Feminism and marriage (empty stereotypes)
You may not know who Jessica Valenti is, but it’s never too late to catch up on a strong, smart feminist voice. I bring her up because of her recent marriage and how well she has spoken about the complicated feelings she’s had about the process and institution, as well as her intentionality about constructing a wedding and a marriage that reflects her philosophies and life.
Back in January, when she announced her engagement on her blog, she accompanied the post titled “Does the personal always have to be political? (And can’t it ever be private?)” with this e-card:
It was around the same time that Megan and I told people about our engagement and dealt with a smaller scale and less vicious set of questions (asked both of each other and by others), so I found myself relating to her in a lot of ways. Why did we want to participate in the institution of marriage? What does a feminist (in Valenti’s case) or queer/feminist (in our case) marriage look like? How do you redefine something that (traditionally and still) is so interlaced with male dominance and religious control?
Thankfully, we didn’t have gossip columns and publications like Playboy weighing in on the merits of our relationship or framing our decision as a “feminist-finally-gets-hitched” story like the NY Times did. (By the way, NYT: seriously?? You could have written about so many more interesting aspects of the marriage/decisions made about it and you chose the easy and kind of anti-feminist route. But I shouldn’t expect more depth from the section that usually profiles rich, ivy leaguers with famous parents.)
Valenti just wrote a new post called Well, I’m damn sure never getting married again and it pains me that she had to write it. She thought into constructing what it meant not only to be married, but to get married, and I think that is what you would expect from someone with a track record of critical thought and political engagement.
And let me tell you, it is hard to deconstruct marriage and the cultural weight embedded in it to reconstruct it to fit your values. As Valenti said:
When I wrote about Andrew and I planning a wedding, I wasn’t doing so to make some grand statement about what feminists should do when they get married. Or to suggest that my wedding was going to be The Most Feminist Wedding Ever. I wrote about it as an individual, as a person, who was trying to negotiate her beliefs with a traditionally sexist institution and the consumerist party-planning that surrounds weddings.
We wanted to make the wedding representative of the institution we’d like marriage to be, and I think we did a good job. Does any of this change the fact that marriage is a historically sexist institution or make it okay that millions of people are denied the right to be married? Of course not. But it made the celebration one that made sense to us, one that re-imagined what marriage as an institution should be about – love, equal partnership and community. (And seriously, to the some of the more conservative relatives at our wedding, hearing these sort of things at a wedding absolutely made an impact.)
Love, equal partnership, and community: that is how Megan and I felt about it.
I can’t speak for Valenti or any other feminists/lgbt folks who get married, but – for us – everything was put on the table. We broke down what things signified in general, what they signified to us, and what we really wanted rather than what may be culturally imposed. For instance: the rings. Personally, I have somewhat critical feelings about wedding rings – engagement rings in particular. As engagement rings are traditionally only given to the woman, I find them to be a societal symbol of purchase (our language supports that – an engaged woman is “off the market”) and that is problematic for me. Wedding rings have a similar problem for me as the last thing I want to be is “owned” by anyone else. And as lovely as Megan is, I don’t want to be owned by her (and vice versa).
But rings are pretty. And I wanted one. I was so happy to be marrying Megan (and am so happy to be married to her), and the idea of having something that she gave to me that I would have with me all the time made me happy. So we decided: no engagement rings, but we got really pretty and unique rings made for us that would give us each a symbol of our love and a reflection of how we’re linked that we would carry with us every day. Then, when friends gave us the stones for the rings, they also became a way in which our community supported us.
Does wanting rings without wanting the baggage of ownership – does redefining that part of weddings – make us bad feminists? I don’t think so. And I’m sure if we’d wanted to badly enough that we could have redefined the role of the engagement ring as well. Having the capacity to think critically about institutions and practices doesn’t mean that we have to swear off everything associated with those things. My perspective is that the process of critique and intentionality underlies the core of the philosophy of “the personal is political.” The decisions we make with that kind of reflection are invariably going to be truer to ourselves and our values.
Megan and I had a hard time writing a ceremony in part because every element of it was analyzed – but because of that it was also completely appropriate to us. We wrote it in Provincetown two days before the wedding and it was perfect. It was about love, respect, individuality, change, support, trust, adventure, discovery, and commitment. It was about how she makes me a better person (and vice versa). (She is so awesome.)
What I hope is that Valenti can ignore the haters to an extent and be happy that she and her husband got to put the kind of effort and intentionality into defining their wedding and marriage that they did, and know that the kind of critical thought she expressed in public was not wasted.