Monday, August 24, 2009

Feminist Weddings

I was intrigued by Ellie Levenson's article in today's Times, where she explains her doubts on getting married and how she made sure her wedding reflected her feminist values. 

Can a humanist wedding also be a feminist one? Let's begin by thinking about some traditional aspects of weddings that aren't feminist. First of all it's customary for the chap to propose, unless we're on a leap year where women can pop the question and (according to my dear, departed Gran) ladies who were refused got a pair of gloves as a knock-back gift, presumably to cover the fact they didn't have an engagement ring on their finger. The shame! Personally I don't think I'll ever get down on one knee and ask a man to marry me. At five foot nothin' I'm short enough standing up so crouched down I might be a health and safety hazard, as people would trip over me.

Then there's the moment many men dread: asking Daddy's permission. I'm sure some men still do this but as most couples live together before they get married I would imagine that this is merely a polite (yet declining) tradition and nothing to be taken too seriously. The same goes for being 'given away'.

To 'love, honour and obey'? Aye, right! Dream on...

Taking your husband's surname: many women still do this. I once married a couple where the groom's surname was 'Venus'. If I'd married someone with such a cool surname mine would have been changed by deed poll and on my Boots Advantage Card before I trotted down the aisle.

So, how do we make a humanist ceremony a feminist one? The short answer is: we don't, we make it a humanist wedding. One of the most important aspects of humanism is that we value all people equally. Our ceremonies place tantamount importance on the two people getting married. Yet there are aspects of the ceremony that many women would choose to modernise whether they describe themselves as feminists or not.

For most brides, having their dad walk them down the aisle is a symbolic gesture and everyone is fully aware that nobody is 'giving' or 'being given' away. However I notice some brides have both mum and dad walking them down the aisle and this is very thoughtful. Alternatively, many mums take the role of being a witness, which means they play an important part in the ceremony. There's also the option of entering as a couple and sometimes the bride even comes in on her own or with the bridesmaids.

Does anyone promise to 'obey' their spouse any more? I wouldn't want to marry a couple where either the bride or groom promised to obey the other. If they both promised to obey one another, how would that work? "Take out the rubbish!" "No, you take out the rubbish!" It would all end in tears and the rubbish would never get taken out... I think it's more important to make promises you can keep and ones that reflect what you can, as an individual, bring to the relationship.

In a humanist wedding you don't have to be named as 'Mr and Mrs' anything. The celebrant will legally have to pronounce you to be 'husband and wife' or 'wife and husband' if you prefer. I have had a few ceremonies where the groom has taken his wife's surname and the American fashion for hyphenating both is catching on. A woman's name doesn't automatically change when she gets married and many women keep their maiden name for professional use and take their married name for personal things. It's entirely up to you.

One of the reasons I love conducting humanist weddings is that marriage is not necessary these days. It's not so long ago that society demanded people get married if they wanted to live together and have children. If you've ever read Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice you'll be aware that marriage was once essential for any woman to have a secure place in society. I'm really glad that this is no longer the case and marriage is a positive choice. I think humanist weddings go beyond the notion of a feminist ones: our ceremonies aren't just about the couple but reflect their place in the world and are about them making a commitment in the presence of all the people they love and value. 

It is appropriate and considerate that in all Scottish wedding ceremonies the Registrar General has made the legal declarations worded like this:

"I Juliet Wilson accept you George Clooney to be my lawful wedded husband."

"I George Clooney accept you Juliet Wilson to be my lawful wedded wife."

My own personal fantasies aside, don't you think it's lovely that we 'accept' one another in marriage? Most couples presume the wording would be: "I take you to be my wife." No, siree, you offer yourself of your own free will! 

There's no need for a feminist (or anyone else) to marry in any type of ceremony but I think that if they want to make a public commitment there's no reason for them not to have a humanist wedding.


Timothy Mills said...

So, how do we make a humanist ceremony a feminist one? The short answer is: we don't, we make it a humanist wedding.

This may be pedantic, but I think of "feminism" as meaning "acknowledging women as equals to men". In which case, having a humanist wedding means that it is a feminist wedding.

Of course, if you think of feminism as just the political activism in pursuit of such equality, then you're right.

Just this linguist's thoughts.

Thanks for the excellent post.

Katherine said...

One of my sisters really liked that we said 'accept', to be honest we didn't really think about it that much, but I do think it's better.

Hope you get the email i just sent.