Is it possible to have a feminist wedding?

Guest post by Liz Susong
Just a girl and eight of her best friends.
Just a girl and eight of her best friends. Photo by Rachel Joy Photos

I must begin this reflection with a confession: I have fantasized about our wedding for a long time. I think it started sometime during early college. I'd be having a tough day or I felt stressed out, and one of my happy places was that little fantasy. I didn't necessarily think much about the dress or the cake or anything like that, but rather I imagined who would be there that day. I imagined my family and friends feeling joyful and looking really snazzy.

This for me is admittedly an embarrassing disclosure, despite the fact that it is hardly out of the ordinary for a young woman to imagine her wedding day every now and again. It's embarrassing because I have a Masters in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In other words, I'm a professional feminist. If there is one thing I am qualified to do in this world it is critique the patriarchy in abstract journals with minimal readership.

In fact, I got engaged during graduate school, an event I hoped to conceal from my colleagues — many of whom felt that marriage had an oppressive history and was frankly passé, and rightfully so! In fact, I pretty much agreed with these assertions on an intellectual level, ESPECIALLY after reading Engels and Goldman! (The wife is just a glorified prostitute!?) But then I'd get so stressed out after reading political economy theory that I would need to go to a happy place. And darn if I wasn't standing at the altar saying “I do” in my mind.

I had been with my partner for ten years when he proposed, and while it somehow came as a shock, there was no doubt in my mind that I absolutely wanted to marry him. Like any crafty member of my generation would, I desperately started googling “feminist wedding,” a fruitless endeavor. My head and heart were left to battle it out unassisted. It didn't take long for me to conclude that “feminist wedding” is an oxymoron, at least in the academic sense. Honestly, my chances for a “feminist” anything had been blown out of the water the minute HE proposed to ME with a ring.

So what was going on? My entire identity had been built around feminism, so why was it that I was contradicting my own beliefs?

This is an excerpt from an e-mail to a friend:

So yes, marriage. What to say? I don't really think I have a big explanation for this decision. I think marriage is fully problematic in all kinds of ways — and yes I totally agree with you — I would never vote against same-sex marriage, despite the fact that many queer activists press us rightly to think beyond marriage. But then there is my personal life which is totally affected by culture and norms. And I am very committed to this partnership with Adam, and there is something about the commitment that is secure and special I guess. I think it is difficult to describe.

Perhaps I can say this: many of my professors who have challenged me the most to question monogamy, heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood are themselves married, monogamous, and often mothers. There is something comforting about participating in cultural norms/traditions, and it seems to me that we are often more willing to respect culture when it is not our own. Does that make sense? Again, something is falling short in the theory — it is not really speaking to our most intimate personal experiences or it is somehow undermining our feelings. The human element has fallen out.

There is a term that I have discussed with my students: cooperative nonconformity. The basic idea is that while we often participate in cultural institutions (it is nearly impossible to avoid them altogether), we can still choose not to conform to power structures when possible. So Adam and I set out to create a celebration that was true to our partnership, enjoying the process of intentional planning just about every step of the way (sooo many twine balls).

Though it wasn't perfectly feminist in an academic sense, it was feminist in a broader sense…

…it is more fulfilling to live one's life within a circle of love… To love well is the task in all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds. -bell hooks, All About Love

While we celebrated our partnership, we celebrated community even more. We walked down the aisle together. We read bell hooks and Molly Peacock. We talked about the importance of equality between partners, as well as marriage equality. The “bridesbabes” wore fierce red shoes and lipstick. Just about every aspect of our wedding was created lovingly by our family and friends, from the officiating to the decorations to the cake to the flower arrangements to the music. Our friends and family made a collective quilt to represent community. And we celebrated the whole weekend, transforming the party into a cook-out the next day complete with a wiffle ball game and live music performed by my brother, culminating in a giant sleepover at a childhood friend's house.

While there are plenty of ways that our wedding fell short of the feminist ideal (I wore white, our two cats weren't on the guest list, etc.), the celebration was ultimately more than meeting the demands of a nonexistent checklist. It's really impossible to convey the fullness I felt in my heart by listing the details. There was something incredibly special about so many people I love having a hand in the wedding's creation, resulting in a collective feeling of ownership over the event. At the end of the day, it wasn't all about Adam and me. Marriage is never exclusively about two people.

By the end of the weekend, my earliest fantasy of hanging out with everyone I love and looking snazzy turned out to be pretty unimaginative in comparison with the actual event. The whole weekend, our families (all FOUR sets of parents), our giant wedding party, and our friends celebrated our love, yes, but they also fell in love with each other. We were two giddy kids without a worry in the world, basking in the glow of loving, supportive community, and what could be more feminist than that?

