Is Marriage a Public Symbol of Love or a Symbol of Ownership?

To non-religious, modern people, it is probably a party to celebrate the legal union of 2 people. It is the telling your partner that you intend to spend the rest of your shared life together. It is a public promise of your commitment. To us, modern people, it is about love.

​The passing of a woman from one man to another is part of the ceremony many couples still choose to follow. The woman’s face is covered by a veil. She is walked by her father (or male relative) and ‘given away’ to her future husband. Of course, nowadays this is ceremonial only and not seen as having any in-depth meaning as it did before. However, a tradition or not, we cannot forget the history upon which the practices are based. I say this because the historical tradition is, whether we want to admit it or not, misogynistic. It was a ceremony to literally pass the ownership of woman from one man to another man, to venerate her as property. Before 1870, once a woman became married, any money a women had automatically became the property of her husband.

Focusing again on the present state of marriage, many couples in the UK still choose the traditional vow where the woman promises to ‘Honour and Obey’, whilst the man promises to ‘Love and Cherish’. To show the woman has changed hands, her family name is changed. She no longer is bound to honour and obey her father (or brother), and she now must honour and obey her husband. Similarly, these vows are often said for the sake of tradition as opposed to inveterate promises that couples take real meaning from.

This idea that a bride is property that is now owned by the groom was expressed in the law. It was only in 1991 that rape within marriage was criminalised. When I was a child, men in the UK had legal ownership of their wives’ bodies. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Sexual Offences Act clarified the law, giving consent a legal definition. Most cultures still see marriage as ownership. In Sharia Law (Islamic), there is no such thing as rape within marriage. In Jewish law, women cannot initiate a divorce. Instead, she is bound to him, until he agrees.

So given all this, is marriage something we want at all? We women have no desire to be owned, and we women should have qualms about entering into a ceremony that stands upon a history in which women were deemed objects worthy of possession. All self respecting men want a partner, not a slave or a subservient object. The generation before mine began to reject this notion of marriage. Many chose not to marry. They wanted to maintain a relationship in which they feel equal as partners.

What about my generation? We are still fighting for equality. We women are not always equal in public spaces. Our bodies are still seen as objects. We are still taught, particularly by religious sorts, that our sexualised bodies must be both hidden and beautiful to be of worth. Our lesser status makes some men feel justified in ogling, to demand our attention, and it gives them the sense that they have a ‘right’ to hound us – indeed, they are told that this is the ‘male’ thing to do. Many women do not feel equal in the workplace and our average pay reflects this. We cannot control public spaces. We cannot always find a workplace where we are equal.

We feminists are often lucky enough to find enlightened feminist partners. But should we marry them? For same sex couples, there is the option of having a civil-partnership, which doesn’t have the misogynist history and is focused on love and partnership. This isn’t yet an option for heterosexual couples in the UK. Humanists weddings give a lot of freedom to create a meaningful ceremony, whilst skipping the offensive traditions. In England and Wales, they are not yet recognised by the law and a trip to a registry office is required. If we do decide on marriage, how should we do it? Can we propose? How would that work? What would an equal wedding ceremony look like? Is there an equal and fair way to decide the family name?

I have been discussing these issues with my boyfriend. He is open minded, but has traditional beliefs. His family is much more traditional than mine and he is less concerned with fighting for progress and societal improvements. Feminism and equality were values I grew up with. My parents have both lived on 3 continents. They are not bound by one particular tradition. My father is a thinker and my mother an academic. They have progressive friends.

Honestly, there are many reasons for a woman to choose to take her partner’s name. To me, a woman taking a man’s family name seems alien. It is the mark of conventional women. The stay at home mothers. The religious. The submissives. The followers. Not the strong woman I aspire to be. My mother kept her own name.  She is a professional woman in her own right. She has an identity beyond my father’s. ‘Wife’ and ‘mother’ are titles she is proud of, but so is ‘Professor’. Other strong professional women I respect have kept their name.

If I had my own way, I would propose to my boyfriend. The wedding would be a mass union of our families and friends. I would have men at my hen-do. I would wear a purple dress with large pockets. We would officiate it ourselves and play air guitar. The vows would be meaningful and include in-jokes that others can only guess at. As for the family name, I just don’t know.
To my boyfriend, the family name symbolises the family unit. It is the name of his father. He has always assumed it would be shared with his future wife and children. I don’t want to spoil his dream. It would be nice for our children to share the name of a grandparent, but which one? Why specifically his father?

My name is my identity. Every time I consider taking his name, I feel short changed. I feel robbed. Everyone who has ever known me has known this name. I don’t want to lose my history, connections or reputation just to comply. Why in British culture is this still expected of women and not men?

A relationship is a compromise. I have fallen in love with a traditional man, he doesn’t want any of the above. He has his friends, family and wider circle to think of. To them it is just weird. My whole life I have fashioned myself as an outspoken oddball. People around me love me despite it. Can he cope with that? Do I want to put the man I love through that?  Maybe I would rather keep his hugs than keep my name. Yes, people might tease him saying that his wife doesn’t love him enough to change her name, but it would die down. We are hardly the first pioneers to covet a truly equal union.

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