I follow two women on Twitter who recently got engaged. Basically over the course of a week my twitter feed had variations on “OMG I’M ENGAGED!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, “I can’t even believe this is MY HAND!!!”, “I’ve dreamt of this moment all my life…..” and stuff like “Someone wants to marry me?” and even “I’m normal now?” [For the record, when I Tweeted, "Am I a normal person now?" I meant that was a bad thing. ]
And sadly, I Twitter-snapped.
Like any good third wave feminist I understood, from childhood even, that marriage was a choice rather than an obligation. My formative years had no background noise about the desirability of marriage. I knew as a kid that marriage was a choice for women; and not always a good one.
My parents have been married for 50 years. I saw that union as a fact of life. I never had an illusion of marriage as a breathless orgy of romance, nor did it appear to be a joyless drudge. Growing up in a particular time in the 70s-80s, and being raised by a second wave feminist mom meant that traditional roles for women were no longer mandatory; they could be questioned and rejected. My mom married and was a stay-at-home parent but it was clear that she wasn’t a traditional "housewife" in many ways; she didn’t do much in the way of housework, she hated cooking and my father did more child care and household chores than his contemporaries.
As for my own marital aspirations, it always seemed like a nice thing that may or may not happen.
I never dreamt of a wedding day, thought about myself in a wedding dress, of my father "giving me away" -- frankly all that seemed silly to me. It still seems silly to me.
In my mind, this kind of daydream is filed along with dressing Barbie for a date with Ken -- something maybe for children, something unreal. I do realize that women -- blissfully and happily -- marry men every day. And make plans for those weddings. I just always felt like the engagement and wedding were sort of an anti-feminist con -- the sugar (gifts and a dress) that lots of women looked forward to help the medicine (marriage) go down better.
I grew up understanding that marriage could be a trap; you could get stuck at home looking after a bunch of toddlers, cleaning a floor that would stay spotless for a few minutes, cooking a meal that would get inhaled in seconds. Those traditional roles conflated in my mind with useless work. And I’ve seen my own friends, in some cases, accept those roles with similar consequences.
A good friend of mine (who was staunchly anti-marriage, until she fell in love and got married) told me about a medieval story : Les Quinze joies de mariage (The 15 Joys of Marriage) an anonymous late 14th or early 15th century French satire which presents a picture, full of sharpness and humour, of the rows and deceits which afflict the married state.
Within the satire was a story about fish in a net (married couples) who try to entice the "free fish" into the net, basically by telling them lies about how great marriage is. Once the free fish were similarly ensnared, they too turned their attention to luring the remaining free fish into the net.
I spent my early twenties working in NYC in a large teaching hospital as a nurse. I met a breed of women I had never encountered before, a breed that I hadn’t thought were real. I remember as a kid hearing a stupid joke from another time, something like "Men go to university to get their MSW (or whatever); women go to get their MRS."
But the women I met at the start of my nursing career at a NYC university teaching hospital, they were straight-up marriage crazy. The wedding bell hell consumed everyone -- I remember joking with a friend that there was a very rigid hierarchy on the unit: at the top were the recently engaged; the rings were swooned over, compared, and criticized. The planning of the wedding took on ludicrous importance. No expense was spared; girls thought nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars and incurring huge debt.
Next on the pecking order was the newlyweds (up to about a year after getting married), the married & pregnant, the girls with serious boyfriends, the long term married; and somewhere below were women like me; not married, not in a relationship, not even dating.
My priorities during these years were hanging out with my friends, drinking beer, reading, seeing live music and going to art galleries. I was embarrassed for my workmates; and suddenly I was participating in lunchtime conversations about "red nails or French manicure" for the big day; about china patterns, about hair up or down with the veil. It seemed so retrogressive, so trivial, so anti-feminist! Needless to say I did not find my tribe in this group of women.
It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I could even imagine marrying a boyfriend. The man I share my life, a home, a dog and a cat with is someone I would marry happily. I never felt that way before; I had always dated guys that, deep down, I felt weren’t worthy of me. I had always held part of myself in reserve because secretly I didn’t think they were cute enough, smart enough, cool enough, ambitious enough; when the question of marriage came up I deflected it.
When I hear another woman going on about her ring, her engagement, the ring, the ring, the ring -- I want to say "Stop that! Don’t let on that this stupid bullshit has any real relevance to us!’" Like there is some gender war going on and some women are giving up secrets to the other side.
The marriage agenda isn’t a social construct after all -- women are still apeshit to get that ring! Those strong independent women, they’re not immune! Show them that ring and they’ll wave that white flag!
But marriage isn’t about endentured servitude any more. If I call myself a feminist (and, yeah, I do) then I need to support other women’s choices. I think I’m a product (or the offspring) of a generation for whom gender roles suddenly went upside-down; the legacy is that intellectually I question traditional gender roles but then emotionally I still respond to them. And on some level, that emotional response bugs me. It seems like a betrayal of my emotion against what I stand for politically and intellectually.
So now I suffer from the worst of all marriage maladies: I bought the feminist line about marriage being outdated, about women needing men "like fish need bicycles"; and ALSO fall prey to the cultural celebration of coupledom, some embarrassing notion that marriage might make my relationship even better.
So, if I seem disinterested in your engagement, please don’t take it personally. I’m labouring under a few decades of feminist theory, cultural brainwashing, and my own confused and contrary notions about the institution. And, while I will definitely help a sister out with choosing a dress because I am *very* interested in fashion, you may want to consult someone else about the bridal hair and nails.