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Comments on Is it possible to have a feminist wedding?

  1. This post really resonated with me. I’ve considered myself a feminist pretty much since I learned there was a term for thinking a girl isn’t inferior to a boy. I’m also (a bit more recently) a very devout Catholic, so many people are very confused by my views. For a while I walked around feeling like a walking contradiction, and feeling weird compared to people who criticized me, on both sides. But after I calmed down my defensiveness a bit (only a bit, sometimes people just act like jerks), I realized that plenty of these people’s beliefs seem like contradictions to me-on the outside. So not just in my wedding, but my whole life, I try to be thoughtful and consistent in my beliefs and actions-but if they don’t seem that way to someone on the outside, it doesn’t matter. We can talk about our differences, but just because they don’t understand how I have reconciled my beliefs, doesn’t mean they aren’t reconciled.

    So thank you for sharing your story, and I hope our communities come together as beautifully as yours did!

    • Heyyyy fellow Catholic feminist! *fistbump* I think you are right that internal consistency is much more important than external perception when it comes to honouring your values. The OP says her wedding “fell short of the feminist ideal” because she wore white, but I think part of what third wave (and beyond) feminism has taught us is that there is no one way to perform feminism, and indeed a preoccupation with a “correct” model of feminism is in itself oppressive and tends to prioritise the values of white affluent western feminists. Since I am an academic by profession, I’m well aware that objects are imbued with cultural significance that goes beyond their individual existence, and so the white dress, for example, can be associated with conformity and subjugation. But at the same time, in and of itself, the white dress is simply a white dress: it is up to the individual woman how she performs the wearing of that dress. Because she will be seen in the context of her whole wedding, right? While objects and customs carry the baggage of their cultural history, let’s not forget that the way we use them now contributes to shaping how they are perceived today and tomorrow.

    • Christian feminists, unite! I’m of the Protestant variety. I also believe in evolution and am for LGBT rights, etc., which usually makes me the weirdest person in the room. But for me, it works. Feminism, IMHO, gives us the right to define ourselves. It should be inclusive, not exclusive. It’s good to question, and to throw out what doesn’t work. But not everything old is bad. We can take it on our own terms and create new traditions.

    • Also a Catholic feminist here. I was so nervous when I began planning my Catholic wedding about how to stick to my feminist principles. I have been surprised and delighted by how much of a standard Catholic wedding is gender neutral and egalitarian. For staters, there is no, “giving away” both parties must state their consent. The preferred option for the church (though sadly not my parents) is for the bride and groom to walk down the aisle together. All of the vows and ring blessings are the same for bride and groom, you can even substitute the word “spouse” if you choose. Finally, the bride and groom preform the sacrament themselves, and the priest acts as a witness.

      The whole time I have been planning I have had more affirming moments. The only trick has been to choose reading that do not talk about the bride serving her husband. I am also having a gay friend do one of our readings to be a bit subversive in regards to the church’s stance on homosexuality.

      As far as marriage and feminism, I think marriage is just a smart legal and financial decision for both parties. It makes so much sense if you plan to be partnered with someone in the long term. You need to have legal rights to inherit from them, make medical decisions for them, etc. This is also why it is so important to legalize gay marriage.

      I especially bristled when the OP referenced her professor’s comment about wives being glorified prostitutes. As the previous commenter stated, traditional feminism is often highly skewed toward white, middle class ideals. I have spent my career working with single mothers from the inner city and I see the difference that the stability of marriage makes within a family and a community.

  2. This is brilliant! Though I’m not a professional feminist, I play it in the minor leagues, and I’ve struggled with this same notion. Thanks so much for writing this. It was very reassuring and comforting to read.

  3. This is brilliant. Your wedding sounds like it was fun and beautiful and perfect for you. The bell hooks quote is spot on. I solved my own personal feminist dilemmas by eloping, which worked for me but isn’t for everybody.

  4. To me, I think “feminist wedding” is really any wedding with a feminist in it. It’s like how “Asian food” is pretty much food that I, as an Asian person, make, or “gay agenda” is “what someone who is gay happens to be doing today”. Yes, feminism is full of all sorts of academic theory and ideals, and I fully, fully believe in many of them. But at the same time, by being a feminist, living and breathing feminism (whatever that means to you), and also having a wedding or marriage… that’s enough.

    And sometimes that just means acknowledging the ways that you may have inadvertently incorporated problematic ideas or attitudes, because all of us who are products of an inherently problematic society will inadvertently bring some of that with us into everything we do. There is no “perfect” feminist.

