Weddings are a minefield of patriarchal symbolism. But it doesn’t have to be off limits if you are a feminist and want a feminist wedding, and you certainly don’t have to wait until the 29th to propose…
In case you’ve not noticed, this year gives us the excitement of the elusive February 29th – yes 2020 is a leap year. The date that gives all the tabloids and glossies extra column fodder, as they start to ‘remind’ women that you can propose on this day. Yes this is it, this one day every four years you are ‘allowed’ to pop the question to your significant other – lucky us!
If you’re interested, you can largely blame St Patrick for the tradition (although there are various versions around) and the most common story is that St Brigid supposedly asked St Patrick to allow women to propose after hearing complaints from single women that their intended husbands were too shy to pop the question. St Patrick is said to have allowed this to happen every leap year, accommodating soul that he was. As it was leap year day, St Brigid then proposed. St Patrick allegedly turned her down but offered her a kiss and a silk gown as a consolation prize. I’m sure she was delighted, after all, that’s all us women really want right? Silk gowns and girly stuff to keep us happy?
Of course, you don’t need to follow this or any of the ‘advice’ out there if you want to propose, just choose your moment and ask the question if you feel it’s right, on any day. But the leap year custom does add to the ever growing list of patriarchal BS associated with the wedding industry, to the point where some women are made to feel they are being un-feminist by getting married at all. This absolutely isn’t the case, but here are some ways you can deal with the politics whilst still remaining true to who you are and your beliefs.
I have to start with this one as it is one of the most potent the minute you announce an engagement. Regular readers will note I have written on this subject before. The wedding industry is still succumbing to the promotion of the pretty slim blond bride stereotype on the magazine covers, and many women find themselves being asked if they are going to start losing weight for the big day.
Once at a wedding fair we found ourselves two tables away from a gym offering packages to brides to be who wanted to shift the pounds before the wedding day. Personally, I feel there is no place for companies like this at a wedding fair. Of course, if you are unhappy with your weight then go for it. But don’t fall for the notion that to be a ‘beautiful’ bride you have to be a slim one, do it because you want to do it, or have been wanting to do it anyway and now you have a deadline that’s going to make you do it. Just please don’t feel you have to, or whiten your teeth, get botox or hair extensions for that matter. I, as a size 16 woman, didn’t lose a pound for my wedding day. I wanted to look back at my wedding photos over the years and see me, not the person I was’ for 6 months because I wanted to look ‘good’ (whatever that is) in a dress I was going to wear once. My husband asked me to marry him as I am, and that was how he married me, and that’s how I still am today.
Bride’s day, Bride’s way?
So much of the wedding industry is geared towards the bride. I hate the jokes that suggest that grooms (in the still hugely hetero-centric wedding world) couldn’t care less about the wedding and the bride makes all the decisions because it’s ‘her day.’ It’s cringeworthy.
After you have given yourselves some time to enjoy the excitement of being engaged, sit down as a couple, whether you’re hetero or lgbtq+, and talk about what you want from your day. Where you want it, what vibe you want to create and how much money you’ll be able to spend. What traditions are you going to bin or stick with is up to you, and you may want to give each other jobs to take on. That way it will feel like a shared experience leading up to the day, with none of this ‘bride’s day’ pressure to take on. Believe it or not it can actually be quite fun when you do it together.
Who brings this woman?
I’ve read many feminist blogs and facebook chats really lay into the notion of being ‘given away’ and quite rightly so. This isn’t the dark ages. However, if you are a bride and want your father or brother walking up the aisle with you, it doesn’t mean you will be abandoning your feminist principles if you go ahead. It’s all about language. There was no way my father, my hero, was not going to walk me up the aisle. He was going to escort me, to give me support and a steadying hand, like he has all my life. When we reached the top of the aisle, I’d chosen to use the terminology ‘escort and support your daughter’ rather than ‘who gives this woman away.’ The church makes this trickier, and there is an argument against a church wedding entirely if you are firmly feminist (obey, anyone? I’ll come back to this later), however talking through your terminology concerns with whoever is marrying you can give you peace of mind.
The great thing about the way weddings have modernised in the last five years is that you really can make the decision yourself. We’ve had brides walk up the aisle with both parents or just their mothers. Brothers or step-fathers, or best friends. We’ve even had a number of brides walk alone up the aisle. I’ve known brides who would have given anything to still have their fathers here to walk with them. I do also think it’s worth considering though that our dads have likely thought about walking us up the aisle since the day we were born. In the same way we are told as young girls that we will be a bride one day, society constantly tells fathers they’ll walk their daughters up the aisle. I’m sure they’re not seeing it as giving you away either, and to then be told it won’t happen could be crushing for them. Only you know your relationship with your father, but there is nothing wrong with broaching the subject sensitively if you feel it’s not the right way for you.
