Hand in hand: Marriage and Feminism / Amy King


As a child, I distinctly remember lying on a friend’s bedroom floor, flicking through wedding magazines and planning “the perfect wedding”. When I compare this to my life now, many of my friends know how their wedding will look, down to the venue and the colour of their bridesmaids’ dresses - even if the position of the groom is yet to be filled.

From childhood, girls are socially conditioned to think about their futures as wives, mothers, and homemakers. We play dress up, marry our teddies and chase boys around the playground in the hopes that we can marry them behind the football pitch before a teacher catches us holding hands. I think I got married three times in primary school. My attention span wasn’t the longest when it came to boys.

And now? Well, now I’m conflicted.

According to many feminists, marriage is "inherently unfeminist". Historically, marriage has been a patriarchal ceremony steeped in inequality and outdated tradition, that only harms women’s freedom and potential. It’s a widely held opinion that the oppressive, misogynistic practices of marriage are inherent and it is therefore impossible for the ceremony to be unburdened by the influence of the patriarchy.

Julie Bindel was especially vocal on the subject in recent years. Her video, posted on The Guardian’s website, drilled this idea of inequality existing within marriage into its core.

“The institution of marriage has curtailed women's freedom for centuries...”, she claimed.

I decided to think about what Julie said, and looked towards our records of history. Marriage, perhaps not exactly as we know it today, dates back to the Ancient Egyptians and the first known introduction of an engagement ring reportedly was during the Roman empire. Now, that isn't to say that marriage is similar everywhere - cultures around the world have vastly different approaches, traditions and views of marriage. However, there does appear to be a common thread: would-be wives rarely have the upper hand.

There are cultures that still practice arranged marriages, giving women little to no say in who she marries and almost certainly not giving her the chance to fall in love before her wedding day. Even more worryingly, many cultures endorse and encourage child marriage too, which has serious implications for children’s futures according to research carried out by Unicef:

“Child marriage is widespread and can lead to a lifetime of disadvantage and deprivation...worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married as children...Girls who marry before they turn 18 are less likely to remain in school and more likely to experience domestic violence.”

Marriage, is this case, is undoubtedly at odds with a lot of feminist values of intersectionality, a woman’s agency, value and what she “owes” her society (which feminists would argue nothing). How, then, do we reconcile our feminist need for gender equality with a desire to marry our partner? Is it at all possible to have a feminist wedding? Should we want to?

According to one Facebook study, younger women across the world are increasingly keeping their maiden name after marriage in an attempt to appease their feminist beliefs. There’s a rising trend in “mashing” both surnames together to create an original new name that incorporates both families - for example, television presenter and writer Dawn O’Porter.

More couples are turning to humanist weddings to distance their marital ceremonies and celebrations from what they view as the antiquated and outdated views religions have long imposed on marriage. As many move away from the archaic misogyny of religious ceremonies, so too do the vows each partner offers to the other; creating vows that reflect the equality of the couple’s relationship.

Many brides have taken to walking themselves down the aisle to avoid the symbolic gesture of being “given away” and retaining their agency and element of choice in the matter. And let’s not forget that same-sex marriage smashes the homophobic patriarchy with every gay and lesbian couple who officially tie the knot.

But not everyone is convinced that these steps are enough. Actress, Megan Murphy asks “Why marry at all?”. For her, marriage is too deep-rooted in patriarchal ideas of female submission, and retaining your maiden name after the ceremony will do little to alleviate the patriarchal inequality that marriage entails.

I agree with everything Murphy says in her article. At the end of the day, a proposal does not validate womanhood, desirability or promise a life partner and relationship without heartache. 40% of marriages end in divorce. Is it really so appealing an option?

Feminism and marriage do, on the surface, appear to be at odds. I hope that it is possible to reclaim marriage as a feminist act, despite the naysayers’ compelling arguments that suggest otherwise. Perhaps those looking for a “feminist marriage” are more susceptible to society’s romanticised notions of marriage. Perhaps feminism is just so focused on railing against the patriarchy that equality in marriage seems too impossible for now. What I do know is that my relationship is based on mutual respect and equality in all corners (except Mario Kart - there’s absolutely inequality there, but only because he doesn’t ever just let me win).


Words by Amy King