A young woman realizes the sexual revolution was not about destroying institutions. It was about earning people the right to choose a path.
By the time my two cousins, both girls, both close to me in age, had turned ten, they both had their weddings all planned out. They knew all of the details, big and small, from what their dress would look like, to how many diamonds would be on their ring, to which song they would choose for their “daddy dance.”
By the time I was ten, my life plan was to become a famous actor/writer/veterinarian, three demanding careers which I was pretty sure wouldn’t leave me any time for marriage. Besides, I knew that marriage led to sex, which, to my pre-pubescent self, sounded disgusting. Like, a man was supposed to put his what, where? No, thanks.
When I was thirteen, my father left quite suddenly, and, after a brief separation, he and my mother divorced. This only served to firm my resolve that I would never marry. While I had already abandoned the veterinary part of my future career (a field that would, I realized, involve science, my worst subject next to gym), and while my hormone-driven teenage mind was slowly starting to realize that this whole sex thing might not be such a bad idea, I could still think of plenty of good reasons to avoid marriage at any cost.
For example, what had my parents ever gained from their 17 year marriage?
I mean, other than the fact that my mother was left struggling to raise three kids on her own while my father ended up living in a lonely bachelor apartment an hour and a half away from us.
By the time I moved to Halifax to start university, I was sure that marriage and weddings weren’t just a bad idea for me, they were a bad idea for everyone. I rolled my eyes at the fact that people still bought into the idea that white wedding gowns represented purity and virginity. I mean, come on, really? How many people were still virgins by the time they made it to the altar? I was also grossed out by the symbolism of a father “giving away” his daughter, as if she was nothing more than a piece of property. And don’t even get my started on how I felt about the idea of a woman changing her last name – the patriarchal symbolism was just too much for me to handle.
And you know what? I was, really, really, really fucking tired of people referring to their wedding day as the happiest day of their lives.
Like, what the fuck? Say you got married at 25 – your life was supposed to just be downhill from there? I hated the idea of trying to pick just one specific day as being the best day of my life; I wanted to live with the idea that any and every day had the potential to be the best; there was no way that I was going to get on board with the thought that my happiness was going to reach its peak at some point, and then wane for the rest of my life.
What probably bothered me the most, though, was the idea that all of these things, the poofy white dress, the obscenely flashy diamond ring, and, above all, the man who would, in theory, love me forever but in reality would, according to statistics, leave me after a few years of marriage – these were things that I was desperately supposed to want. But I didn’t want them, and the fact that I didn’t made me feel like some kind of freak or weirdo.
We live in a culture that teaches girls from a very young age that getting married is one of the most, if not the most, important thing that they can do. This type of thinking naturally leads young women to rush into getting married, often before they’re ready for that type of commitment. It also leads to the bridezilla phenomenon, which has been exploited and mocked by the media as further evidence of women’s craziness, but is perfectly understandable when looked at in the right way; I mean, let’s face it, freaking out over every teeny tiny detail and feeling the need to control every aspect of the situation is pretty much the natural consequence of telling girls that their wedding day is going to be the happiest, most special day of their lives.
Wouldn’t you go a little crazy if you had to prepare yourself for what you were certain was going to be the high point of your life?
I was born in the early 1980s, which means that I grew up at the tail end of the Free To Be…You And Me era. I was also fortunate enough to have parents who actively worked to raise kids who fought against racism, sexism, homophobia and economic injustice. My mother, who kept her maiden name, would often introduce my sisters and me as her three contributions to the women’s movement. My father wrote for a newspaper called The Socialist Worker and, on weekend visits, I would join him in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood, where we would stand on street corners and ask people to sign petitions to ban nuclear weapons.
I grew up believing that I could be anything, as long as I worked hard enough for it. My parents taught me not to let my gender or economic background stand in the way of achieving my dreams. This meant that I wound up naively thinking that now that women were free to enter just about any career, they would all be rushing to do so. Imagine my dismay when, in university, I witnessed female classmates dropping out of school at an alarming rate with the express purpose of getting married and starting a family.
