Instagram is my favourite social media platform right now. By far. I love how it connects me with like minded folk and sparks interesting discussion in an exciting, instantly satisfying kind of way. One of the most vocal participants of this Instagram conversation very recently was Independent Humanist Wedding Celebrant, Natasha Johnson. Natasha is also a blogger and writer who is passionate about discussing all things related to weddings, but ceremonies in particular. The image I shared touched on wedding tradition and highlighted how so many of our Western wedding day traditions have their roots wrapped up in sexism.
Knowing our community of readers is a tribe of intelligent, soon to be and already married women of all ages and backgrounds who support gender equality and respect diversity, Natasha offered to share a written piece with us today that addresses some of the more sexist, traditional nature of weddings, and what we can do to change them. As someone who has officiated over 400 weddings over the past few years, I believe this positions her well to share her comments and observations and I hope you enjoy this read. Love Annabel x
We only have to look down the end of our own noses to see that now more than ever our marriages and relationships are the most equal that they have ever been. Gone are the days of the ‘little wifey’ at home, a powerless woman who after her wedding day is reduced to a life full of childcare and chores, as well as being the much needed support system to her bread-winning husband. Unless she chooses it to be this way, of course.
Chores, childcare and the general maintenance of the machine of married life are no longer assigned to an individual according to their gender. They are worked out by a pair of people ,who form a team and decide the equal rules for how their marriage will work. Correct? Absolutely!
So then isn’t it funny that now that we are at this stage in society where equality in marriage is a strong and present factor, many people still get married (the act of marriage), in a way that is so sexist, unequal and full of patriarchal traditions, which actually do nothing to inspire a marriage to begin on an equal footing!
LOOKING AT THE PAST TO REDEFINE THE PRESENT
Some people may well feel that analysing a wedding day and traditions in this way is a little bit over the top and unnecessary, because after all, many of the decisions made about one’s big day are personal and subjective ones. But it can also be argued that it is also better to be informed and to know the reasons for why one does something, before doing it, rather than just blindly following a tradition for no other reason than it being a tradition. If we did this with a whole host of traditions (non-wedding ones too!), the world would be in a whole lot of trouble.
When you look at marriage ceremonies in a historical context (I’m talking way, way, way back), you will see that weddings really had nothing to do with love, let alone equality. Marriage as an institution developed principally out of political and economic needs; the protection of assets; exchange of wealth; a geographical foothold, even! The last thing that a marriage ceremony concerned itself with was whether the two people getting married were actually in love with each other, or that they had a mutual respect or an understanding of each other. This was not relevant, nor was it a pre-requisite. And, sadly, love-marriages happened to just a lucky few.
As marriages developed over time, so then did the need for customs and formalities to ensure that the promises given by the individuals were properly carried out, therefore protecting the interests of all those concerned. Crazy, right?
So by looking directly at the past we are able to see how so many of the traditions and custom that are still lingering around in current weddings and wedding ceremonies, are so entrenched in old-fashioned and sexist values. And this, lovely readers, is the point. Before any individual goes blindly stepping over the wedding threshold, they should perhaps stop, take a minute and think about what their wedding ceremony and celebrations mean to them and whether the key elements of their day represent them as the individuals they are.
Image source: Moissanite
THE ONE WHERE THE FATHER WALKS THE BRIDE DOWN THE AISLE
Now it would take a very mean spirited and downright miserable individual to not see the beauty in a bride being walking down the aisle by her father. For anyone to have witnessed a moment like this, you cannot doubt the emotion in seeing a proud father and his equally proud daughter, walking down the aisle, arm in arm. But let’s just hold that little reverie right there for a moment and look back to the origins of this beautiful scene, so that we can see that it was not always like this.
This proud father many centuries ago, was also the head of the household, and that fine daughter whose arm he is holding on to is tantamount to his family possession. It’s he who allowed for the marriage to take place, he who has approved the deal, he who is happy with the bargain. He who walks his beautiful, well-presented, non-damaged goods down the aisle to deliver her, in perfect condition to the other man with whom the deal has been reached, the man who will receive a handsome sum in return. Yes, it sounds awful doesn’t it? And that folks, is because it was! A business transaction carried out in full splendour!
Of course, this is not why fathers walk their daughters down the aisle nowadays, but this is how we have arrived at why fathers do this. And this is why perhaps it is time to start thinking about our mothers and wondering why they aren’t featuring more in something as important as this.
Equality in weddings is starting to happen. More and more couples are saying ‘hell no’ to these traditions and now many brides are now walking down the aisles with their parents in tow, recognising and honouring those two people who gave her life and raised her well! Added to that, more and more couples are even saying goodbye altogether to being walked down the aisle and are simply choosing to walk by themselves, because it is they who will be facing life together, so why not start their ceremony with a very symbolic definition of their relationship? There too are many instances of the brave solo bride, choosing to make the walk towards her partner in life, all by herself, strong, bold and committed. There are so many amazing options that it seems almost stubborn to stick with just one antiquated version, unless of course your heart is set on it.
