A Slippery Slope: Wedding Tradition v. Sexism

Slate’s Gentleman Scholar recently engaged with the question: Should men ask their future in-laws for permission to marry their daughters? Is this charmingly old-fashioned or disgustingly sexist? (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/weddings/2014/06/asking_future_in_laws_for_permission_to_marry_their_daughter_a_tradition.html)

Until women ask men’s parents for permission or blessing, it *is* sexist. Until that time, the one-sided practice suggests that a woman is passing from possession of one family to another. It ignores the fact that women are just as capable of self-support and independent decision making as men. And as the age at first marriage continues to rise, it’s increasingly ridiculous to ask permission to enter into a consenting committed partnership with a full-grown adult (not to mention the fact that the idea of marriage as “partnership” is harder to swallow if one party is checking in with a third party, re: the relationship moving forward [additionally: the continued focus on the man as proposer and the woman as propose plays to the inequality of the relationship – especially since decision-making about moving forward remains a male prerogative]).

And, of course, the piece relies on the fact that we’re still dealing solely with male-female unions. What happens to the process of asking permission or blessing when there are two men or two women wedding? Something I love about the growing visibility and increasing legality of same-sex weddings is that they reveal so clearly just how gendered (and archaic) so much of American wedding culture is.

Still, the Gentleman Scholar, in weighing in on this issue, is not wrong in suggesting that if the idea of securing permission or blessing is important to you and yours, talk it out, and decide what’s best for you. Fine. And I’m not suggesting those who ask for a blessing or permission are sexists, full stop. But I hope couples deciding to continue on with this non-tradition think through just what, exactly, it represents.

Which brings me to potentially the more interesting point of the article: the idea that this part of wedding culture is “traditional.” As one man claimed about his decision to ask permission of his then-girlfriend’s father “I thought that there was something in the ritual….I embraced the tradition despite the fact that the institution of marriage has evolved.” As the article notes, however, the tradition hasn’t been a tradition, really, in years. The Slate piece references the 1948 edition of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette, which established that once a man and woman decided to wed, it was for the bride to inform her family of the decision. Many of the prescriptive texts I read for As Long As We Both Shall Love communicated the same point. Ideas of what is traditional, of what is a fundamental part of the wedding process, continue to shape decisions contemporary bride and grooms make as much as their own desires or actual traditions, established by previous generations within their families and handed down across generations. In writing about the use of blessing or permission, the Gentleman Scholar engages with the use of tradition: “We’re talking, in each case, about embracing traditional language to indicate respect for values more durable than the patriarchy from which that language emerged.” I don’t disagree with the idea that traditions evolve over time or that asking permission or blessing means something different now than it once did. But I can’t let go of the fact this alleged tradition still communicates the bride’s subordinate status. And I have to wonder what it means when, of all the possible traditions out there, this is among those that still has legs, especially when it seems simple enough to amend the tradition to this end: decide to get married; assume your parents see you both as competent adults; then – as a couple – tell each set of parents (or whomever) that you’ve decided to wed. Boom. Dilemma of sexism v. tradition/values solved.

Reconsidering the Meaning of Marriage

Focusing on the outcome of marriage equality in New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal this past weekend published an article “Couples Reflect on Wedded Life” (http://www.abqjournal.com/390315). A host of stories about what marriage has meant to same-sex couples reveals the relief they felt at finally having legal recognition that validated their relationship should one partner require medical care; that legitimated their roles as parents and affirmed the status of their children; and allowed them to use language that explicitly recognized the spousal relationship status of “husband” or “wife.” What stood out to me most in this article, however, was the duration of the relationships only just recently recognized by New Mexico government. Couples have long endured inequity, and under this new recognition of their unions are able to celebrate partnerships already cemented. In this way, the marital status affirms a relationship that has long existed rather than suggesting the start of a new relationship style.

As I argue in the conclusion of my book, many couples today – particularly those of a certain class status and possessing a certain cultural capital – often use their marriages and their weddings as a means of demonstrating that they’ve achieved any number of goals: professional success, long-standing relationships with family and friends, and, of course, a stable, fulfilling (and often already long-lasting) romantic partnership. For straight couples, the decision to wait to marry is one often made strategically, based on time, money, items to-do. The marriage is a culmination of decisions made about a relationship, rather than a point of origin. For same-sex couples, their unions likewise have this element of build up, although, of course, their delay stems from the long-standing denial of full rights of citizenship.