Is this what my parents and their peers fought for, I wondered? The right to keep on playing into traditional gender roles? The right to sacrifice an education for marriage?
I became an aggressively outspoken critic of marriage. The social circles I moved in mostly felt as I did, and, at parties, we would loudly, drunkenly disparage the fact that so many of our friends and acquaintances were suddenly walking down the aisle. In expletive-laden speeches, we would toast each other, claim solidarity, and swear to never, ever, ever get married.
Then, when I was 22, I started dating and quickly fell in love with a guy named Matt. He was kind and gentle, unbelievably so—I mean, literally, I sometimes had a hard time believing that an actual person could seriously be this good. Unlike past boyfriends, he made an effort to actively participate in things that interested me, and tried to learn to like them, too. He treated me like I was a person who deserved to be treated well. He was just so darn nice—so incredibly, shockingly nice. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And then it sort of did
Not long after we started dating, I realized that what Matt really wanted was a permanent, stable, long-term relationship. One that would, hopefully, end in marriage.
“I’m not getting married,” I told him.
“I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do,” he would reply.
(Seriously, where did I even find this dude?)
After being together for nearly a year, we moved in together.
“Don’t take this as a sign that I’m going to marry you, because I’m not,” I said.
“I’m taking this as a sign that you want to live with me. Nothing more, nothing less.”
I looked at him suspiciously, searching his words for hidden meaning, but I couldn’t find any.
“Fine. Good. Keep thinking that way,” was all I had to say.
Living with Matt made me realize that I kinda sorta probably wanted to be with him in a forever-type-way. Like, I wanted to grow old with him. And have kids with him. And be with him through thick and thin. My thoughts turned into a Hallmark card of mushy lovey-dovey feelings, something that was totally new for me. We started making long-term plans, and the fact that that didn’t feel weird to me was weird in and of itself.
Then, in late 2006, Matt was offered a job in Toronto, some 1,100 miles away. He decided to take it. I decided to move with him.
The plan was that he would move to Ontario at the end of January, and I would stay in Halifax to tie up loose ends, then join him in March. We spent the last week of January packing up our place, having lots of sex and explaining how much we would miss each other over the six weeks we’d spend apart. On Matt’s last night in town, we had dinner at our favourite restaurant, a sushi place down by the water. I noticed that Matt was acting kind of weird, but I figured that he was just nervous about his upcoming 20-hour drive.
After dinner, Matt suggested that we go for a walk. Strange: it was winter, and the wind off the water was really fucking cold. He led me to a bench down by the harbour, then got down on one knee.
Oh shit, I thought. He’s fucking well going to propose, isn’t he?
Yes. Yes he was.
Out of his pocket he pulled a box that contained a gorgeous antique ring, the band of which had been cut to resemble vines and flowers. Although it was set with a tiny diamond and two sapphires, the ring looked nothing like a traditional engagement ring. I was instantly smitten.
As Matt began his carefully-prepared speech, I started to laugh. He looked hurt, and accused me of ruining his proposal. I just shook my head and explained that I was laughing because I was happy, and also because I was surprised at just how happy I was. He slid the ring onto my finger, and just like that we were engaged.
It was that easy.
Except it wan’t easy.
On our way back to our apartment, the excitement of the moment started to fade. I began to worry that I’d made a mistake, and asked Matt to promise to let me call off the engagement if I decided that this wasn’t the right choice for me. Without even missing a beat, he swore that if I changed my mind, we would just go back to being boyfriend and girlfriend, no questions asked and no hurt feelings.
I started wearing the ring regularly, even though I still felt weird about it.
