Feminism and Marriage

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Jessica Valenti writes about her wedding plans in this article in the guardian.co.uk.

Kate Harding’s article in Salon’s Broadsheet gives us the low-down on her wedding.

Both women are feminists and are struggling with what that means when it comes to getting married.

I’ve always liked to think that my weddings were counter-revolutionary in some respects, if not blatantly feminist. For one thing, none of my four weddings cost very much. The most expensive was the first. That was the one where we had two ceremonies: one in Shelby, Ohio at the church my grandfather had pastored for 35 years, and the other was basically a hippie wedding in a field near my home (it was 1972).

My first husband and I had our honeymoon before the wedding and we were in Barcelona when we decided to get married when we returned to the States. No formal proposal. I think now that we were heavily influenced by the romanticism of traveling abroad and of being together 24/7. We had talked about living together but cohabitation wasn’t nearly as common then as it is now, and we didn’t have enough courage to buck the system and do it.  Although, after taking our honeymoon pre-wedding, we could probably have gotten away with it.

These days we would probably have lived together first. If we had, I doubt we would have lasted the ten years that our marriage lasted and probably wouldn’t have had our four children. Because it didn’t take us long to find out that we didn’t really like being married. Whether that was being married period or being married to each other, I can’t honestly say.

I’ve often asked myself how I would have handled things differently if I’d been a strong feminist in those days. I might have insisted that we live together first. I might have kept my name. But I don’t think we would have gotten married differently.

My second marriage was a disaster (not that the first was a picnic, but I did have four wonderful children during it). It was on the rebound (a mere six months after my first divorce) and was to a former high school boyfriend whom I’d already broken up with once. (You’d think that would have made me stop and think, wouldn’t you?) Here is where it would have been very handy to have been a feminist. Basically, I was afraid of raising my children alone and thought I needed a substitute father for my children, as well as an additional income.

I've often asked myself how I would have handled things differently if I'd been a strong feminist.

Of course I was living with my parents at the time and didn’t even have a job. But I was going to nursing school in preparation for supporting myself and my kids. However, I got impatient (and tired) and quit school to get married. I was happy to be able to stay home with my kids again, but when we decided that we wanted to buy a house, I decided to go to wprk temporarily.

When our marriage broke up three years later, I was still working at the post office and couldn’t afford to quit. But at least I was able to support my family (with some child support from my children’s father). This is where my somewhat dormant feminism came to life again. Working full-time when you’re a mother can have that effect.

I soon got tired of being penalized if I had a family emergency. I was perpetually exhausted (I worked the graveyard shift for five years) and had no help at home (except for my girls who were between the ages of eight and fourteen at the time). I had to fight my first ex over child support issues, had to hire someone to stay with my children during the night, and was chronically broke.

In other words, I was living in the real world. And that world soon became more than I thought I could bear alone. This time I was a single parent for four years. I was a stronger person than before my divorces and more of a feminist, but I still wasn’t living by feminist principles. When I met a man at work, I soon began to lean on him. I was in love with him, but I also liked the idea that he could be there for me as I struggled to deal with motherhood and working.

The wedding we had was as stripped down as it could be without going to City Hall. It was just him and me and the minister and his wife. We didn’t even invite our children or parents because of personal conflicts among them. I actually loved getting married that way and didn’t miss all the trappings of a traditional marriage. But then I’d been married before. And yet, having done it before also showed me what was important and what wasn’t.

This marriage lasted for ten years. I continued to work at the post office and for the most part we were happy, but there were some issues that we couldn’t resolve and I eventually left the marriage. I decided to go it alone again, but this time it was going to be purely for me because my children were all raised by then. I got myself an apartment and cherished my solitude.

I had become what I call a situational feminist. I wasn’t an activist by any means. I didn’t go around calling myself a feminist (although if I’d been asked I would have described myself as one). But I began living a life that resembled a life I would have lived if I’d been living by feminist principles. I wasn’t afraid to live alone. I had enough money to support myself. I made my own decisions and didn’t have a man I had to take care of. It wasn’t always easy, but I loved it. I could have cared less if I stayed single for the rest of my life. Men were just too much trouble.

And then of course I met someone. But this time it was very different. For one thing, I met him on the Internet and we didn’t meet in person until thousands of emails and phone calls and over a year later. He was 30 at the time and I was 44. He’d never been married and I certainly had been. He had never had children and was only eight years older than my oldest daughter. And he was German (who fortunately spoke excellent English).

We were married five years after we first “met.” This time we did invite the kids but as my parents were deceased and his were in Germany, we decided to get married very simply in a  little wedding chapel (but not in Las Vegas–what is it about getting married in Vegas??). We’ve been married for eight years now and things couldn’t be better.

That might have something to do with the fact that my husband is an ardent feminist. He thinks nothing of doing the laundry, the grocery shopping and the cooking. I clean the bathroom and the kitchen occasionally and we take turns doing the rest. We didn’t have to negotiate this; it just happened naturally.

So I can’t take a lot of credit for this egalitarian marriage. I didn’t have to insist on my feminist principles to get him to share the chores. I don’t have to take care of him. We take care of each other. When I started this blog he was my biggest supporter. He makes sure I have plenty of time for this and my other writing; he insists that writing is my “job.” We each contribute about the same amount of money to the budget. I bought our home before we got married and I handle all the finances. He even encouraged me to go back to school at the age of 51 and finally get my bachelor’s degree. I took his last name officially but use my maiden name as a middle name.

The point of all this is that I became a feminist through my life experiences. I didn’t put on feminism like a coat. I didn’t raise my daughters to be feminists. I didn’t insist that my husbands live by my feminist ideals. But what I did do is try to listen to my heart and make my own decisions. I learned through trial and error that I’m a strong person. And I finally found someone who doesn’t pigeonhole me in the feminine paradigm to spend my life with.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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