I’m intrigued by this idea of marriage as a transitional moment (potentially) as opposed to a point of origin or a fresh start. And as I’ve been giving some thought to the ways in which the American family structure has changed and is changing, it’s interesting to think as marriage or the wedding as no longer the earth-shaking events of people’s private lives. As people live together or arrange for long engagements, the negotiation of what sharing the greatest intimacies of day-to-day life means is often done before a marriage happens. And if it turns out that sharing those intimacies doesn’t work, one can simply initiate a break up or conclude a cohabitation (and I know “simply” is a crazy word; but to break up rather than “divorce” is the simpler alternative). To some extent, it seems as though our relationships to other people in our lives, and here I’m thinking particularly about aging parents or newborn children, are the ones that will cause the most disruption and require willingness to start fresh. So I’m either providing an effort at contemporary cultural lifestyle analysis or suggesting the direction I think the family is about to take more broadly. In any case, the winds are pointing me in the direction of change.

But, of course, I can’t conclude without some consideration of those who endeavor to undo marriage equality gains. State recognition certainly communicates a level of validity. But the validity of these relationships had already been established through the way gay and lesbian couples have chosen to live their lives, even without sanction of the law. As women’s liberationists insisted as the Second Wave gained power: the personal is political. In these couples’ private lives, they have practiced a brand of political and cultural resistance to a mainstream that has failed to recognize their partnerships as equal to those shared by heterosexuals. But even if those opposed to marriage equality continue to protest and attempt to halt the extension of universal rights across the population, gay unions won’t go away. And these unions will continue to be as strong as those shared by couples of the opposite sex. As Albequerquean Betty Lord, newly wed to her partner of 34 years spoke to this point directly when she exclaimed “Edna and I have been together a hell of lot longer than most married people!”

BettyLordEdnaFonseca

Betty Lord & Edna Fonseca

This is the Story of the Wedding that Wasn’t

Shout out to my partner in the Most Successful IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing in the History of IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing (title self-appointed), BLS. She’s put me on to many resources for history and teaching and thinking about professional life more broadly, but she’s also put me on to any number of books, articles, and writers that have nothing to do with our shared profession (although it’s not uncommon for us to find a way to make them relatable). In particular, and for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of Ann Patchett.

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Patchett’s most recent book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of her essays and articles previously published in magazines – with the exception of her introductory essay, which I could go on and on about, re: my love of her interchangeable use of the word “working” for “writing” and her unabashed celebration of a good work ethic. The article for which the collection is named tells the story of Patchett’s reluctance to marry Karl, her partner of eleven years, despite his on-going desire that the two should be wed. After a failed marriage as an early twenty-something, Patchett swore off the institution. When she met and began dating Karl, she insisted that they maintain separate homes, separate accounts, and semi-separate lives. It was only when Karl was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition that she relented. Ultimately, it turned out that he had been misdiagnosed and continued to live happily and healthily – and by then they were wed. And she was glad.

While listening to a Fresh Air interview with Patchett, I was struck by her discussion of the marriage, her resistance to entering into it, and what she ultimately concluded was the main thing she had been averse to: being a bride. In looking back, she asserted that she’d not been so nervous about the relationship or even the institution of marriage, not with this man or under the circumstances (all good) under which their relationship took place. She claimed she’d had no idea how nor any desire to navigate the expectations that come with having a wedding.

Way back when, in 1988, when she’d wed her first husband, their terrible wedding seemingly predestined their eventual split. After a proposal in which Patchett’s gut instinct was to say no before the question had even been popped (of his pulling out the ring, she writes “He might as well have pulled a knife.”), she and husband #1 lived together uneasily until she gave in. “Okay, we’ll do it,” she said, months after the initial attempted proposal. On the wedding day, she lost her shoes (never to be found); bees swarmed around the flowers in her hair; the cake melted in the heat; and the couple’s car broken down on the way out of town, eating up their honeymoon time and savings. The marriage lasted fourteen months.

That experience, along with the marriage itself (and a rich family history of failed marriages), put Patchett off marriage. And, it seems, off weddings. I imagine there’s a bit of hindsight to Patchett’s proclaimed aversion to the having and hosting of a wedding, and it may well be a hindsight that could only develop once a thing is said and done. Of her marriage to Karl, Patchett writes that his illness gave them a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it came to a wedding. They purchased the marriage license, a Catholic priest friend dropped by their home to sign it, and they were married. That afternoon, Ann and Karl went out and bought a lawnmower. Having moved in, having gotten married, having avoided fanfare, Patchett wondered what she’d been waiting for.

