Marriage is a deeply feminist issue. In a just-published essay, feminist and academic Laurie Penny wonders whether marriage is "worth it" for women, who are so often expected to give the bulk of emotional labor to their partners and children instead of "meeting and mating as true equals". It's a question that likely rises to the forebrains of many feminist women in their first year of married life. Have they betrayed their idealism? Is this all a farce? Why does everybody keep addressing important letters to their husband?
I was never going to get married. I had no use for the institution; it seemed much more fun to be scandalous way into my 80s and wear turbans and live in sin with delightful people. Then I met the dude who is now my husband, and, more relevantly at the time, was from a different country. Marriage was a pledge for the future: this means we will not be kept apart, and will be able to build a life together forever. (We didn't even have a proposal. We just talked about it until we "decided it was a good idea".) This was nearly three years ago, and I have had to work to reconcile my deeply romantic smoochy scenario with my feminism. It's been a substantively tricky ride. Lisa Miya-Jervis, in her extremely funny take on feminist marriage in Ms magazine, refers to young married feminists as "something of a novelty, like a dressed-up dog," and that is very much how it has felt.
Note: Because it is what I have experienced, I am, by and large, talking heterosexual marriage here. Wifehood for queer women marrying other women has its own dramas and necessary reconfigurations of gender roles and ideas. Feminists in their first year of marriage to men are likely to encounter some slightly bizarre hurdles, from the ideological to the practical. If you're finding your feminism feels a little weirded out by this new space, welcome to the faintly anxious club.
1. They Evaluate Their Feelings Towards The Word "Wife"
I'll be honest: I'm nearly three years into this, and I still don't know how I feel about the word wife. Or husband. They seem artificial, like they're attached to neat little 1950s pictures of couples hand in hand leaving a wedding chapel. Words matter; to me, "spouse" is clinical, "partner" ambiguous, and "marital aid" makes people look at you funny. Only "wife and husband" are truly clear and accurate, but they both have a substantive amount of baggage. The divide between the genders is more explicit than the more casual "boyfriend and girlfriend;" at least those words sound the same. Being a wife seems perilously close to being a "wifey," or a "dear little wife" from Dickens, or something else weird and demeaning. Much of the first 12 months may be devoted to figuring out semantic problems. And let's not even discuss the agonies of the name-change situation.
2. They Examine The Shift In Societal Expectations
A wife is never just a wife. She is a vessel for a huge swathe of societal attendant beliefs and hopes, often expressed in invasive or faintly bizarre questions. A wife will often be interrogated about whether she will have children, her choices about working, and whether her husband is truly OK if she brings home more money than he does. She is expected to be part of a combined unit, and to have moved into a realm of solidity and mortgages and perhaps a little more social conservatism. (I've known married couples who stubbornly revert to undergraduate partying styles to confound friends' beliefs that they should be "boring" now.) Adjusting to this new weight of ideas about your life, often by complete strangers, may make you thoroughly confused.
3. They Get Angry About Changes In Status & Legitimacy
I personally find the sudden validation of womanhood entailed in being a wife incredibly infuriating. It is substantively insulting to tell women they are not completely grown up or mature until they get married — as if there's something special about femininity that can't possibly be accessed unless you have the good fortune to find a person who wants to keep you around forever, and sign papers to that effect.
This is something that becomes a creeping discovery for the just-married woman: that she has been elevated and adult-ed, and should therefore be praised. It's a weird and uncomfortable situation.
4. They Have To Explain Their Decision To Less Marriage-Friendly Friends
Marriage's history is not very savory for the feminist. It's never really been about the validation of female agency; it's mostly been concerned with the transferral of ownership of women, for economic purposes, and to cement dynasties or preserve familial honor. It can be a very feminist institution when you're inside it shaping it to your own form (as I discovered), but from the outside, some friends may be faintly concerned that you've abandoned your principles of equality and are now becoming unconsciously subservient — as if wedding cake is somehow a drug and you wake up with no role in directing your own destiny. Founder of Feministing Jessica Valenti had to deal with furious friends who felt "getting married was a sop to the patriarchy," and I don't think that particular awkward conversation is all that uncommon.
5. They Feel Vaguely Disconnected From Their New Role
What is a wife? What does a wife do? Does a wife have sex the way I do, and argue the way I do, and kiss her partner more or less than I do? In the first year, I often felt weirdly as if I were being followed around by the ghost of my own wifehood, pointing out mysterious ways in which I was failing my new job. "Wife" was not a category I recognized or particularly knew; none of my friends were married, and there was no model on how to be myself and fiercely feminist and loudly grumpy about sexism and then go home to a male marital partner at the end of the day. I understand this disconnect or discomfort isn't uncommon. How does one "wife"? It's a verb, right? (In case you're wondering, one "wifes" largely by being oneself and maybe having a ring on a finger.)
6. They Get Frustrated When The "Husband" Is Prioritized
No, you may not speak to "the man of the house". No, you should not direct all your letters about money, mortgages, rent, insurance, or any other material purely to the dude in this marriage. Both our names are on the documents, no matter what they are. You do not get to choose to target him as the "responsible one," regardless of his actual role in household decisions. That's not a choice you get to make. (This is particularly important in our house, because my dude and I are hopeless in very complimentary ways. If you pick the wrong partner to ask, The Thing will not be done, whatever it is.)
7. They Recognize Their Marriage Does Not Invalidate Their Equality
Marriages are interesting things. You're supposed to construct them yourselves, using whatever you've got to hand, and mostly the construction project doesn't really change after you have rings. A feminist marriage is not a contradiction, though it may feel like an uneasy combination of thoughts. It is ultimately the sum and product of the two people within it. It can take a while for a devoted feminist to settle into an institution that has been, for a long time, unfriendly to the aims of equality and gender equality; but once you're in it, you can make it do what you want. And if that means shared emotional labor and time spent being angry together about gender inequality over the dinner table, it's all good.