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Sunday, August 22, 2004

"Traditional" marriage begins with a "traditional" wedding

Right now I'm reading a book by Chrys Ingraham called White Weddings. I posted over at XX about thoughts the book inspired about gay marriage and the use of the phrase "traditional" marriage by conservatives to hide that they mean "discriminatory" marriage. Anyway, the book is great and I recommend it to anyone. One word of warning to people who are unused to reading stuff by progressive sociologists--it can make you really uncomfortable. For instance, it might be difficult for heterosexual feminists to read that heterosexuality exists to reinforce the male power structure. The best way to read things like that is to remember that she is talking about the institution of heterosexuality. (Personally, I think it would be just fantastic if people started capitalizing all words for institutions, as that would make things so much easier to understand. Your sexuality can be described therefore as heterosexual, but the institution and all its trappings and meanings can be described as Heterosexuality. Gov. McGreevey is therefore a homosexual and a Heterosexual at the same time. It would clear up a lot of confusion.) Still, don't take comfort in feeling superior. There's not many heterosexuals who don't partake on one level or another of Heterosexuality to have access to its many privileges.

Anyway, the sidebar factoids are pretty entertaining stuff. I particularly liked a sidebar quoting a book by Ann Monsarrat describing the evolution of the Anglican wedding ceremony, where we get a majority of the typical wedding traditions. In the original ceremony, the groom gave the bride a ring and then the bride's father gave the groom one of her slippers, which he then hit her over the head with. No, I'm not kidding. At least the ceremony of hostility we have now, the one where cake is shoved in your true love's face, is a bit more equitable. (Still, I hate that. Marriage is hard enough without normalizing the belief that it's warfare from day one.)

Still, it does well to remember that the typical romantic wedding ceremony is still laden down with imagery that is symbolic of the wife's proper deferential role. A few quick fixes, like taking "obey" out of the vows or having rings for both bride and groom are helpful but don't get to the heart of the matter. While most of us would be appalled to see the bride's father hand the groom a slipper to hit the bride with, we don't blink at an eye at the fact that the rest of the handing off ceremony is still part of most weddings and that most people think it's romantic to have the father hand over his daughter as if she were property.

22Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26to make her holy, cleansing[1] her by the washing with water through the word, 27and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- 30for we are members of his body. 31"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."[2] 32This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. --Ephesians 5:22-33

This Biblical passage has quite a bit to do with why a woman has traditionally changed her name to her husband's. It symbolizes that she is "cleaved" into him, has become his own flesh. Really, it's downright sci-fi with the implication that she is just absorbed into her husband. Again, there have been piecemeal compromises. Most women retain their first name and take their husband's last name. I've known people who were unaware that married women's first names were little more than family nicknames only used in the house in the past. I imagine it was common enough for women to have tons of acquaintances who didn't even know her given name at all in the past. The switch to using Mrs. Jane Doe instead of Mrs. John Doe was rapid and complete, it seems. My grandmother returned to using her given first name 25 years into marriage and no one fussed about it. The resistance against making the transistion complete puzzles me.

But it does fit into a larger social pattern. Feminists and other progressives have been trying to reform marriage since forever. Nearly every small victory that is hard-won seems to be incorporated into "traditional" marriage and everyone pretends that it was always such. My grandmother denies that she ever used my grandfather's first name as her own, but looking through old correspondence shows otherwise. I don't think she's being dishonest; I honestly think she forgot. That's why it's a struggle to get people who consider themselves conservative or even moderate to understand that the definition of traditional marriage as just "a marriage between one man and one woman" is an ugly lie. Until this moment in time, marriage wasn't strictly defined by the sexes of the participants. It wasn't about having children, and nor was it about monogamy. It has always been about fidelity, but usually only female fidelity. (Read up on the struggles of feminist and health reformers in the 19th century to redefine marital fidelity as necessary for men as well as women. They were treated as a joke, even though the need to save women from deadly sexually transmitted diseases was a serious matter indeed.)

And that's why it's not harmless to retain certain traditions that exist only to reinforce female subservience. While we should celebrate small reforms, if they are too small it's too easy to pretend that we always did it that way and the discriminatory notion of "traditional" marriage can survive. A complete overhaul is necessary. Luckily, I think that gay marriage may in fact be the complete overhaul that modern marriage needs. It might seem extremely ridiculous after a few years of normalized same-sex marriage for many straight couples to have such old-fashioned gender role-playing at their weddings, much less in their marriages.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For instance, it might be difficult for heterosexual feminists to read that heterosexuality exists to reinforce the male power structure. The best way to read things like that is to remember that she is talking about the institution of heterosexuality."

That's interesting. Thank you for pointing it out, as I hadn't known it before. I would always assume that feminists who said that were radical feminists along the lines of Catherine MacKinnon rather than the liberal feminists I agree with.

This was a great post. I hadn't thought about what gay marriage would mean for women's rights before--but now that you mention it, it would redefine marriage in a way such that it would no longer be a contract between a superior and subordinate. In fact, to say that marriage ought to be between a man and a woman is often the conservatives' back-door way of admitting that differences in the treatment of men and women is the *basis* for traditional marriage--otherwise, why shouldn't same-sex marriages take place?



Blogger Amanda said...

I really do think it would be wise to differ between institutional nouns and other nouns with capitalization. Individual marriages are part of the institution of Marriage, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily order themselves by that institution. The problem though would be that conservative would resist differing between individual circumstances and institutions, so even if capitalization was adopted as a stylistic choice, it would be a liberal affectation. Conservatism cannot survive without confusing people about what is an institution and what is an individual choice.


Blogger liz said...

Darnit, a radical feminist is one who feels that the underlying social structure of sex, gender and its relations needs to change, not (necessarily) a wild-eyed militant pistol-waver. (There are certainly plenty of those on all sides, of course.)

Anyhoo, that out of the way...

Did you know??! the origin of married couples not being able to testify against one another was based on the fact that you can't be forced testify against yourself, and both individuals were considered [aspects of] the husband.


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