For a Feminist Wedding, Embrace the Word "No"
Earlier this year, I got married in upstate NY, quite close to where Chelsea Clinton tied the knot this weekend. And although my wedding, on the surface, was obviously nothing like hers, and although I have my own complex mix of disgust and admiration for Chelsea's mom and dad as politicians, I'm quite happy for them--they get to celebrate their daughter's life without the rest of us poking in.
And since the subject of whether, and how, to marry is never done being debated in feminist circles, I thought I'd share my own feminist wedding adventure with RHRC readers and explain why and how as a pot-stirring feminist, I made the choice to tie the knot.
To begin with, I never had a bride fantasy. Long ago, when my childhood playmates suggested we put on white dresses and "play bride," I'd veto the plan. How boring! I loved imaginary games, but I preferred pretending to be be a fairy, a wood-nymph or a heroine to being someone who merely walks down an aisle. This preference translated into a more blatantly feminist persona as I grew older. At the nucleus of the culture of conformist, materialist femininity I have actively deplored here at RHRC and in my own life lies the wedding world and all its rituals, many deeply rooted in sexism. So even years into a long-term relationship that I knew was for keeps, I was hesitant about rushing into matrimony. Was it selling out gay brethren and friends? Bowing to the status quo? And most of all, would I be able to do it without losing something of my strident self beneath a cloud of frills and lace?
And yet, underneath this complex musing lay something stronger than any ideological quibble I had with the notion of a wedding: a desire to give my family my partner and myself a crystallized, concrete memory of fete-ing our love. We've all witnessed the way friends and admirers gather to mourn when life is over. If people will come together for sad occasions, I wondered, why should we deny them a happy one? There's a reason, after all, that everyone loves a wedding, even when it makes them jump through ridiculous hoops, purchase blenders and crock-pots, dress up, travel and make small talk with eccentric great uncles. A wedding proves that life goes on, and love continues. It's a primal assurance we crave.
With two nonagenarian grandparents to watch over us, healthy families, and a nature-ensconced home to host us free of charge, my partner and I began to wonder what we were waiting for. Neither of us had jitters, being products of long marriages ourselves. Plus, I'm a twin--the notion of being attached to someone for life has been part of me since birth. We were proud of how hard we'd worked to forge a partnership of equals. So why not throw a party to celebrate our legal and social merger, and do it in our own egalitarian style?
And so our adventures in feminist wedding planning began: without a proposal, without a ring, but with a dinner where we told both sets of parents and siblings that "we, uh, want to get married next year." We delayed thinking about details until mere months before the big date. And when we did get the planning process off the ground, we realized that even having an at-home, super-simple, somewhat do-it-yourself wedding required a lot of work. A lot. My parents, my partner and I had to coordinate between dozens of places and people and make decision after decision. I worried about becoming involved with the wedding to the detriment of my work, falling into a serious feminist danger zone.
At times, the process felt like we were censoring a government document with a heavy black pen. We said no to being "given away," no to the word "God" in the ceremony, no to formal dancing, no to a bridal party, no to cake, or cake-cutting or cake-feeding (we had pies instead!) no to a bouquet or garter toss, and no to bachelor and bachelorette parties or a shower. With my mom beside me, I said no to high heels, to a veil, to an uber-traditional dress, to thick beige goop on my face "for the pictures." At the last minute, I even said no to doing my hair. I let the curls fall where they did.
Often, we came up against real resistance or confusion--"but you want to be a bride," said one saleswoman when I stated plans to look at alternatives to classic gowns. "But men really like women with lots of makeup," said another, when I explained that my spouse-to-be did not. Still, it was clear that despite the over-the-top bridal shows on TV, the world of weddings has actually grown more inclusive. A surprisingly large number of people we encountered excitedly helped us see our quirky vision through. They embraced the pies, the picnic-like atmosphere, the iPod soundtrack accented by bullfrog croaks and even the utter dearth of customs (glass-breaking aside).
By waiting years and years to get married, my partner and I guaranteed that we were enough of a team, secure enough in our joint beliefs, to go through that gauntlet of nos without cracking under pressure. We also made an extra effort to make sure that the social expectations attached to marriage didn't derail the partnership we've forged. I did a few small things to give myself some "equality insurance." I got my driver's license (finally! I'm a lifelong New Yorker) and enrolled in a low-residency MFA program so that for the next few years I would have a "room of my own" to focus on my writing away from work and family and everyday life.
And when the day came, it turned out that our saying "no" to everything we deemed retrograde or superfluous helped the things we'd said "yes" to echo that much louder: yes to having my brother as man-of-honor and his (my partner's) sister as best-woman. Yes to a statement in our ceremony about marriage equality. Yes to merging two boisterous, affectionate clans. Yes to eating and drinking really, really well, for an afternoon. Yes to love, and yes to each other. That was it.
Marriages and weddings aren't for everyone, nor should they be. But for us, I believe we accomplished something small and personal to advance the idea of marriage as a simple joining of two souls, rather than a gendered custom with transactional overtones. Perhaps that's a self-serving way of thinking about it, and all our little tweaks merely put a friendly disguise on an insidious set of customs. But someone wisely told me that feeling guilty--a burden often carried by women--doesn't advance the feminist cause. So most importantly, I hope we left the people we care for with a gift, a flower-and-affection bedecked memory that they can cherish through life's inevitable dark periods. Conventional though it may be, it's a gift we chose to give ourselves, and as I get back in the saddle wringing my hands about the erosion of reproductive rights and lamenting sexism in pop culture, I'm already grateful for it.