Earlier this month (May 2021), there was a change to the marriage registration system in England and Wales, as the register became digital. Along with this change came another, very welcome one: the inclusion of the couple’s mothers’ details on the register (it had previously only been the fathers’ details that were noted).
The Home Office said that this reform would “correct a historic anomaly” but let’s face it, this was no anomaly. Sure, it looks out of place now in the 21st century (thank goodness), but for many years it has served as an accurate illustration of how things were when it came to marriage – and women in general for that matter.
Because, dear reader, much as I love a good wedding (which is fortunate, considering my job…) there is no escaping from the fact that the institution of marriage is mired in patriarchal BS. In fact, it has been a very effective way of controlling women – and their magical, legacy-making reproductive ways – for centuries. And thus I find myself in a bit of an ethical bind, as do many of the couples I work with.
I should say here of course that I am talking about heterosexual marriage, as another ‘not-anomaly’ was that same-sex relationships were not only disapproved of but often illegal during this same period of history. Whilst acknowledging the appalling things that same-sex couples have had to endure through time and rejoicing in the fact same-sex marriage is now recognised and celebrated, as a legal entity it has not been steeped in the same problematic history as its heterosexual counterpart.
It has only been in relatively recent times that marriage for love has become the norm. For many hundreds of years, its main purpose was to join families (or even countries) in a politically advantageous way. A daughter, who ‘belonged’ to her father, was often married off as an investment – a way to climb the social ladder or benefit from another family’s assets perhaps. Once married, she essentially disappeared as far as the law was concerned. She became an extension of her husband, unable to own property in her own right, with herself and any children she bore being regarded as the ‘chattels’ of her husband *, until the Married Women’s Property Acts legally ended this in 1893.
I say ‘legally ended’ because, although the law changed, the attitudes continued. Even today, I regularly conduct funerals for women whose promising careers were cut short by the ‘Marriage Bar’, which was a rule that meant women could not continue working in many jobs once they had got married. They were stymied at every turn.
Echoes of this unfortunate past are still the norm in many present-day wedding ceremonies.
- When the bride’s father escorts her down the aisle to her waiting groom, it is a tradition that started from his ‘giving away’ his daughter to her new ‘owner’.
- When you see racks upon racks of white bridal dresses, it stems from the desire to present the ‘investment’ as pristine and virginal. No soiled goods here thank you!
- When the groom is given the go-ahead to ‘kiss your bride’ because historically, the transaction has been completed and she is now his property, so no consent on her part is required.
- When the bride changes her surname from her father’s to her husband’s, it implies ownership has been transferred.
So far, so icky. Is it any wonder that many couples wonder whether marriage is a positive step for them?
There is still much work to be done, but fortunately, we live in a very different world now.
Happily, marriage is now (mostly) for love, women are legal entities after their wedding and can buy and own property in their own name, being married doesn’t prevent either partner from working and there isn’t nearly as much societal pressure to get hitched as there used to be. In fact, from a purely practical point of view, there are a lot of legal and financial benefits to being married.
One couple I worked with a few years ago, Meghan and Robin, chose to have a ‘forevering’ instead of a wedding. It was a celebration of their love and union but without all the heavy connotations of marriage which, for all the above reasons, they weren’t mad about.
However, as they were considering other ways that they could make sure their relationship was legally recognised in case of something happening to one of them, or to protect any children they may have in the future, they looked at many options. Over and over again, the clearest answer was that getting married was the easiest, cheapest and safest option for them. So they bit the bullet and signed the papers.
They still had their egalitarian forevering ceremony though, including entering by walking towards each other at the beginning, acknowledging the roles of all their parents, kissing each other because they wanted to, and choosing an entirely new surname that they would both change to.
Oh, and Meghan wore white because she chose to, not because she sleepwalked into the decision. And she rocked it with blue hair and bare feet because she chose that too. Legend!
The point I’m making here is that you can have a wedding – and a marriage – that works with and celebrates you both as equal partners, despite all the shady past. The legal stuff is much improved now and will actually protect you both if disaster strikes, so it is a strong option. You can still walk down the aisle with your dad if you choose to of course – but you can reframe it by making it about celebrating his role in your life, for example. Make conscious choices (and if you don’t like a tradition – chuck it in the f*ck it bucket!)
If you still don’t fancy marriage, civil partnership (once the ‘sloppy seconds’ offered to same-sex couples who couldn’t marry) has recently become available to heterosexual couples in England and Wales. It offers many of the same benefits legally, and you can still have a gorgeous, celebrant-led ceremony to celebrate.
Or you can choose to have a ceremony to recognise and celebrate your union without any legalities at all if you’d like to. There’s no ‘need’ to have a legal process at all. After all, marriages existed for many hundreds of years just on the basis of being a social contract, which is exactly what you are creating with an awesome ceremony in front of your loved ones.
As with all aspects of your big day (and your big and wonderful life for that matter), don’t let yourself sleepwalk into decisions just because they’re the ‘done thing’. Stay curious. Stick to your values. Know what you and your partner are all about and keep that at the heart of all the choices you make, despite what Aunty Marge says. Rock this day your way and your way only.
And if you want a celebrant to help you to celebrate in a way that fits you to a tee, you know who to call…
* although big up to the likes of 16th century Bess of Hardwick who played the patriarchy by its own game and married her way to wealth (and notoriety…)