There’s a topic that never fails to provoke long, heated discussions among feminists: weddings. Should you have one? If you do, how do you have a feminist one? Can you have a feminist one? Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory wrote an honest take on her own experience as a staunch feminist planning a wedding and how she ended up going in for things she never would have thought she would, like restrictive body-shaping undergarments called Spanx and a $125 make-up brush set.
The question resonates with me personally as I plan my own wedding. I find myself facing all the same choices and pressures Clark-Flory did. I’ve already spent more money than I thought I would on a venue and am wearing an engagement ring — something I swore I’d never do. I will have at least two pairs of shoes for one day of festivities and have been tempted to spend hundreds on a “wedding sash.”
But there may not be such thing as a feminist wedding – it’s probably an oxymoron. Marriage is a patriarchal institution through and through, rife with privilege and creepy reminders of how women have traditionally been viewed. (Just think about fathers “giving away” their daughters to future husbands or grooms lifting the veil of purity from their new wives’ faces.)
The day is stressful enough. Choices that make you happy seem warranted. Wearing a family ring that holds symbolism was more important to me than beating myself up over the patriarchal history it embodies, and no one is worse off because of it (particularly as the diamond is not from a conflict zone). It’s important to remember that a wedding is just one, ritual-packed day. Few people beyond your partner, family and friends will be affected by whether or not you wear fake eyelashes or something blue.
But on that day begins the really hard task: marriage. And having a feminist marriage is a challenge, even if (or perhaps even more so) you end up with someone who is also progressive and feminist. Yet it has so much more importance on whether you live a truly equal life. In the aggregate, whether women are able to chart feminist and meaningful relationships has far more bearing on the feminist project itself than what they choose to do or not do on their Big Day.
A lot of couples enter into their relationships professing to want equality. But good intentions are rarely enough to fight the entrenched gender roles that have warped our culture for centuries. Take this study from 2011 on fathers: 65 percent reported that they felt that both parents should be equally responsible for caring for children and only 30 percent felt that their spouse should provide more care. But reality flipped those numbers completely: Only 30 percent of the fathers reported dividing the work equally, while 64 percent said their spouse provided more care.
Men have also made dramatic changes since the Father Knows Best era, doing nearly three times as much childcare as they did in 1965 and more than double the housework. But mothers by and large still do the majority of the unpaid work in the house, from raising kids to cleaning counters. Today’s moms spend more time with their children than women in the 1960s, double what today’s fathers do. And fathers eke out more leisure time, getting in three more hours a week of watching TV or relaxing with friends. Yet when women try to push their partners to pick up more of the slack, they are usually called nags.
The division of labor between married couples in the home worms its way into the office. Women on average put in only half the hours that men do in paid employment. That’s because women are still the ones expected to take on chores at home and to rearrange – or drop – their careers to accommodate children. This is one facet of the perpetual gender wage gap: if women don’t work as many hours, on the whole they will continue to be paid less (and probably passed over for promotions from bosses who see them as less committed to their work).
There’s also evidence that men who end up with more traditional marriages in which their wives stay home with the kids react negatively to women in the workplace, denying them promotions. Women get caught in a downward spiral of gender expectations.
There’s no policy antidote to the pressures that surround weddings. But no matter how big and consumerist, the impact of poofy white dresses and sparkly high heels is nil. We can, however, begin to change equality within marriages through policy. California has made paid family leave available to both parents since 2002, and the men in that state are now taking far more time off when their children first arrive. There are even stronger results in countries that mandate that fathers take at least some of the paid leave, such as in Quebec and Sweden. Those policy changes have brought about cultural changes.
But given the slow crawl of progress on that front in the U.S., brides will have many battles over laundry and playdates to look forward to. When I worry about feminism in my life, I don’t fret about the choices I’ll make on my wedding day. I worry about the choices my fiancee and I will make from that day forward.
Bryce Covert is Economic Policy Editor at ThinkProgress and a contributor at The Nation.
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