  5. Of course you can! It is up to you and your partner to define your relationship and marriage… So that means it can be as feminist as you desire. And as good feminists, we have to support the choices of our fellow gals, so long as they are not harmful or hateful.

  6. i think we did a pretty good job: we walked toward each other (unescorted) from the side, had mixed bridal party (not his side and her side, though that’s still how most people perceived it), were pronounced husband and wife and were told “you may now share your first kiss as a married couple.” at the entrance to the reception we were announced as both our first and last names. We didn’t do this because “we’re feminist so we have to do things differently!” we just did things in a way that made sense to us

  7. I had what I thought was a close friend tell me I couldn’t call myself a feminist while getting married to my heterosexual partner or daydreaming about motherhood. Which made me sad. Feminism is about the right to choose how we live our lives on our own. If that’s the life that makes me happy, filling my heart and home with love, what’s so wrong about that?
    Every part of our wedding day is being evaluated; if it doesn’t mean anything to us, it’s not happening.

  8. Maybe I’m missing the point here, but I thought feminism was about the freedom to choose how we, as women, want to participate in and interact with our world? I notice a lot of discussions around feminism and weddings are these conflicting desires to have the traditional elements without the oppression that formed them.

    For example, there is a lot of contention around having the woman’s father “give her away” because it stems from a history of transferring ownership from one man to another. However, if I WANT to be walked down the aisle by my father, and we (my community) approaches it from a place of love and respect, then why does it have to be anti-feminist? If to me it represents honoring my father, and having a special moment with him (not unlike the moment you have with your mother when getting dressed), why do I have to feel guilty about this lack of “feminist support”? Isn’t reclaiming this tradition another way to be a feminist?

    • Some people feel like reclaiming stuff doesn’t really work. You see this discussion around reclaiming words were some people do think you can reclaim certain words and some people don’t think that’s possible and you just need to get rid of this and I think you would see a similar debate around reclaiming this one tradition, were you would have some people who agree with you that you can reclaim it and other people would argue that you can’t actually reclaim it (to be honest, I don’t know if it’s reclaiming because I don’t of anyone who doesn’t come to this tradition from a place of love and respect, maybe I’m being dense). At the end of the day, I don’t think you should worry to much about it, because it’s pretty much impossible to be a “perfect feminist” and while we probably think about this one thing a lot more because it’s a big moment in our lives, it’s probably one of the least harmful “problematic” things you could possibly do.

    • Here’s the thing – we feminists still live in a very patriarchal world. We are in it, we are part of it, we resist it, but we also perpetuate it in certain ways. I don’t think that everything a feminist does is a necessarily a feminist act, nor should it have to be. We all live complex lives in a complex world, whatever our philosophies. I personally don’t know how useful it is to reclaim patriarchal traditions in the name of feminism, but I also don’t think it is useful to feel guilty about our inherently paradoxical lives. Like the OP, I have no problem saying that weddings and marriage come out of ancient patriarchal practices, and that they continue to bolster modern-day patriarchy. That does not mean that they cannot have any positive meaning for me as a feminist, or even that I don’t want a wedding or marriage for myself one day. What is important is that we are having the conversations, confronting our own assumptions, and redefining old traditions, as well as imagining new ones.

    • Yes! I fully believe feminism should be about expressing ourselves as women however we want. A “right way” to be a feminist is completely contradictory to the ideal of liberation. Weddings and marriage don’t have to be about patriarchy and traditional power structures – they are, as the author realized, about celebrating love and community.

      As long as a choice is freely made and is not made because of pressure to conform to societal norms, I don’t think anyone can truly say there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to live your life or celebrate your wedding. I want my father to walk me down the aisle at my wedding because he is important to me and I want to honor that relationship. It has nothing to do with being “given away.” The most important part is that it is MY choice as a grown woman and that, to me, is more feminist than anything else.

  9. I was just filling out my OBB vendor listing and debating whether to confess I’m a bit of feminist wedding photographer! I refuse to airbrush my clients in what feels like an endless battle against this accepted norm for excessive photoshopping of women and the idea that we have no pores on our wedding days and that we’re supposed to look a certain way.

    In a more personal context, my bf rightly pointed out that the idea of an engagement ring is archaic, so if I wanted to enter into marriage equally why does he have to ask and give me jewellery to show I’m his? Similarly, I feel my dad is important to me but the idea of my dad giving me away like I’m a possession being passed from one man to another doesn’t sit that great with me. I’m undecided as to how I’ll approach these issues when the time comes but I’m glad that you’re bringing it up and it’s being discussed (can always count on OBB to discuss weddings with intellect!)