It may also be worth adding here that, interestingly, many same sex couples tend to enter their ceremonies together or accompanied by a parent or friend but both still entering at the same time. This is a shining example of an equal outlook on one’s wedding day, a prelude to the marriage itself. It is admirable that the gay community often does not constrain itself to traditions which have no meaning to them or little relevance to their relationships.
THE ONE WHERE WE TAKE OUR HUSBAND’S SURNAME
I admit that when I was fifteen and obsessed with Johnny Depp during his 21 Jump Street Days, I once filled a whole notebook with the different ways that I could sign my name as ‘Natasha Depp.’ I couldn’t wait to change my name to something else and to have a new identity. Many women change their surname to their husbands’ without a second thought and this of course is absolutely fine, as it is down to everyone’s personal preference. However whatever way you look at it, the fundamental idea behind the concept of taking your husband’s name is a sexist one. There is no legal reason why it is the man’s name that needs to be taken and it’s only the antiquated tradition of the man being the head of the household which still feeds this practice.
I’m disheartened every time I sign into Facebook and see a list of female names I don’t recognise. You got married, congratulations! But why, in 2013, does getting married mean giving up the most basic marker of your identity? And if family unity is so important, why don’t men ever change their names? (Jill Filipovic, The Guardian)
Many couples now recognise that they would like a more equal approach to name-changing and many choose to use both their surnames together, either as two surnames or in a double-barrelled form, and some grooms have even taken their wives’ surnames. Couples who have or will want to have children can still all have the same name in this respect, too, which usually nowadays is the primary motive for why a woman changes her name.
Actress Zoe Saldana’s husband caused a media storm when he chose to take on her surname at marriage.
THE ONE WHERE THE BOUQUET IS THROWN
This element can provide so much fun and laughter on a wedding day, as all the single ladies position themselves, dresses hitched, shoes off, ready to catch that bouquet as it flies throw the air. Tensions are high as everyone prepares to bag themselves a future. But hang on a second, let’s just look at this a minute. As beautiful, strong, intelligent women is this an image of ourselves that we want to portray? Clambering to catch a bouquet because folklore says we will be next to get married. And when the bouquet is hastily snatched up, the losers head back to their seats, slightly embarrassed at their over-zealous failed efforts and doing a “maybe next time” shrug, is this how we define ourselves?
Is our marriage, when or if it happens, the most important accomplishment of our lives? Of course it isn’t, but maybe by including this mini, all-women game show on our big day we are saying it is. Let’s not forget that men are not subjected to this and have no other type of game of their own to contend with. There will be many people who see the throwing of the bouquet as nothing more than harmless fun and they are well within their rights to, but whatever anyone’s opinion is, it is always good to know what the wider meanings and implications of something are before subjecting your single girlfriends to this!
THE ONE WHERE ONLY MEN DO SPEECHES
If we used the wedding speeches as a measure of how women behaved in real life, then we would be lead to believe that all women do is to sit and look pretty, whilst directing lots of gazes and loving looks in the direction of our husbands. And that this is something we do whenever any important man speaks about us or on our behalf, as though we were unable to speak for ourselves.
This is one thing about my own wedding day that I am still a little sore about, even ten years down the line! I love speaking (can’t you tell) and I really wanted to share my funny stories and address all of our family and friends, but my husband wanted to stick with tradition and do it the ‘proper’ way. I didn’t even put up a fight. I can only blame this on the Caribbean side of my brain that controls my laidback-ness and I really should have been more insistent about it and how I felt.
You may, however, be someone who is quite happy for someone else to speak on your behalf. But if you’re not, make sure your voice is heard. Or why not have a girlfriend or your mum do a speech to represent the sisterhood in your life?
DO WHAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU
For many couples, the traditional elements of a wedding day (and these examples are just a few!) may not represent sexist values but purely personal choices. A bride might not want to do a speech, simply because she couldn’t think of anything worse to do and would prefer to pull her fingernails out than address a room full of people. The same with being walked down the aisle, some may want to forget the history of it, and ensure that their father has his moment of pride. And that of course, is everyone’s prerogative.
If you want to include traditional elements on your big day, then you should include them. Nobody is going to think that you’re a disgrace to your gender, if you make fully informed, personal choices about how you want to be married. The important thing is to know why these traditions exist in the first place and to weigh up what doing these things on your big day mean to you. And if you are still happy with them and their significance, then do them, but if you’re not, then you most definitely shouldn’t.
Yes, weddings are fundamentally sexist, but we have the right, the intelligence and the power to make decisions that we feel are best for us, whether that means kicking traditions to the curb or embracing them wholeheartedly. Only you can, and should, decide.
What are your thoughts? Are the reasons behind wedding tradition important to you? Is the matter of sexism in wedding traditions something that bothers you? Do gender equality and feminism weigh on your mind as a bride to be? We’d really love to spark a supportive and interesting discussion and look forward to receiving all views.
Love Natasha x
Natasha Johnson is an experienced Independent Humanist Wedding Celebrant, blogger, and writer on all things related to weddings, in particular wedding ceremonies. From traditions, to breaking them and everything else in between, this former BBC reporter’s aim in life is to champion unique wedding ceremonies and encourage couples to get married in exactly the way they want to, NOT the way they think they have to! You will find Natasha on Instagram at @EngagedAndReady.