APandKarl

AP & Karl

I’ve thought of this story from a number of different angles. On the one hand, I love Ann and Karl’s simplistic approach to legalizing a pairing that worked pretty well as it was. But there’s something I can’t shake. Again, I suspect, to some degree, that Patchett’s claim on not wanting to be a bride may be a realization that came when she felt a sense of relief at not having had to be a bride. But the fact that such a smart, funny, together women who seems to have a pretty good idea of who she is and what she stands for (unless I am misreading her entirely in her essays) could feel cowed by contemporary wedding culture says something about just how overwhelming and seemingly monolithic and unrelenting that culture is. As someone who studies the history of American weddings – and dabbles in evaluating the modern business and culture of the celebration – I see variations in the styles of celebration and have argued that the wedding offers possibilities for any number of expressions. But I can appreciate how it appears not to.

All that said, I’d suggest that everyone has access to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to weddings – and it doesn’t have to be used in the pursuit of *not* having a wedding. It can be used to justify any number of additions to or subtractions from the standard form. A wedding can look as much like the cultural ideal as one chooses – or it can be a different animal entirely. And I think this possibility of variation is something that is becoming increasingly common and, maybe even more importantly, increasingly accepted. When writing about how marriage changed things, Patchett writes that marrying Karl freed up so much time. They no longer had to discuss why they weren’t married – with each other or anyone else. My sense is that – for them – their reasons for eventually marrying were solid and, in some ways, were reasons that they needed not share. The public declaration a wedding affords was not essential. That’s fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of other couples who feel the same way. But for others, how wonderful that there is the wedding to allow them the chance to tell the people they love most just why they’ve decided to wed and what they think their lives will be like. And how sad to think that an understanding of the wedding as rigid and constrictive might cause some people to forego that opportunity altogether.

Sometimes We Watch TV and Scream

And it’s not even always because we’re watching The Walking Dead.

 the-walking-dead-flesh-eating-zombies-season2-2011

Last night, my husband called me into the TV room and deliberately rewound so I could watch this:

http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7fld/davids-bridal-the-invisible-man

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Why must he taunt me?

I get that there is this cultural thing going on in contemporary America that privileges wedding dresses above all other wedding accoutrement (I guess some people would argue that the ring is NUMBER ONE, but my money is still on the dress). I get that there is this on-going view of the wedding as “the bride’s day.” I see these trends. I accept that they exist. I hate them. And so: I use this blog to express my frustration with this advertisement (titled, “The Invisible Man” – gag) and its willful perpetuation of ideas I despise.

First: Grooms need not be “mere cog(s) in the wheel of…carefully choreographed wedding extravaganza(s).” The groom is future partner to the person he’s about to wed. As such, he should (and many grooms do) share responsibility in the careful choreographing of said extravaganza. Or he should feel free to say,“Hey, I’m not into the idea of our wedding as a ‘carefully choreographed’ anything, extravaganza or otherwise.”And if he’s about to marry the right person, that person will say “I get it. What kind of celebration can we plan that will make us both happy?”

Second: Sometimes grooms marry grooms. And then – uh-oh. There’s no bride for the wedding to be all about. And there’s no dress to take up the absent bride’s attention. SIDENOTE: Trust me: I get that same-sex partners can embrace non-normative gender titles and appearance – but for the sake of argument, let’s say no bride, no dress. What then? The wedding doesn’t matter? Chyrs Ingraham critiqued the wedding-industrial complex years ago, and paid particular attention to the heterosexist element of American wedding culture. To some degree, with the growing legalization of same-sex unions, the heterosexism of traditional wedding expectations is more apparent than ever. And from my point of view, it makes the wedding industry’s attempt to grasp at tired wedding absolutes look terribly old-fashioned and out of date (ahem, David’s Bridal).