After Matt left the next morning for his cross-country trek, I was left with time to examine my motives. I knew that I wanted to have kids with him, and while our parents (barely) tolerated us living together, I knew that the idea of children born out of wedlock probably wouldn’t fly with either of our mothers. I also realized that it would be economically and legally advantageous to be married; I’d heard too many stories of gay people not being able to be with their dying partners because they weren’t considered family, or else being denied an inheritance because they weren’t able to be recognized as next of kin. Above all, though, I realized that I’d agreed to marry Matt because I wanted to.
I felt like a hypocrite, though. After all, wasn’t I the person who had spent years railing against the institution of marriage? Wasn’t I the one who had made constantly rude, expletive-filled remarks about how much I hated weddings? I felt like a traitor to the cause, a defector who was leaving my friends behind in Singlesville for the land of the Smug Marrieds. I felt so badly, in fact, that I sent my friends a hilarious, guilt-ridden email, the entirety of which I will reproduce here:
So, I have some news for you. Before he left for Ontario, Matt asked me to marry him, and I thought about it for a while, and then I said yes. I’ll give you some time now to start pacing around the room and yelling about how shitty marriage is and why the hell do all your friends get married and then maybe you need to call each other and yell some more. And then maybe throw some things.
I’m actually really scared you guys will think I’m incredibly stupid for doing this. And I know that marriage is lame and old-fashioned, but the thing is, I’m pretty lame and old-fashioned, too. And I’ve realized that I don’t want to be with anyone else but Matt, and I want to have a party with my friends and family to celebrate that. I know I don’t get mushy or talk about love much, but I really love him a lot, and I want to spend the rest of my life with him. He’s one of the few people that I know who can deal with my awful moods and he puts up with all of my shit without complaining, and he treats me really, really well, and also (again) I love him a lot. It’s kind of hard to put this down in writing and have it sound real and not ridiculous, but there you have it.
K, maybe you remember this and maybe you don’t, but you said once that that if you ever wanted to have an abortion, you knew that I’d be right there beside you, supporting you, even though it’s not a choice I’d make for myself. So, I guess it’s kind of shitty to compare my wedding to an abortion, but I hope that you can stand by me and not think less of me, even though it’s not a choice you might make for myself.
I hope that both of you (once you’re done yelling and smoking and stuff) will be happy for me, because for once, I’m happy for myself (and that doesn’t happen often).
Yeah. I am a person who compared their wedding to having an abortion. I guess that’s how you know that I’m a real feminist.
I did wear a white dress (albeit not a poofy one). And my dad did walk me down the aisle, because it seemed like something that meant a lot to him (although I didn’t change my name – take THAT patriarchy).
And you know what? The wedding was really fucking fun. It was like a giant party for all of my friends and family, and we all got drunk and danced to classic 80s and 90s music all night. If you’ve never shouted along to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing at one in the morning while wearing a a somewhat tanished wedding dress, you should probably try it sometime.
If you’re wondering: no, my wedding day was not the happiest of my life.
I learned that I was wrong when I thought that the ability to choose traditional gender roles, or to get married, or any of that stuff, wasn’t what my parents had fought for. I know now that what they fought for, and what I now fight for, is choice. The choice to get married or not. The choice to stay home with your kids or go to work. The choice to wear a dress or a pantsuit or a pair of super-revealing short-shorts. There isn’t one right way to be a feminist, or express your feminism; the most important thing is to offer men and women the right to choose their own life path. The most important thing is for men and women to feel like their choices aren’t restricted by their gender.
After nearly three and a half years of marriage, I am still very much in love with my husband. I’m glad that I made the choice to marry him.
Oh and that whole father-daughter wedding dance thing? We chose to dance to Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel, a song that I’d loved when I was a little kid, mostly because it ends with the lyrics, Anne and her father, out in a boat. My father had often played it for me when we were in the car together and consequently we both felt a little sentimental about that song. As an adult, I learned that it was about feminist poet Anne Sexton, one of my all-time favourite writers. It was the perfect fit.
Photo by JFrancis.