I recently got engaged. As you can see in the picture below, I was pretty psyched. It was one of the most memorable and fun moments of my life, and I look forward to remembering it for years to come.
For many people close to me, however, the news came as a bit of a surprise. For as long as many of them had known me, I had been ambivalent about marriage. I consider myself a feminist and, as such, was fairly convinced that marriage was incompatible with that identity. I was too independent and too ambitious to fall into the trap of such an oppressive institution.
So, what gives? Did I just get older? Did the social pressures become too much? Was I wooed by the tax breaks? Maybe. But the real revelation had much more to do with my relationship to feminism than to any of the above.
Raised by three very strong women, feminism has always played an important role in my life. Normally somewhat reserved, I felt empowered by feminism and extremely hesitant toward anything or anyone that might threaten the sense of self provided by this feminist identity. In recent years, however, my own research interests led me to delve deeper into feminist arguments and debates, and through this process, my understanding of feminism evolved.
Feminism began to unveil itself not as a one-dimensional identity but as a multifaceted project, and the need to challenge and redefine singular understandings of the word became increasingly clear. I was oddly inspired by feminism’s constant demand for self-improvement through biting critiques, such as this one offered by bell hooks:
“After assuming a ‘feminist’ identity, women often seek to live the ‘feminist’ lifestyle. These women do not see that it undermines feminist movement to project the assumption that ‘feminist’ is but another pre-packaged role women can now select as they search for identity”[i]
I began to consider the different forms that feminist actions could take, and I reexamined the relationship between feminism and marriage. Looking around, I started to notice how women (and men) were able to creatively resist or change the institution of marriage without simply abstaining from it. I spoke with friends who adopted new name-changing conventions, who replaced ring exchanges with other practices and whose vows explicitly included commitments to gender equality. I watched my two aunts plan their wedding with great excitement after 25+ years of living together. I celebrated with friends and colleagues as the legal definitions of marriage were successfully (albeit not completely) challenged through the Supreme Court.
With this new perspective, I once again felt empowered by feminism but in a new way, a way that resonated more strongly within my everyday life. I began to get excited about the possibility of creating a marriage that was our own. By actively engaging with the institution—deciding we would both be responsible for proposing to one another, discussing whether and how we would change our names, etc—marriage transformed into a more fluid and ongoing process, and it became something I deeply wanted to share with my partner. This doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to battle inequalities within our relationship nor does it represent a radical shift in marriage, but our subversive playfulness does take us one step closer. And that’s something to celebrate!
[i] Page 29 in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center