Third: Brides are not an absolute lump category. Just like we in the history biz can’t say “American women” and feel fine that we’ve covered our bases talking about what ALL WOMEN thought, how they acted, or what they valued, we can’t say “brides” and feel like we’ve got a catch-all terms on our hands. Newsflash wedding industry: women/brides have different goals and intentions as they prepare for their weddings and their marriages. Because weddings have been my point of research – and to some degree, my professional bread and butter – I’ve tried not to digress to the personal in these posts. But here and now I share this: I bought a wedding dress from J. Crew that a) was among the cheapest they had available; b) I could get at 30% (I think) off because I would’ve spent above $100; c) they would ship to my house and I would never have to go into a wedding gown store; d) I thought would be fine. What I wanted: something much more vintage-y that fell just below the knees, had tea-length sleeves, and was not white. Is that what I got? No way. Why? Because I didn’t value getting the dress I had in my mind’s eye enough to spend the time and resources looking for it. What I did value: checking “get wedding dress” off my list. I report the following: Wedding dress ~ Good enough; Wedding day ~ Awesome; Marriage ~ Still going strong. For me, for others, it definitively was *not* “all about the dress.”

I get that David’s Bridal, which essentially is the Costco of bridal boutiques (it feels wrong to use “boutique” here, but I will), probably isn’t particularly interested in rocking the boat, re: mainstream views of contemporary American weddings. But I do think the company could tap into something more exciting and more relevant in the world of wedding culture. When brides and grooms of the 1960s and 1970s decided they would “do their own thing,” that they would personalize their celebrations to reflect who they were and what they thought, the Grand Dame of the wedding dress industry Priscilla Kidder – who had made her name and fortune with 1950s-era brides – started using language about how weddings and gowns could be unique and reflect the individual. And she sold more dresses. The traditional market was still there – but the new market responded to her savvy tactics. My sense is that the many businesses that comprise the contemporary wedding industry would do well to take stock of evolutions in wedding populations and styles of celebration and shape their messages to fit the modern age. My guess is that even the “traditional” celebrants would see the appeal.

Maybe barbaric – but definitely not traditional

From Salon, October 8, 2013: “Engagement Rings are Barbaric” http://www.salon.com/2013/10/08/engagement_rings_are_barbaric_partner/

I appreciate the claims people make about the outdated customs associated with weddings – the giving away, the “obey” in vows, and in this case, the engagement ring. Clearly, the intention behind these symbols has changed over time. In that capacity, I say – as I’ve said before on this blog – let people do as they wish. Allow them to inject their chosen symbols with the meanings they see fit. I appreciate that many people would happily debate this point, claiming that embracing symbolic elements of the wedding perpetuates those elements’ original meanings, but my view is that the meaning attached to any symbol evolves over time. That’s a debate for another time.

Why I highlight the Salon article is because I actually think it is much better at highlighting how “traditional” parts of the wedding are not traditional at all. The wedding industry and related media marketed wedding customs as such and successfully expanded the wedding to be celebrated by an increasingly democratized post-World War II middle class. In my book, As Long As We Both Shall Love, I likewise note the conscious creation of wedding traditions. Prior to the Second World War – and even after – a diversity of wedding styles perpetuated the American scene. Only after the war did a standard style of celebration emerge, one many upwardly mobile citizens saw as a rite of passage in their quest for upward mobility. And the engagement ring was at the heart of that standardization, when the symbol of the ring was less a contract, I’d argue, and more an indication of a couple’s economic security.

Poor job performance? Get a wife!

Gary Player, famed and aged professional golfer, recently offered some advice to twenty-four-year-old Rory McIlroy, a golfer many believe has failed to reach his full potential.

“[T]he thing is for a man like Rory with talent galore he’s got to make sure he has a woman like I’ve got, who has been married [to me] for 56 years, that has only encouraged me to do well and made sacrifices. He’s got to be intelligent and find the right wife. If he finds the right wife, if he practices and if he’s dedicated, he could be the man.”

Of course he could.

GaryPlayer_BodyIssue

Gary Player: golfer, relationship guru, nude model.

On the one hand, Player isn’t wrong to suggest that successful people need a support system behind them. No man (or woman) is an island. But the idea that a woman who’s “only” job is to encourage her man and to make “sacrifices” on his behalf is the perfect solution to a lack of professional success is one that belongs in a different century. When my PTI friends Tony and Wilbon discussed this topic, they shared my disdain for Player’s views. They discredited Player’s ideas by pointing to famed bachelors Derek Jeter and Wilt Chamberlain as examples of stars who’ve done just fine without wives to guide them along. My thoughts went more to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy’s girlfriend of three years. It’s pretty clear to me that Player doesn’t believe Woz is the “right wife.” Why? Because she’s busy focusing on her own career and presumably making sacrifices intended to improve her own professional standing rather than McIlroy’s. As far as I know, however, no one’s suggested that finding a man, “the right husband,” dedicated solely to advancing Wozniacki’s professional success would be a surefire solution to her recent string of poor performances in Majors. When Chris Everett and John McEnroe and Brad Gilbert and others comment on Wozniacki’s fall from her previous number one ranking, they focus on her serve, her movement, her confidence, not her romantic status. The responsibility for her success is her own, not that of some fictional future caretaker willing to table any personal aspirations so that his mate might succeed. And my suspicion is that Player would be shocked if someone were to suggest a man take on such a role.

