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When a Feminist Gets Married…

When a Feminist Gets Married…

When I heard that Jessica Valenti’s wedding announcement was gracing the ”Vows” page of the New York Times Style section yesterday, I knew that trouble was brewing.  A glance at the first paragraph only confirmed my worst fears.  The NYT had taken one of my feminist idols and turned her wedding to Talking Points Memo blogger Andrew Golis into an abruptly romantic fairy tale.  You know the one I’m talking about: outspoken feminist finds her perfect mate and calms down, embracing the marriage she secretly wanted all along.  It was almost Shakespearean; the subduing of a shrewish feminist always ends with a wedding.

But the NYT‘s article was jarring not just because Valenti is a well-known feminist.  The author of Full-Frontal Feminism and, most recently, The Purity Myth, as well as the founder and a co-editor of the website Feministing, Valenti was well aware of the contraditions inherent in her wedding plans from when she broke the news last March. 

In an article for the Guardian last April, she reiterated all of the issues that she first articulated in Full-Frontal Feminism (which includes a chapter called “My Big Fat Unnecessary Wedding and Other Dating Diseases”), admitting candidly, “As a kid, I wasn’t sure that I would ever get married.”  And then Valenti met Golis, and they fell in love, and because he was a feminist dedicated to the principles of equal marriage, they decided to take the plunge, with a few caveats.  Valenti nixed the white dress, and they agreed that both parents would walk them down the aisle. 

It seemed that if anyone was capable of having a “feminist wedding,” it was Valenti, who is much beloved among feminists my age for her frankness about the difficulty of being a “perfect” feminist.  Which is perhaps why I was shocked, and disappointed, by the coverage of her wedding.  The NYT quoted her as saying that her views had “softened”, and the author of the article observed that more “salient” than the color of the bride’s dress was the fact that the band played “All You Need Is Love.”  She then added that Valenti wore gray.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor at Princeton, has an amazing article up at the Nation‘s blog, where she talks about Valenti’s wedding in the context of last weekend’s National March for Equality.  “For Valenti and for the National Equality March participants,” Harris-Lacewell writes, “as for many in America, marriage is the terrain where the personal is indeed political.”  She then delves into a fascinating exploration of race, sexuality and the contradictions of marriage in a time when its complexity has been submerged under an intense focus on marriage equality.  She writes, “Even as progressives fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples, we need also to reflect on marriage as a social and political institution in itself.”

As a twenty-year-old college student, my views on marriage are still evolving.  I sympathize with and admire Valenti for her choice to marry Golis, and for responding honestly and eloquently to the criticism that she faced.  And I do think it’s possible to have a feminist wedding, whatever that means.  For example, I know that I will never change my last name or or have my father walk me down an aisle, or wear an engagement ring (unless my partner chooses to do so also), but I’m not sure if even these changes would be enough for me. 

After watching my parents go through years of uneasy marriage followed by a painful divorce, and talking to gay friends whose Massachusetts marriage means nothing in Virginia, I can’t help but feel that marriage is more complicated than the symbols in a wedding ceremony, and that its implications can’t be neutralized if I’m simply not wearing a white dress.  That’s why I’ve always been fundamentally uncomfortable with marriage equality as a rallying point for the gay rights movement, because marriage is something that even I’m not sure I want.  It’s full of a cultural history of exclusion and oppression, and I agree wholeheartedly with Harris-Lacewell when she asks us to “re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.”  But I also understand Valenti’s desire to marry the person she loves – and when my parents remarried (new spouses, not each other), their weddings were two of the happiest days of my life.

I have plenty of time to figure out where I stand on the marriage question, and I’m glad that Valenti and Golis had a beautiful day, even if the NYT did oversimplify the enormity of what they’re doing.  Their wedding started a discussion that I want to continue having as I move into the period of my life when marriage becomes a relevant topic, and I’m grateful to them for so boldly and candidly sharing their experiences.  What do you think about Valenti and Golis’ wedding, the NYT‘s coverage, and Harris-Lacewell’s response?  And what does a “feminist wedding” mean to you?

