A Feminist Gets Married
I got hitched Saturday. Beforehand, I had been sheepish about telling my students I was getting married. It seemed inconsistent with my professional persona as an independent, fearless, freedom-fighting law professor. So I waited until the last possible minute to mention it. “OK, I have a quick announcement,” I began a recent Criminal Law class. “I do apologize, but I have to cancel next Thursday’s class because… um… well… my partner and I have decided to get married.” My students then began to clap. Gads, this was worse than I’d imagined it would be. The applause grew.
“No, no—please don’t clap. This is a truly freakish event that was never supposed to happen to someone like me.” Applause turned to laughter. Now I’d gotten myself in a fix.
Gavin had faced none of this angst. He had told his journalism students months ago, and he’d enjoyed their applause, while I skulked around my school as if I had a dirty little secret.
I’ve critiqued the institution of marriage for as long as I can remember. Heterosexist. Patriarchal. The usual list of sins. The unit on marriage in my Feminist Legal Theory class begins with the English common law of coverture in which a female’s legal existence is erased by its merger into her husband’s at marriage.
So what’s a self-respecting feminist to do when she decides that a public commitment to her sweetheart is the next step in her spiritual and emotional growth? What happens when she loves someone in a way that—despite societal evidence—burbles with the hope of lasting a lifetime?
No new last name. No veil. No white dress. No “love, honor, and obey.” No father “giving the bride away.” No throwing the bouquet. No garter—goddess, no garter toss. No bachelor party. No church. No dieting for the big day. No pronouncement of “man and wife.” No updo, no French manicure. And no wife.
I told Gavin, “OK, look, if we get married, I will not be your wife. I never want you to refer to me as your ‘wife.’ I’m serious.”
He was a bit taken aback. “Why?”
“Let’s look up the etymology of the word.” 2002 AMERICAN HERITAGE COLLEGE DICTIONARY. “ME wif < OE wif. See ghwibh– in App.” So we looked up the root word “ghwibh-” in the appendix: “Shame, also pudenda.”
Then we looked up “husband” and followed its root (“bheue”) into the appendix. “To be, exist, grow.” So he gets to be, exist, and grow while I am labeled a shame-pudendum? I don’t think so.
Rejecting so many labels and traditions forced us to create new ones. A surprise: that creative process was more meaningful and fun than I’d imagined it would be. What emerged was magical, warm, celebratory, and quite personal.
Thankfully, there is precedent for marriage under protest: abolitionists Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell’s 1855 declaration of dissent against the patriarchal institution signed upon their wedding day. And a dear friend of mine from law school spoke in her ceremony about continuing to fight for gay and lesbian marriage when she and her partner tied the legal knot back in 1995. So I had footsteps to follow.
Meanwhile my feminist students, gay and straight, seemed genuinely thrilled with my late-coming announcement. “When I heard you were getting married,” one said to me last week, “I was so happy. If even you can find someone, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us!”