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21 April 2023

Is a feminist marriage possible?

A new history takes in everything from ancient Roman weddings to Don’t Tell the Bride to ask: can we redefine this patriarchal institution for the future?

By Rachel Cunliffe

There was no chance of me promising to “obey” my husband when we got married a year ago. In fact, my self-written wedding vows (which began “I solemnly swear I am up to no good”) included an explicit commitment “to love, honour and disobey”. It was partly a joke, and partly a way for me to reconcile my desire to get married with my unease at joining an institution that felt not just outdated and unnecessary, but whose history is blighted with entrenched misogyny.

I get the impression Rachael Lennon would approve. Her new book Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage was inspired by her own internal conflicts when faced with the challenge of planning a wedding that represented her values – and, indeed, her relationship. Lennon married her wife in 2017, just three years after same-sex marriage was made legal in England. She is acutely aware that her right to use that word – wife – is only possible thanks to the work of feminists and LGBTQ activists over the centuries. The book, she writes in the introduction, is “a celebration of their efforts, their sacrifices and their successes”.

It’s also an unapologetic interrogation of the practices and expectations that surround both weddings and the concept of being a wife. From the proposal to the wedding night, “I do” to “death do us part”, cultural assumptions about marriage are inspected under the ethnographical microscope, their chauvinist or capitalist roots laid bare.

Some of our traditions are relatively harmless. The white wedding dress, popularised by Queen Victoria in her wedding to Albert in 1840, is now so ubiquitous that its historic symbolism – initially wealth, later sexual purity – is virtually irrelevant. (I have met many non-virgin brides, and none has fretted over her right to wear white.) While the convention of the diamond engagement ring was manufactured in 1947 by a savvy marketing slogan for De Beers (a decade before, just 10 per cent of American brides-to-be had one), there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting something sparkly and precious to mark an important decision.

Other rituals have darker connotations. Beyond the inherent sexism of the traditional wedding vows, the act of a father “giving away” the bride cements the idea of marriage as a property transaction from one man to another. The standard running order for speeches, in which the bride does not speak but is merely spoken about, hint at future gender roles. The immense pressure, even in 2023, for wives to change their names (in 2016, nearly 90 per cent of married women in Britain had chosen to do so), recalls a time not so long ago when a woman gave up not just her name but her legal rights to her husband. (Lennon, it should be noted, rejected all three of these conventions. So did I.)

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[See also: The sex lives of medieval women]

A modern woman would be more than entitled to decide she cannot in good conscience enter into an institution so brazenly patriarchal by nature. Yet we keep doing it: despite panicked headlines about the decline of marriage, 250,000 couples tie the knot in the UK every year, and the great majority of British adults are or have been in a legal partnership at some point in their lives. “What compels us to keep making this choice? Can we hold true to inclusive and feminist values and take the leap?” Lennon asks. “How can we build on the past to redefine marriage for the future?”

Spanning just 227 pages, Lennon, who co-founded the National Trust’s Challenging Histories programme, moves at pace between historical periods and geographic regions to explore the cultural diversity of marriage norms. We learn that ancient Roman brides wore red veils to symbolise torches “bringing light and life to their new home and family”, that the earliest record of a divorce settlement comes from Babylonia in 1760 BCE, and that forms of temporary “trial marriages” have been and are still practised across the world – from the “walking marriages” of the Mosuo people in China to the pre-Islamic tradition of the mut’a in the Middle East.

In between, there is more familiar subject matter: Henry VIII’s battle with the Catholic Church, Jane Austen’s semi-satirical nuptial philosophising, relationship advice from Michelle Obama. Lennon’s point is that one “correct” set of marriage norms, based on Western Christian tradition, is absurd.

As “a curator of social histories”, Lennon is adept at weaving together individual stories and historical records in a way that is simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking. She tackles monogamy, the gender pay gap and reproductive rights, noting the ways a wedding ring has both gifted women new freedoms and taken them away. She is, understandably, particularly interested in the plight of history’s queer pioneers: equal marriage may have only recently come to the UK but same-sex partnerships go back millennia. She recounts the solemnised union of the lesbian diarist Anne Lister to Ann Walker in 1834, and Alice Toklas’ struggle to be recognised as the widow of her partner Gertrude Stein after she died in 1946.

In some ways Wedded Wife struggles to decide if it’s a book about marriage, or about feminism. The two are tightly intertwined, but there are times when long expositions about the intricacies of the women’s suffrage movement feel out of place in a book that also discusses the hit reality TV show Don’t Tell the Bride. Lennon wants to cram everything in: from the work of Mary Wollstonecraft to the cultural implications of the TikTok “tradwife” trend, the phenomenon of “prison weddings” (in the 18th century, Fleet Prison in London was marrying more than 6,000 couples a year) to the environmental impact of today’s hyper-consumerist wedding industry. It is occasionally jarring to find passages on domestic abuse and child marriage (in the US, where marriage age laws vary from state to state, 300,000 children under 18 were married between 2000 and 2018) next to her account of choosing a wedding dress or deciding how to walk up the aisle.

But then, with this particular subject, the personal is the political. How could it not be, when for so much of history a woman’s social and legal standing was defined by her marital status; when today only 34 countries recognise equal marriage and 72 criminalise same-sex relationships; and when so many young girls still grow up with the message – from toys, from films, from the adults in their lives – that the greatest possible achievement is to be a bride?

[See also: It was only when my husband was stranded on the motorway that I felt truly married]

As for her central question – is it possible to have a feminist marriage? – I finished Wedded Wife as conflicted as when I started. Lennon’s big white wedding was, in a way, a submission to an ideal that has been used to subjugate women through the ages. It was also an act of subversion, a hard-won victory against those who still argue that their version of marriage is the only acceptable one. There is a sense towards the end of the book that she is still grappling with that tension. But overall, she comes down in favour: a joyfully chosen, legally recognised commitment between people who love each other is worth fighting for, even if it needs redefining to make it fit for purpose today. “We can shape marriage for the next generation, retaining the traditions that serve us, and forging new ones where it’s time to let go of bad habits,” she urges her readers.

In other words, keep the cake, cut the patriarchy. And remember, it’s never too late to disobey.

Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage
Rachael Lennon
Aurum, 256pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age