Why two independent, liberal feminists chose the flawed institution of marriage

Guest post by Mary Cate Stevenson
Why Marriage-shy independents became feminists getting married
Image from “Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses” (1892) via The British Library

I never wanted to get married.

Growing up, I identified with intrepid Jo March, whimsical Anne Shirley, and adventurous Laura Ingalls. I liked how independent they were, how imaginative, how grandly themselves. When each of my heroines tied the knot, I felt inexplicably disappointed.

I never fantasized about weddings, and I knew that I didn't want to be a mother. Instead, I fantasized about a house in the shape of a turret, and I wanted a yard full of dogs. I got lost in dreams of owning a writing desk in front of a window and long, solitary walks through the woods. And yet, by the time I was 23, I was a veteran of two long-term relationships, both of which involved proposals.

Navigating those relationships was difficult. I was raised Catholic by religious, conservative parents, and I attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. There, I was taught the sinfulness of sex, the virtue of submission and abnegation of the self, and the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage. Ever concerned with being a good student, I did my best to learn my lessons when I was young. But when I found myself in a relationship, faced with decisions and expectations and pressures, I felt very alone, and horribly confused by the dissonance between what I'd been taught and what I felt. And each time I was presented with a diamond — once as a teenager and again in my early twenties — I didn't feel joy or excitement. I felt pressure, expectation, and hopelessness.

Fast-forward to today, and you may be surprised to read that I'm getting married on October 29th. I have a vintage gold band that I happily wear, and a midnight blue dress hanging in the closet of my childhood room. Most importantly, I have a fellow called Noah, and our conversation about marriage is one of the happiest memories I have on file.

Why Marriage-shy independents became feminists getting married
Jane Eyre quote mug

So, what inspired marriage-shy independents to become feminists getting married?

We didn't come to the decision immediately. Initially, the urge to marry Noah was just a feeling, unanalyzed but strong. Since I didn't quite understand it, I kept the feeling to myself for a few days. But the leggy truth needed to stand, and stand it did one dusky October evening in New York City. We'd spent the day exploring, ducking into museums and getting lost in Central Park. Suddenly starving, we found ourselves at zanily-named Waldy's, a wood-fired pizza restaurant near the Flatiron District.

Halfway through the meal, thoughts of marriage were flooding my brain. Noah and I spoke so easily about everything; why not bring this up?
And so I did.
And he said the exact same thing had been on his mind.
And with glassy eyes, we decided that we wanted to get married.

Marriage is an incredibly flawed social system. Is this an institution of which we want to be a part?

Though I felt incredibly happy, I also experienced a great sense of dissonance. We were a pair of liberal feminists discussing entry into a very historically conservative institution. Quandary. I immediately launched into an inquiry: Why did we want to get married? We love each other, yes, but what's the logical impetus? Marriage is an incredibly flawed social system, with a history littered with racism and the denial of women's rights. It was only recently legalized for all couples, for goodness' sake. Is this an institution of which we want to be a part?

We chatted about the issue for the rest of the evening, and we spoke some more at the airport the next day. We landed thusly: Marriage's past is smattered with values we reject. But marriage also has a future, with opportunity for change. We don't need to support its past, nor will our relationship be defined by it. We'll make the pact our own, and in doing so, make a mark on marriage's present and future. Our reasoning made sense to me, and I was happy.

Marriage's past is smattered with values we reject. But marriage also has a future, with opportunity for change.

But as the date approached, I experienced the pressures and price tags of the wedding industry. I began to feel that dissonance again. I still felt sure about Noah, but I was back to questioning marriage and weddings. Serendipitously, Noah and I heard Rebecca Traister speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September, and we picked up her book, All the Single Ladies.

The book is an incredible feminist work on the powerful narrative of independent women, some of the greatest effectors of change in history. Ms. Traister paints a portrait of the progressive paths single women in America forged and highlights the systemic flaws that have kept and continue to keep both married and single women firmly shackled. A married woman herself, Traister isn't speaking against marriage — she's sharing and celebrating the legacy of single women.

A book about single women helped to reestablish my desire to get married.

A book about single women helped to reestablish my desire to get married. It educated me on marriage's flawed past, and shone a light on the ways in which the institution of marriage (and singlehood) can be changed, revitalized, and made more equal. I don't want to be bound by marriage's historic expectations. I don't want my perceived value to suddenly increase now that I've found a man. I'm mad about the wage gap, the lack of paid parental leave, the difficulty of procuring contraception and safe, affordable abortions. All the Single Ladies gave me clarity, and by understanding how I'd like to change marriage, I feel confident in and capable of entering it.

When Ms. Traister signed our copy of her book, she wrote: “For Mary Cate and Noah, Here's to happy, equal, joyful unions between independent people.” What a perfect definition of marriage.

Here's to partners who enhance our lives. Here's to equality, to respect and support. Here's to relationships. Here's to love.

In one month, Noah and I will be joining hands and signing signatures, ending the day in a legal partnership. I can't wait to marry Noah, to define marriage our way, to actively support change and equality. And to eat a lot of homemade ice cream.

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Comments on Why two independent, liberal feminists chose the flawed institution of marriage

    • I’m so glad you can relate! It’s wonderful knowing there are people out there encountering the same thoughts. Thank you for reading. :]

  1. Reading this, I kept thinking about how clear it was that you found someone who shares your values and your interests. He read All The Single Ladies with you? You two seem like a pretty decent match. 😉 Here’s to happy, equal, joyful unions between independent people indeed. 🙂

  2. I did a similar ceremony a few years ago…I pronounced the couple each other’s #1s fans & they put on foam fingers saying #1 FAN instead of rings!!! They exited to the Rocky theme & entered to Europe’s “Final Countdown.”

    • I am SO late to seeing this, but it’s the best! Thanks so much for sharing.

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