  10. THIS THIS THIS! I love it! This is what I’m hoping to achieve with our wedding (whenever it happens!). Thank you for this beautiful perspective!

  11. “Bridesbabes.” Good one! The bridesmaids part is the one I’m struggling with the most, actually. All the traditional parts that we have decided to keep so far don’t bother me and we have changed everything that I think is creepy and patriarchal. Except the bridesmaids. To me, that may be one of the creepiest parts. I have images of virginal maidens prancing down the aisle as a symbolic offering to man. And yet, I have five grown ass women that I’m sticking in dresses to stand next to me that day. And they want to be there. At least two of them would be absolutely crushed if I nixed the bridesmaids and FH really wants his groomsmen too. So this is just something I’ve opted to get over. I’ll work on accepting it and in the meantime, do nothing degrading to my not-virginal maidens.

    • First time posting a response, yay!

      Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of the Bridal Bodyguard which I think was invented in a previous post. The way I see it, these are simply your closest friends whom you want to honor, but they also have an important job to perform at the wedding – guarding you before and after the ceremony (dealing with things you don’t have time for, talking to people while you’re busy, and distracting people you maybe don’t want to talk to or want to avoid if you’re in that situation where you had to invite someone to appease family whom you don’t personally care for). An important thing to remember is that your Bridal Bodyguard does not have to be exclusively female, if you have close male friends you want to honor put them in your color and include them in your Bodyguard. Plus the groom could call his groomsmen The Groomsguard (also no reason to exclude close female friends of his from his entourage) and how cool is that?

  12. I ran a marathon the day before I tried on dresses so I had all sorts of red chaffing under my arm pits, and the women was so professional she didn’t even seem to notice (but I’m sure she did!) so don’t be nervous undressing in front of some stranger!

  13. As feminists, we need to stop apologizing for wanting what we want. Even the OP’s email excerpt feels to me like it’s laden with disclaimers and apologies for her desire to be in a “traditional” marriage. Editing out the disclaimers/qualifications:

    “So yes, marriage. Marriage is fully problematic in all kinds of ways — and yes I totally agree with you — I would never vote against same-sex marriage, despite the fact that many queer activists press us rightly to think beyond marriage. But then there is my personal life which is totally affected by culture and norms. And I am very committed to this partnership with Adam, and there is something about the commitment that is secure and special.

    I can say this: many of my professors who have challenged me the most to question monogamy, heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood are themselves married, monogamous, and often mothers. There is something comforting about participating in cultural norms/traditions, and it seems to me that we are often more willing to respect culture when it is not our own. Again, something is falling short in the theory — it is not really speaking to our most intimate personal experiences or it is somehow undermining our feelings. The human element has fallen out.”

    No “I guesses”. No “perhaps”. No “Does that make sense?” No “I think it is difficult to describe”. No “What to say?” You KNOW what to say! Own your words! Own your thoughts! Own your decisions! Men do not feel the need to litter their opinions with this language that says “This is what I think but your mileage may vary take this with a grain of salt this is just my little ol’ opinion.” You know what you want, and what you want is OKAY. It’s better than okay. It’s wonderful.

    Should we examine what we want to make sure that it is healthy and ethical? Of course! But you’ve done that. It’s okay to take ownership of what you want once you’ve made that examination. There will be academic debates, yup. But your personal life is frankly not up for debate. And the more we, as women, take ownership of our decisions without apologizing or explaining, the more feminist this whole marriage she-bang will become.

    So yay! Yay you and your happy place and your thoughtful ownership of marriage! Fuck the haters…even the radical feminist haters (who are problematic in their own right *ahem, transsexual issues, ahem women-of-color issues*).

  14. One thing I had to have in our wedding reception was the giving away of the bouquet – not to the next woman to get married, but to the woman present who had worked the longest amount of time (homemakers and stay-at-home moms most definitely included). The woman who won had logged 60 years of career time. My theory is that if you have worked more than any other woman present, then you deserve to have some flowers.

    Meanwhile, my husband insisted he wanted “obey” in the vows, but he wanted to be the one to promise to obey ME. (I vetoed that pretty hard!)

  15. IMO, the feminist thing is for straight (or male-partnered) feminists to stop writing billions of articles about how marrying a man in a traditional institution not everyone has access to is “feminist.” Seriously, there’s an article about this like at least once a month on some wedding website. Not everything you do is feminist; that’s okay, just quit writing endlessly trying to make it so.

  16. I guess what I’m missing here is the why. As best as I can tell, the OP wants a feminist wedding because it’s what she does. It’s what she’s studied, and feminism is a huge part of her self-identification. So, okay, you want a feminist wedding in the same way that book nerds want a bibliophile wedding. So is this post the equivalent of, “Is it possible to have a bibliophile wedding?” Because the answer is always a resounding YES, just look at the archives.

