For the past couple of weeks, it seems as though everyone’s caught wedding fever. My social media feeds have been inundated with countless posts from high school and college friends getting married, getting engaged, or getting impatient. Pictures of glowing couples. Elegant ceremonies. Glamorous receptions. With the warm weather comes wedding season. But with wedding season also comes a bouquet of questions surrounding the politics of marriage and its social implications.
It’s no secret that, although traditionally framed as a sacred institution, marriage has historically been used for far less idealistic purposes. From the earliest days of history, marriage was rarely a romantic union, but one that was strictly political. Sometimes, couples wed to strengthen alliances between their families or territories. Other times, it was to gain social status. Even more often, it was to obtain financial security. Marriage was not an exchanging of vows, but an exchanging of power, with women nothing more than pieces of property to be exchanged as bargaining chips.
“Marriage was not an exchanging of vows, but an exchanging of power, with women nothing more than pieces of property to be exchanged as bargaining chips.”
In fact, veiled remnants of this archaic gender dynamic are still reflected in the seemingly innocuous practice of a male relative walking the bride down the aisle to the groom during the wedding ceremony. Although at face-value, this interaction may seem nothing more than a symbolic transition between the bride’s life with her family and her life creating her own family, it originated as the exchange of the bride between two men—a male member of her family and future husband—as though she were cattle.
And while there’s often the stereotype of the bride who’s dreamed of her wedding since childhood, for our predecessors, marriage was quite literally the event that defined a woman’s being. For much of our history, strictly defined gender roles relegated men to the public sphere in the workforce and women to the private sphere in the home and created a simplistic cultural dichotomy where women who stayed inside of the home were good and women who worked outside of the home were bad. Economic opportunities for single women were few and far between, and rarely paid livable wages. As a result, many women married not only for social purposes; they married for survival.
Although a woman’s marriage provided a source of financial security, it also came at an irrevocable price. Up until as late as the twentieth century, the moment that a woman went from a “miss” to a “missus” was the moment that she truly transformed from an individual to an identity under coverture laws. Coverture was a legal doctrine derived from English common law that was one of the many imports that British colonists brought to America during our nation’s earliest days. Under coverture, women had two defined legal statuses—feme sole and feme covert.
“Although a woman’s marriage provided a source of financial security, it also came at an irrevocable price.”
As an unmarried woman, or a feme sole, a woman had the right to own property and enter into contracts under her own legal name. Yet, the moment she married, or became a feme covert, her entire rights and legal identity were completely subsumed by her husband. Her property was no longer her own. Her agreements were no longer her own. Instead she became a man’s property and her marriage contract became her only binding agreement.
And with this context, the era’s ceremonial words, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” (versus the more contemporary, but still heteronormative “I now pronounce you husband and wife”) carries a far more sinister meaning. Because although both parties came upon the altar as man and woman, following the ceremony only the man remained the same individual. It was only the woman who became changed. Defined by an identity dependent upon a relationship with someone else. An unequal union in an unequal society.
We are fortunate to now live in a society, which although still unequal, provides us the capacity to enter more equal unions. From the sacrifices of earlier feminists, we are no longer bound by coverture laws or workplace restrictions that will prevent us from having our own autonomy within the context of marriage. Yet, although most contemporary relationships are built on passion, and not politics, marriage is still a political act. For, how we choose to marry and who we choose to marry will impact the feminism of the present and the future.
In her famous book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, some of Sheryl Sandberg’s greatest advice about how to succeed as a leader centers around who we choose to marry, if we choose to marry. She states: “When looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys. But do not marry them. The things that make the bad boys sexy do not make them good husbands. When it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner. Someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home. These men exist and, trust me, over time, nothing is sexier.”
“A husband who fails to support his wife’s career, fails to contribute to household chores, fails to care for his own children— fails to see his wife as an equal.”
Like it or not, the personal is political, and the dynamics of our personal life will either enhance or impair our effectiveness as strong, women leaders. A husband who fails to support his wife’s career, fails to contribute to household chores, fails to care for his own children— fails to see his wife as an equal. And soon, this lack of equality will become reflected in all aspects of the woman’s political being—already burdened by a sexist workplace, unequal pay, and gendered stereotypes—she must now face a second shift of domestic duties after a long day with no physical or emotional support from the very man who’s part of the reason why she has to run additional errands. With such a multitude of responsibilities, how is she to maintain her political activism without being compelled to sacrifice her personal or professional well-being?
And what of her children? Younger members of her family? Formative minds in the community who are watching the unequal gender dynamics being recreated time and time again in her marriage? Children learn from observation, and if a woman chooses a marriage that restricts her autonomy and individuality, it will serve as yet another model of the patriarchy and condition the next generation of young women to think it’s acceptable to enter a relationship where they will be unsupported and the next generation of young men to think it’s acceptable to not support their partners.
We owe it to women of the past, the present, and the future to choose our relationships wisely. Far too many women in throughout history fought for our ability to choose our partners, far too many women today are in positions of power, and far too much of the next generation is following our lead for us to squander who and how we love. Love is a beautiful thing, and I encourage you to find it. At the end of the day, I’m a romantic at heart. I love weddings, I love seeing my friends in love, and I, myself, am a woman in love. But I also love equality. I also love activism. I also love feminism. And if any prospective husband of mine can’t help me support a crucial marriage between my love for him and my love for politics, then wedding bells won’t be ringing. An egalitarian is possible, but only for those who seek it.