Demons be gone
The romantic veil shows no signs of disappearing as a major accessory to the wedding outfit, however the history behind it ends up, well, a bit icky to say the least. It’s widely accepted veils for brides first appeared in ancient Rome, where a veil would be worn over her face in order to disguise from any evil spirits. It was usually red so she looked like fire! Eventually this belief became about confusing the spirits, so they wouldn’t know exactly who the bride was. Go forward to when we’re in the throws of marriages being arranged by fathers, and the idea was more about keeping the bride hidden until the last possible moment, in case the groom wanted to back out on seeing a less-than-attractive woman under the veil – how delightful! So you know that adorable tradition that you can’t see each other on the day of the wedding? Yep, that comes from this too…
Throw in a few stories about the veil representing purity or the thinly veiled hymen (yuk), or that the father is veiling the bride who is then unveiled like a gift by her new husband, and all in all there is nothing very feminist at all about wearing a veil. By the 18th Century women had moved on to much more fun embellishments in headdresses for a wedding, but it was Queen Victoria who brought it back with her infamous white wedding dress, although not necessarily to show purity as many assume, but rather to give a boost to the Honiton lace industry.
So why do so many women still wear veils? Of course, they look very pretty and can really finish off a wedding dress, and women deciding to pull down the blusher part of the veil over their face are few and far between. We’ve had a number of brides recently wear veils that are a family heirloom and a lovely way to remember a loved one no longer with us. There are also entirely different reasons for the veil being worn in non-western weddings, such as the Bedeken ceremony at a Jewish wedding. If you really love the look of a veil but are feeling uncomfortable from a feminist stance, eschew the whole covering your face part and consider it a fabulous hair accessory instead. Or even better, go for a cape! They give the same look without ripping your hair out and you get to be a superhero for the day.
I vow to thee (but not obey)
So you’re feeling fabulous and made it up the aisle. You are beaming as you’re about to marry your beloved. The officiant turns you towards each other and it’s time for you to make your vows. Once upon a time not too long ago, the options here were limited, and you’d likely be standing in a church. From 1662 until 2001 it would have gone like this:
I, <Name>,take thee <Name>, to my wedded wife/husband.
To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse,
for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.
(Groom) To love and to cherish, till death us do part.
(Bride) To love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.
According to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I give thee my troth.
Notice the difference there? On the final line for the bride, they sneaked in ‘and to obey.’ Thankfully since 2001 there is now an option to take out the obey part (damn right) but it is still there and many churches will give the obey version first and it’s up to you to take it out.
Of course, having a civil or celebrant-led ceremony will remove this outdated nonsense completely, with registry offices providing a number of different vows for you to choose and then giving you the option of adding your own. Even better, a humanist wedding celebrant will let you completely write your own promises to each other, which makes for a realistic and heart-warming exchange. In fact celebrant-led ceremonies are so inclusive, personal and all round wonderful that I’d like to see it completely overtake registrars and churches as the main ceremony type, but that’s for another blog.
And please welcome the Bride…
Thankfully it’s become generally accepted now that if the bride or bride’s mum, bridesmaid or any other woman for that matter wants to speak then she jolly well should and can. In fact over half our brides last year spoke in some way at the wedding, be it to welcome everyone to dinner or create a formal speech. There is no reason at all in 2020 why a woman should not speak at a wedding if she wants to, and there is no reason why the only person to speak on her behalf should be her father. If the groom gets a mate to reminisce about the good times, why not the bride too? This whole best man speech goes back to the notion that the bride is pure and saintly in her qualities and this is reiterated by her father, whilst the Groom is the cad that everyone pats on the back. No thanks, the girls have had some good times too, so it’s up to you if you want to share that. Even Meghan Markle spoke at her wedding to Prince Harry, so go ahead and start working on those feminist wedding bullet points.
What’s in a name?
So the day is done, and you’ve settled into your married life together – but what will people call you? Once upon a time it was accepted that you’d take your husband’s name and that was that, but much of the modern western world has started to accept a woman’s choice to make her own decision. Women now have the option to keep their name as it is, double barrel or even mash up a new name as a couple. For me, there was no way I wanted to lose my Italian last name, but I also wanted to connect with my husband’s name too so I decided to double barrel. To my delight, my husband decided to do the same. Funnily enough though it was really simple for him to change his name everywhere, where it was a right faff for me, even though I was only adding on his last name! Thankfully though, modern society is more geared towards you calling yourself what you want, your only barrier may be your partner themselves. Sit down and talk it through sensitively, you may have to explain a decision not to take the name is not a rejection of their family but rather key to keeping your own identity. Of course you may want to take your partner’s name too, and there is absolutely no reason why you should feel like any less of a feminist if you do.
Of course, the real fundamental of feminism and a feminist wedding is that you can bloody well do what you want, which is sometimes lost in the way it is portrayed. First and foremost remember that you have multiple choices when it comes to getting married. A choice to be walked up the aisle by whoever you want, wearing whatever you want and thankfully in the UK at least, to be marrying whoever you want and however they or you identify. You cannot be accused of being un-feminist just because you are having a wedding, or that you are eschewing your feminist principals just because you decide to take your partner’s name. The joy of playing around with time-old traditions is that you can choose to keep or disregard them as you wish. If you have found a true connection with your partner and want to formalise it then go ahead and do it however you feel is best for the two of you.
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