  17. I think it’s interesting how those of us who veer towards the socially liberal abhor “fundamentalism,” but then approach our own philosophies with what I hate to say is an almost fundamentalist attitude. I’m guilty of doing this on occasion, as I think most non-traditional folks do from time to time. We should strive to hold ourselves accountable to the same principles we expect from others, in terms of practicing our own philosophies with an open mind for interpretation and individual circumstance. It’s self defeating to view something like academic feminist philosophy in the same terms that a fundamentalist religious person views the old testament, with this attitude that IF IT WAS WRITTEN BY OUR ELDERS IT IS A FACT THAT CANNOT BE VEERED FROM OR INTERPRETED IN ANY OTHER WAY THAN THE WAY IT IS LITERALLY WRITTEN ON THE PAGE! ALL ELSE IS BLASPHEMY! Not that I’m accusing the OP or anyone in the thread of doing this – quite the opposite, actually. I think this is an internal conflict that many of us experience, which makes it all the more important to open up the dialogue about it, as has been done with this post and thread. The more we open up about our views and learn from the views and experiences of others, the more we will grow.

  18. I’ve kind of found myself in a weird place where I’m half of a same-sex couple, yet I’m finding certain gender-oppressive traditions are creeping into the ceremony. One of my favorite parts of our relationship is the incredible equality and cooperation. But since she is literally wearing the pants in our ceremony, there is a tendency to assume she is wearing the figurative pants as well. Fuck it, maybe I’ll wear pants too!

    Anyway I’m struggling with how to honor her love for traditional rituals, and also honor my own resistance to the anti-feminist principles they represent.

    At the end of the day, it’s about being thoughtful, true to who we are as a couple, and also honoring our love for one another.

  19. Both I and my partner are feminists but surprisingly it was him who had the biggest problem with marriage. There are many reasons he disliked the idea of participating in the tradition of marriage; the religious history, the long-standing discrimination against same-sex couples, the fact that women are ‘given away’ change their name and all the patriarchal bullshit surrounding that, not to mention the expectation of what a wedding should cost these days. But we did want to legally be joined and be recognised as committed legal partners.

    So our wedding has lost almost all traditional factors, but we are also going to provide a little programme which will feature a section along the lines of ‘why is this wedding a bit odd…’ With a small block of text explaining why we don’t agree with so much about marriage but we do believe that anyone can craft a union to suit them. Hence why he is changing to my name, we’re walking down the aisle together, we’re getting married in a registry office, having a reception in a pub and spending just over £1000 on the whole thing.

    It can be tough navigating between what you want and other people’s expectations but lets all have the wedding we want (and if that means no wedding then good for those people too!)

  20. I know this post is a couple months old, but I just stumbled across it now. I’ve been struggling with many of these ideas myself (Is it anti-feminist to let my dad walk me down the aisle just to spare his feelings, as I’m the only chance he’ll have to do so?) As an Ohio native in DC who dreams of moving to Colorado, I feel like this was written by a long-lost soul mate!

  21. I thought this was a very interesting post! One thing that bothered me just a little bit though, is that part of feminism (or at least the brand I understand) is about owning your choices! I believe that you have a feminist wedding by making it your own and being happy with it. If that’s what you want, then roll with it! I personally think it’s a little dated to say that it isn’t feminist to get married (perhaps I’m misunderstanding the post, but that is how I read it). If you want to get married, get married! That’s your choice, and it is absolutely wonderful to be able to make the decision with a loving partner! 🙂

  22. I’m a bit late to the conversation, but I loved this piece. I also wrote (2) articles regarding this same topic (in-depth) on my blog (link below if interested)…really agree with you on so many aspects.

  23. I like to think our wedding was pretty damn feminist and focused on the equality of our relationship, even with using a slim few patriarchal traditions. We also had a secular humanist ceremony which I think makes a huge difference, because most of the religious ceremonies are by default not terribly feminist (obviously some pastors will tailor them to be more inclusive and feminist for you).

    I felt so strongly about this that I actually started my own event planning company to help others create weddings that reflect their secular/feminist/humanist values! One thing I do with all of my clients at our first meeting is discuss traditions and WHY they want to include them in the wedding and what they mean to them. I feel if you cannot articulate why you would choose to include something, it should be considered for the chopping block!

  24. One of the things that I love about being a feminist is that it has opened up the window of opportunity for more CHOICE. I personally feel that understanding the history around wedding traditions and picking and choosing what you want to do with your partner is what will make a wedding feminist. Great article.

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