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Can you be a feminist and have a wedding?
Dear Feminist Future Bride,
You’re not alone in your thoughts—I’ve asked myself this very question before. Whenever I’m trying to establish my own stance, I typically find it helpful to take two steps:
Understand the full history of the thing
Ask people who have actually done the thing. In this case, it’s women who have had weddings!
Let’s dive into step number one. First of all, there are so many components that make up a marriage. Today, I’m going to focus on the very beginning—a wedding! There are of course so many types of wedding traditions across countries, cultures, and religions. I’m going to mainly focus on the “white weddings” we know today and how we arrived at today’s extravagant version of this celebration and its problematic patriarchal history.
The tradition of marriage ceremonies that unite one woman and one man dates from about 2350 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into a widespread institution embraced by the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. But back then, marriage had little to do with love or with religion. Marriage's primary purpose was to bind women to men, and thus guarantee that a man's children were truly his biological heirs. It did not always involve a wedding ceremony—it was mainly an informal agreement. Around medieval times is when these contracts became more formalized, sparking a rise in marriage “laws” (in 1076, The Council of Westminster made it a law that marriage must be blessed by a priest, for example). These laws meant that women were no longer allowed to be bartered, sold, or exchanged for goods of any kind. The weddings we know today started to take shape in the Victorian era (1800s), this is when the white dress entered the chat and while there were still arranged marriages, marrying for love was becoming more frequent.
I’ll narrow in on a piece of history that I found particularly interesting here. For most of history, Western brides did not wear white. In ancient Rome, where marriages were celebrated with parties and banquets—an important social event, if not a sacrament—brides wore long veils of deep yellow over a complicated six-part braided hairstyle. The yellow veil was described as being “the color of flame,” and thus the brides themselves were like torches, bringing light and warmth to their new husbands’ homes. The popularity of the white wedding dress in Europe (and then later, in the U.S.) is actually due to an unsung fashion influencer—Queen Victoria. It’s widely cited that she started the trend when she married Prince Albert in 1840. Before Queen V, women used to wear their nicest dress to get married, and if they could afford a new dress it was expected that they would wear it multiple times (Queen Victoria did!). At the time, white dresses didn’t symbolize virginity or even purity, but were simply more expensive than other colours (and harder to keep clean). White communicated the status and wealth of the bride’s family.
Feminist Future Bride, you may be wondering, where did the white dress as a symbol of purity come from then? It was in part, thanks to a bit of revisionist history, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which announced that “custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue [for brides], whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.” Victorian ideals of weddings, romantic love, and purity were projected backward to rewrite the white dress as a symbol of innocence and virginity rather than one of wealth. Interestingly, in the Middle Ages, brides would commonly wear blue, as blue was the symbol of purity (hence today’s “something blue”). Another fun fact: Ancient Athenian brides wore long violet or light reddish robes, cinched at the waist by a girdle that the groom was meant to loosen later, symbolizing the loss of her virginity. Hmmm.
So to bring it back to your question. If you’re considering having a wedding, but are apprehensive about the history behind weddings, you could maybe consider ditching the traditions you have a problem with. An obvious example that we see all the time today is the omission of religious vows from ceremonies. Or just don’t wear white. Or blue. Also, you can keep your last name. Do whatever you want!
In terms of whether you can be a feminist and have a marriage—feminism is a political belief in equality for all. However, that belief system also exists in a highly flawed world where equality is hard to come by, and where so many things we enjoy (or aspire to enjoy) are rooted in problematic histories. Part of feminism is expressing your identity as you see fit—so if you have your heart set on starting your marriage with a more traditional wedding tradition, like wearing a white dress, I’d say go for it. You won't be thrown out of the feminist club (not by me at least!), nor should you be. I would also suggest that you talk with friends and family—who share your feminist beliefs or not—to learn what marriage and weddings have meant to them. Perhaps as you learn more about it, you’ll feel excited about the prospect. Or perhaps you’ll decide it doesn’t align with the type of partnership you see for yourself. Either is totally okay!
Are you married? Do you want to get married but have similar misgivings? Do you have advice for Feminist Future Bride? Share your wedding and marriage stories, here.
Did you finish reading this and think, ‘I wish I could talk about this with my friends?’
Well, it’s your lucky day. We’re hosting a salon with FEMINIST next week on this very topic and we’re giving you the chance to do the same. All you need to do is reply to this question in the Diem app and we’ll reach out to lend you our coveted Diem salon playbook. Follow on socials for more details!
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