Harriet MacMillan | November 6, 2017
I first identified as a feminist in the playground at the age of 10. “I bet you’re a ‘feminist’,” sneered a male pursuer, his insult not quite hitting the mark as I replied “Yeah, so what?”. It made utter sense to me – from an early fascination with the Suffragettes to saving up tokens to buy my Usborne Book of Famous Women at the Scholastic Book Fair. Of course I was a feminist. My confidence in that identification only grew as my understanding of what feminism meant developed.
Though, at the same time as I made that juvenile attempt at patriarchy-smashing in the playground, I also, like many little girls, thought about weddings. I was fascinated by my cousin’s wedding and brought in pictures of her in her pearl-studded dress to show my classmates. I thought about my wedding. I thought about who I would marry.
These two facets of my personality co-existed almost entirely without conflict. I felt entirely certain that I could be a feminist and believe in marriage. Until I got engaged.
Marriage is an institution of the patriarchy. There’s no denying it. In its traditional Western Christian form, the marriage ceremony worships virginity and emphasises how a woman passes from the possession of her father to the keep of her husband. In 1929, Bertrand Russell wrote “marriage is for woman the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution”. Indeed, marital rape was legal until 1991 in England and Wales (1989 in Scotland). Equal marriage may thankfully now be part of UK legislation but current discourse around marriage remains, in many quarters, heteronormative and exclusionary. Studies have even indicated that whilst marriage is good for men, improving their health, wealth and happiness, marriage has no material, emotional or physical improvement in general for women. Unmarried women are just as happy as married women. Let’s also not forget that marriage has become big business, commodified beyond recognition and costing the average UK couple an eye-watering £27, 161.
Yet I, a lifelong feminist, got married 3 months ago.
Whilst planning the wedding, when not overstimulated by Pinterest boards, I felt at times overwhelmed by conflicting ideals. I wanted to marry in the local church in the Italian village where my parents own a house. The church is a focal point for the community and the alternative was an uninspiring registry office some miles away. I wanted also to honour the traditions of my family and the wishes of my parents by marrying in the Catholic church. To do that, I had to go to classes that told me that marriage is between a man and a woman and that only natural methods of contraception are acceptable, neither of which I believe. I received genuine, bemused backlash from friends who didn’t understand why I had no intention of taking my new husband’s name. They professed the belief that tradition should overwrite my personal achievements and I was bemused, but thankfully supported by an increasing number of friends who had made the same decision.
I was also perturbed by the idea of being ‘given away’. I resent the tradition, for all that it implies about my worth and the possessive nature of the men in my life. I also didn’t want to privilege my father over my mother, given that I am close to both of them. Yet would my father take it as a slight to be told that he was not needed, that the moment many fathers have dreamed of was to be discarded? Were his feelings less important than making a statement?
I resolved, wherever possible, to change whatever irked me. There was no way, for example, I was going to sit silent whilst all the men in the bridal party talked about me. I made my own speech. I chose, within the strictures of the Catholic mass, readings that discussed only love and kinship, without making unpalatable statements about marriage being designed purely for man and woman. When arranging the order of procession, I intended for both of my parents to flank me whilst going down the aisle. Sadly, given the narrow aisle and the combined width of me plus Mum plus Dad, it wasn’t to be. So I decided to walk myself down the aisle. I didn’t need to be flanked by anyone as I was the only person making the choice to marry my husband. I kept my name and an amazing friend and her three year old daughter made MR AND MS bunting for us to adorn the village square.
Of course, there is necessarily a layer of hypocrisy in all of this. If I believe that so many of the tenets of marriage are anti-feminist, then why get married at all?
Because we still live in a patriarchal society and marriage remains a celebration of one of the only forces that is a credible threat to patriarchy: love. I also firmly believe that feminism ought to be rooted in collective action and community, and our wedding brought together families and communities for something truly joyful.I got married because I found a man who, when I told him I didn’t want to take his name, offered to take mine. A man who will be a loving father to any children or donkeys we may have or adopt. I got married because I believe that every time a person takes on the tradition and reshapes it where they can to make it suit their relationship, they are opening it up for generations to come.
Alumna of the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, I’m now carrying out doctoral research into feminist rewritings of mythology. I’m also a published writer of poetry and prose. I’m a literary omnivore, confirmed Italophile, mediocre singer, flag-flying feminist, occasional storyteller, and aubergine enthusiast. No, that isn’t a euphemism.
Article edited by Sarah Stewart and Alexandra Liao-An Huang.