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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21 comments

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1:37AM PDT on Apr 30, 2013

Good article

12:21PM PST on Feb 23, 2013

Thanks.

11:50AM PST on Feb 20, 2013

One of my most special memories is having my dad walk me down the aisle, as I suspect it is for many women. It had nothing to do with being or not being a feminist, or anybody "giving me away", it was just a special moment in both of our lives that I wouldn't trade for anything, especially now that he has passed away. I;d suggest before excluding a dad from, the walk down the aisle with his daughter, that you might think twice about what it would mean to him to do that, not just for you. I think a couple can have a beautiful wedding, with whatever makes sense to them, without sacrificing equality. My husband and I have been married 29 years and have raised two boys, have equally shared chores and child raising and had equivalent careers. None of that was influenced in any way by having had what some would say was a traditional wedding (although I made sure there was no mention of the word "obey").

3:46PM PDT on Oct 29, 2009

Being a feminist just means wanting equal rights, plain and simple.
I am a feminist, my husband is a feminist. We have a feminist marriage. For our wedding, there were no isles to be walked down, no being given away, no songs playing, no fancy clothes, or tossing flowers or fetching one of those silly leg belt things. We were married by a friend who was legally "ordained for the day" in a gathered circle of immediate family and a few friends at a park, all wearing plain everyday clothes. I never changed my last name, we have matching rings, and I don't go by "Mrs." as it clearly implies the woman belongs to the man (Mr.'s= Mrs.).

Congratulations to Jessica Valenti and Andrew Golis: a long, healthy, and happy life to you both.

2:08PM PDT on Oct 24, 2009

It is truly amazing, how many people do not know the true definition of FEMINISM. For those not familiar, it is: The movement to win political, economic, and social equality for women.

Knowing this, how can anyone, male or female, not profess to share this belief, of equality?

8:34AM PDT on Oct 22, 2009

I'm happily married and a feminist. We did it for the legal protections it offers if anything happened to one of us. However personally I think marriage it self should not be what people do to have a life together. Domestic partnership licenses should be all that government is involved in and the tradition of marriage needs to stay with the religion that promotes it as a personal option and nothing more. All the protections of legal marriage should be included in a domestic partnership certificate.

As for what a feminist is[person posting below] , it is a person who believes in the idea that women are equal to men in status and rights.

6:38AM PDT on Oct 21, 2009

not sure what the issue _really_ is. the nyt article was certainly syrupy, however, jessica valenti has been very open about the relationship and marriage.

i also don't understand why marriage is anathema to "feminists". the wedding ceremony and marriage itself isn't _by definition_ required to sexist. one of the great contributions of feminism has been the questioning of socially required gender roles. today, families are configured and managed in multiple ways including a partnership of EQUALS. the right to choose one's destiny extends beyond which grad school, profession ... a woman chooses to pursue (outside the house). it also needs to extend to those who choose a home-centred life style (e.g. to raise children) and getting married (as opposed to a common-law relationship). the operative word is FREE CHOICE/DECISION. as long as it's the woman's decision, it needs to be respected.

4:37PM PDT on Oct 20, 2009

ok,so just being an ole grey fat guy,from the 60's can someone splain to me , what is a feminist?i'm not sure i have the true meaning down pat yet.i saw two daughters raised to believe totally in themselves!that no one was superior to them,in any way manner , shape or fourm . but when i ask one one day if she was a feminism she smiled at me ,patted my cheek,and said to me , "you can be such a silly daddy ,sometimes."so i'm still somewhat in the dark as to what a feminist be !!

1:29PM PDT on Oct 20, 2009

I think that what famous people do has little bearing on the rest of us.

11:12AM PDT on Oct 20, 2009

I think some people have the women's movement (suffrage) confused with feminism of the 1960's. They have similarities, but huge differences as well.

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