Flaws in Our Beloved Wedding Traditions

It has begun - that long anticipated period in your mid to late 20's when everyone seems to be getting married. It hit me when just recently three of my friends announced their engagements within a single week. Whilst I am far from getting married myself (I think), it is undeniable that the number of those cartoon ring symbols on my facebook feed has increased a lot recently. 

I rejoice with each new picture of a beaming couple and, admittedly, thinking about white dresses and wedding cakes makes me excited. After all - in spite of the cliché —I’ve always wanted a big wonderful wedding myself one day. Looking stunning for a day, gathering all my family and friends in one place, and the anticipation of spending the rest of my life with my dear partner. These were my thoughts before I started my doctoral research on gender equality.


My research regularly prompts me to scrutinize aspects of my life with a critical feminist eye.  A comment by a female professor in my department recently triggered me to reappraise marriage. She did not understand how so many women still “dress up like big party cakes to celebrate their defeat to the patriarchy”. I was startled. Would getting married mean I also surrender to the patriarchy - even if I married a fellow feminist who supports all aspects of gender equality?  Would being a feminist hence mean I have to abandon my dream wedding? Indeed, I did some research and found an overwhelming amount of sexist wedding traditions.


Let’s start at the very beginning. It is customary for the man to ask the bride’s father for her hand in marriage. Contemporary blogs advise the man to stick to this tradition because it conveys respect for the bride’s father - who needs assurance that “his little girl will still be protected”. This is problematic. As much as I would like my father (and my mother!) to agree with my choice of a partner, I find the idea of two men discussing how to protect me rather strange. I am an independent person: I provide and take care of myself every single day. I like to believe that protection is unnecessary. Asking a woman’s father before asking her reminds of the days of arranged marriages and seems to convey more respect for her father’s opinion than for hers.


Thereafter, in line with the stereotype of the agentic man, he is supposed to propose to her! This tradition is so pervasive that frequently women who would like to get married give subtle (or less subtle) hints, rather than proposing themselves. Traditionally, the 29th of February (once every four years) is the one day when it is acceptable for a woman to propose. Ironically, an English magazine celebrates this custom as “girl’s power”, completely oblivious of the 1460 days on which women apparently are not allowed to propose.


The traditions for the day itself also smack of inequality. First, the white wedding dress symbolizes “purity and innocence of girlhood”. Women, but not men, are held accountable of these virtues: We admire men who have a lot of sexual partners, but we shame women. Second, the bride’s walk down the aisle with her father symbolizes being “given away”. The woman is handled as a commodity that is handed over from man to the other, without any agency of her own. Third, the Book of Common Prayer propounds different vows for men and women: A man vows to cherish and love his partner, whilst a woman vows to cherish, love, and obey her partner. Fourth, the father’s name is legally required on the marriage certificate, whilst the mother’s name is not. Fifth, more often than not, the ceremony is closed with the words “You may now kiss the bride”. Again, male agency is encouraged, whilst the woman remains passive. And last, it is still a lot more common for the woman to give up her name, alternatives are often not even considered. A lot of inequality to put up with for women. But what about inequality for men?


Interestingly, a male friend of mine also experienced gender inequality in the wedding context. When his fiancée couldn’t accompany him to a wedding fair he took the task of making decisions about entertainment, food, and decoration upon himself. Store vendors met him with disbelief: he was not allowed to enter the fair’s raffle, and there was a general unease about the groom making decisions by himself. Especially when considering that some couples do not even feature a bride the assumption that a wedding is “her big day” seems utterly misguided.


After reviewing these traditions, I have become more critical of the institution of marriage. Do I abandon all plans to get married myself though? No. Admittedly, I may have actually become more excited by looking at images of weddings whilst writing this article. To me the idea of celebrating your love and also your commitment to someone else still seems absolutely beautiful. That part of marriage does not seem sexist. Thus, a solution to my feminism vs. marriage dilemma might be to get married but also challenge some of the above-mentioned traditions.  For instance, the couple can ask for their parents’ blessings together. The woman could propose regardless of whether it is a leap day or not. The wedding dress does not need to be white. It might be a possibility to walk down the aisle together with the partner. She can discard the “obey” clause and can keep her own surname.  Many of the traditions of marriage are deeply rooted in sexism, however, being aware of the symbolism and consciously avoiding these traditions might be a good compromise. After all, I just found the perfect wedding dress online.


~Please reference: Sudkaemper, A. (2016, March 2) I do - or do I? Retrieved from www.antoniasudkaemper.com