Woz&McIlroy

Woz & McIlroy, a dual-career couple, common to the 21st century

Player’s ideas are not new – and they suggest the stale ideas of yesteryear still have some traction. Literature of the 1950s spoke directly to the idea that a woman was fundamental to a man’s success (and, of course, this idea held great power well before the 1950s as well). Mrs. Dale Carnegie, not even credited with a first name of her own, published numerous articles in ladies magazines of the era and in 1957 published a book-length set of prescriptions, How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead. From getting along with his secretary to keeping a clean house to giving him alone time to watching his weight, a wife’s primary endeavor was to make a man’s life as conducive to professional success and personal satisfaction as possible. Her greatest individual desire should be that he was able to fulfill his.

1957helpyourhusband

By all accounts, having a wife of this kind would be awesome. And so I give you a perennial feminist favorite to argue why we should all have one. For those of you who’ve read this before, say hello to an old friend. For first-timers, you’re welcome.

“Why I Want a Wife,” Judy Syfers (1971)

(This piece appeared in the premier issue of Ms. Magazine.)

I belong to that classification of people known as wives. I am A Wife.

And, not altogether incidentally, I am a mother. Not too long ago a male friend of mine appeared on the scene fresh from a recent divorce. He had one child, who is, of course, with his ex-wife. He is looking for another wife. As I thought about him while I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I too, would like to have a wife. Why do I want a wife?

I would like to go back to school so that I can become economically independent, support myself, and if need be, support those dependent upon me. I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school I want a wife to take care of my children. I want a wife to keep track of the children’s doctor and dentist appointments. And to keep track of mine, too. I want a wife to make sure my children eat properly and are kept clean. I want a wife who will wash the children’s clothes and keep them mended. I want a wife who is a good nurturing attendant to my children, who arranges for their schooling, makes sure that they have an adequate social life with their peers, takes them to the park, the zoo, etc. I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. My wife must arrange to lose time at work and not lose the job. It may mean a small cut in my wife’s income from time to time, but I guess I can tolerate that. Needless to say, my wife will arrange and pay for the care of the children while my wife is working.

I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife who will pick up after my children, a wife who will pick up after me. I want a wife who will keep my clothes clean, ironed, mended, replaced when need be, and who  will see to it that my personal things are kept in their proper place so that I can find what I need the minute I need it. I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. I want a wife who will plan the menus, do the necessary grocery shopping, prepare the meals, serve them pleasantly, and then do the cleaning up while I do my studying. I want a wife who will care for me when I am sick and sympathize with my pain and loss of time from school. I want a wife to go along when our family takes a vacation so that someone can continue care for me and my when I need a rest and change of scene. I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. But I want a wife who will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a rather difficult point I have come across in my course of studies. And I want a wife who will type my papers for me when I have written them.

I want a wife who will take care of the details of my social life. When my wife and I are invited out by my friends, I want a wife who take care of the baby-sitting arrangements. When I meet people at school that I like and want to entertain, I want a wife who will have the house clean, will prepare a special meal, serve it to me and my friends, and not interrupt when I talk about things that interest me and my friends. I want a wife who will have arranged that the children are fed and ready for bed before my guests arrive so that the children do not bother us. I want a wife who takes care of the needs of my quests so that they feel comfortable, who makes sure that they have an ashtray, that they are passed the hors d’oeuvres, that they are offered a second helping of the food, that their wine glasses are replenished when necessary, that their coffee is served to them as they like it. And I want a wife who knows that sometimes I need a night out by myself.

I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it. I want a wife who assumes the complete responsibility for birth control, because I do not want more children. I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies. And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.

If, by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free.

When I am through with school and have a job, I want my wife to quit working and remain at home so that my wife can more fully and completely take care of a wife’s duties.

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?