attending/participating in one or more nuptial celebrations in the coming weeks. In honour of this fact, we here at SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS are devoting a series of Concessions to the Patriarchy to all manner of wedding-related acquiescences.
It’s our version of TLC’s Bride Day, if you will.
Starting us off is the decision that sets in motion all wedding-related concessions: the decision to get married.
Marriage is one of the oldest patriarchal traditions around; a socially sanctioned and enforced practice of oppression and dominance. As an institution, it drips with sexism and misogyny.
Consider that historically, marriage was a financial transaction between households (i.e., love had nothing to do with it, now let’s all sing along to Tina Turner) and that women, once deemed wives by the state and/or religious authority in charge, were regulated to little more than indentured household servants whose role was to cook and clean and have sex — whether they wanted to or not — and produce (hopefully male) offspring and then take care of that offspring.
Though slightly less overt, that transactional understanding of marriage remains to this day, with women exchanging their love and devotion/unpaid labour/sexual favours for a knuckle-dragger of a diamond (aka the Put a Ring on It Principle).
Also, married women now get to cook, clean, have sex, produce and raise offspring AND work outside the home. Hooray for progress.
Consider the tradition of a dowry, which still exists in some places. A dowry is the money and/or goods a woman brings with her into her marriage. While ostensibly meant to provide for a woman should her relationship dissolve, many people understand it as something quite different. (Here’s the top-rated Urban Dictionary definition of the term: “What the father of a rich single broad uses as a bribe to get a man to marry her crabby little ass.” CHARMING.)
Consider the gender essentialism and heteronormativism that informs many people’s understanding of what marriage is (and is not), and how that has enabled and sustained homophobia.
Consider the long, rich history of abuse within marriage (physical, sexual, emotional, financial) and how our justice system and we, as societies, respond to such abuse.
Consider all the customs involved with the actual act of getting married which are rooted in patriarchal attitudes: being “given away” by one’s father to one’s husband (WOMEN AS CHATTEL, ANYONE?); vowing to “love, honour and obey” one’s husband; the instruction that a man may kiss “his” bride; the instantaneous erasure of a woman’s identity via the “I now pronounce you Mr. and Mrs. His First Name, His Last Name” announcement; etc.
Basically, there are a lot of things about marriage that are problematic and therefore worthy of critique.
BUT WAIT, you’re saying to yourself (or maybe you’re not — this is just the point in the post where I address the inevitable protests that come up whenever a feminist points out that marriage is a sexist institution and that there are a lot of things about it that are problematic and therefore worthy of critique).
WAIT JUST A MINUTE, you (maybe) are saying. I AM HAPPILY MARRIED! AND I KNOW OTHERS WHO ARE ALSO HAPPILY MARRIED! WE ARE NOT OPPRESSED! WE CHOSE TO GET MARRIED BECAUSE OF TRUE LOVE! OUR MARRIAGES ARE DIFFERENT AND THAT MEANS YOU’RE FULL OF SHIT!
Here’s the thing: some people’s marriages are great — fulfilling for both partners involved, full of love, yada yada yada. I myself know people who are happily married! For realz! And I also know other people who are not yet married but totally want to be at some point in the future!
These people are not stupid or anti-feminist.
HOWEVER. The fact that people, as individuals, choose to participate in the institution of marriage does not change the fact that marriage, as an institution, is inherently sexist.
Say it with me, people: CHOICES ARE NOT MADE IN A CULTURAL VACUUM.
The act of choosing to do something does not automatically remove all the problematic underpinnings of that thing — even if you are a really nice person! Even if you are a feminist! This post summarizes that point well.
Key line — written in all caps, no less (kindred spirit!):
GETTING MARRIED HAS ITS ROOTS IN SEXIST TRADITIONS. EVEN THOUGH I AM A SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE WHO HAS ZIR OWN SPECIAL SNOWFLAKE REASONS FOR DOING IT.
The reason getting married is a concession to the patriarchy is not because doing so is always a bad thing. Getting married is a concession to the patriarchy because doing so is treated less as a choice and more as a non-negotiable expectation — particularly for women.
Getting married is what women are to do, full stop. It is a rite of passage that’s entrenched in our collective cultural script. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. As a woman, you must aspire to it — and if you don’t, you are abnormal.
And now it’s time for a relevant personal anecdote!
I am not married — by conscious, active choice. I am also in a long-term, monogamous relationship — again, by conscious, active choice.
My marital status is a BIG FUCKING DEAL to many people. Over the years, I have been repeatedly challenged and questioned about it, both by friends and family and by complete strangers. My mother has been hounded about it by casual acquaintances.
People don’t understand why I am not married and THEY DEMAND AN EXPLANATION as to what, exactly, is my problem. Because clearly, I have one.
My stock answer is “I’m not the marrying type.” If I’m feeling cheeky, I tell them I prefer to live in sin. Honestly, engaging my inquisitors on why I don’t want to get married garners a lot of pushback, which gets exhausting.
My experience has been that criticizing marriage, the institution, is interpreted by people who are married/want to get married as criticizing them. I’m not doing that but people are human and humans are weird and defensive and project their own personal shit onto things all the time.
I am not unique. Plenty of people actively choose not to be married, for a variety of reasons. That said, choosing not to be married — especially for women — remains less culturally acceptable than choosing to be married. THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE.
And that’s why getting married is still a concession to the patriarchy — EVEN IF you totally want to be married and EVEN IF you already are married and EVEN IF the traditions you incorporated into your wedding were done for reasons that felt right to you and without any intent to reinforce sexist attitudes and EVEN IF your marriage is egalitarian and/or unconventional when compared to marriages of yore, and EVEN IF you are a special snowflake.