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.

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.

happymarriage

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.

The World of Wedding Proposals…

Several weeks ago, Salon published an article that questioned why men still seem to bear the brunt of responsibility for initiating the proposal process (http://www.salon.com/2013/05/12/why_are_men_still_proposing/singleton/). I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Stephanie Coontz, go-to historian for all things marriage-related, suggests that this “tradition,” with all that it symbolizes, is a “game we play,” as well as a time when men show their commitment by making themselves somewhat vulnerable as they expose and express their emotions to their partners.

I wonder about the nature of proposals and whether this tradition (whose propensity for grandness I would link to the post-WWII era) will remain. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that marital relationships, for as much as we speak about egalitarianism, should begin at the initiation of a single party. As author Tracy Clark-Flory notes in her reference to a 2010 study, women often play a role in “encouraging” their partners to move toward the proposal, but it seems as though they’re willing to defer to men on the when, the where, and the how. In the name of romance? I guess. But the study also notes that men were more confident of their partners’ desires to wed than were the women, and this suggests to me an uneven distribution of power rather than romance.

Beyond the power men wield in romantic relationships, I can’t help but think of the power of popular culture. Grand gestures, elaborate plans, and long-orchestrated surprises seem to be the stuff of fictional fantasy, which then translates to women’s very real expectations. Is it the moment itself that is so important? Or is it the desire for “the story”: how he was almost foiled, how she had no idea, how an over-eager family member almost ruined the surprise? Is there anticipation of one-day nostalgia? Without the story to look back on, will the memory be as good? In my forthcoming book, As Long as We Both Shall Love, I argue that American wedding traditions have retained their power because they lend themselves to evolution and personal interpretation. And while Clark-Flory’s article begins with the tale of her non-traditional proposal, there seems to be a great deal of “how it should be” guiding many couples in their approach to the proposal. Even as I believe couples can be fully committed well before the marital relationship begins (and that marriage  itself isn’t a necessity), there seems to be evidence that couples are more comfortable tweaking and taking risks with tradition when they have a kind of emotional insurance that both parties are fully devoted to the direction their unions are taking.