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.”

No joke.

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!”

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28 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Great post. (And, if you don’t mind, let me add, congrats!)

  2. Anthony Infanti says:

    Congratulations!!!! (And that was a really great post.)

  3. Simon says:

    Michelle,

    Congratulations, but I have a question:

    No “love, honor, and obey.”

    Why would the commitment to love, honor and obey be a problem, provided it is committed to equally by both partners? Certainly, I could understand the characterization of such a vow as being “Heterosexist[;] Patriarchal” and as being the erasure of “a female’s legal existence . . . by its merger into her husband’s at marriage,” were the vow only made by the woman. If both partners take such a vow, I would argue, it ceases to be any of those things. I was quite surprised, when my wife and I married, that the pastor said that most people did not choose to include those words in this day and age; indeed, it seems to me that a bilateral commitment to love, honor and obey – the merger of two legal identies into one – inter alia reside at the very core of marriage, being among the principle features which differentiates a marriage from merely a cohabiting relationship.

  4. Kaimi says:

    Very interesting and informative thoughts, thanks for this post.

    And, um, congratulations as well, to the extent that you’d like them.

    Okay, now I’m going to nitpick your discussion of “wife”: It seems weird to me to rule out use of a word in today’s English because that word goes back to some Indo-European root that we find problematic.

    Look more closely at the definition of “ghwibh” and you’ll see that it is the root of many other words, not just wife. In fact, it’s also the lingustic root of the English word “woman.”

    Does this mean that it is inappropriate to refer to women — um, female-people, that is — as “women,” since this word has its etymological root in an old, offensive construct from Indo-European?

    I’m no linguist, and my knowledge of old Indo-European roots is limited to the appendix of my dictionary. But even a quick review of that appendix shows a _lot_ of words with problematic roots. The English “hurry” comes from a root meaning to ravage or plunder. “Mortgage” comes from the root for death. And so on.

    It’s 2006 — isn’t it potentially time to treat words for how they exist in language today, and not how their Indo-European roots may have existed centuries ago? This isn’t to say that there aren’t reasons for eschewing “wife” today. But the fact that it comes from a particular old lingustic root seems to me like a particularly unconvincing reason.

  5. Simon says:

    Kaimi,

    Does this mean that it is inappropriate to refer to women — um, female-people, that is — as “women,” since this word has its etymological root in an old, offensive construct from Indo-European?

    I’m offended by your use of the term “female”, which – by prefixing the world “male” implies that persons of non-masculine gender are linguistically subordinate to men. 😉

    It seems that for the sake of being able to communicate, society may have to accept terminology which may have linguistic roots that are unpalatable to some. Fighting over whether terms like “wife”, “female” or “woman” are acceptable because they stem from a usage beyond living memory seems similar to fighting over whether the term “niggardly” is acceptable because it sounds like a word that we don’t approve of any more.

  6. Christine says:

    Best wishes! I was reared to say “best wishes” to brides because “congratulations” implies that brides have accomplished a goal, such as obtaining an advanced degree or winning an Olympic medal, by landing a male. Of course, this is not the case. (You may say “congratulations” to the groom, though.) So, best wishes!

    I enjoyed your post very much after having gone through the same angst oh so many years ago. (I also had the “I’m not your wife” conversation.) I will admit though that years later, I sort of wish we had the same last name so that we could have a monogrammed anything — welcome mat, napkin, anything. Such is life.

  7. Ramson's eyepatch says:

    What a sweet nerdy romatic post. Profs in love! Go forth and make more sweethearts who wear glasses.

  8. MJ says:

    Best wishes to you and, um, the individual to whom you’ve become married.

    I guess I’m a little perplexed at why a feminist would think of marriage as “never supposed to happen to someone like me.” I thought feminism was about the right of women have enough information and freedom to make individual choices about their lives? Am I wrong?

    Because if so, marriage just seems like an individual decision that feminists should applaud – exactly what I thought feminists were fighting for in the first place. This is not an assault on the good prof. – more a general observation that in the feminist movement some choices seem to be more equal than others i.e. choosing to pursue the tenured professorship rather than choosing to get married and manage a household/family.

  9. Eric Muller says:

    All the best on your marriage!

    Your post made me think about some stuff. I posted about it here: http://www.isthatlegal.org/archives/2006/04/person_yes_pers.html

    Thoughts and comments welcome.

  10. Michelle Anderson says:

    Thank you to everyone who sent congratulations and best wishes. I’m feeling the love! I just want to respond to a three quick points.

    Simon: I’m intrigued that you and your partner *both* vowed to “obey” one other. I’m not quite sure how that mutual obedience thing works out if she wants to watch “Desperate Housewives” and you are jonesing for “American Idol,” but if you both manage to evince reciprocal submission, who am I to judge? For my part, obedience isn’t in my nature, so I wouldn’t vow it even if Gavin were willing.

    Kaimi: Yes, that all-purpose “ghwibh-” (shame-pudenda) is indeed the ancient root of so many feminine words: “wife, hussy, midwife, woman.” For you, that fact means the term isn’t worth challenging. For me, linguistic misogyny inspires a search for gender-neutrality. Happily, in this case, a great substitute is near at hand. “Spouse” is apparently from the root “spend-” which suggests “to make an offering, perform a rite, hence to engage oneself by ritual act.” In abandoning “wife,” we have gained “spouse,” the partner to whom we make an offering of commitment.

    MJ: I do support individual choice to marry (especially for gays and lesbians). For my life, however, all choices are not equal. My decision to teach and write is more important to me than my ability to land a man and manage a household.

    Thanks for all your supportive and challenging thoughts, my friends and colleagues.

  11. Dissent says:

    Michelle:

    Having agonized over many of the same issues you (and Christine) grappled with, I also made the decision to marry but retain my own name. No big wedding, no white gown, no “obey.”

    That was over 25 years ago, and I can still recall all the difficulties that such feminist notions produced back then, including a hospital administrator who wanted to see our marriage license (while I was in labor!) so that our child could have a hyphenated last name, and the federal government not crediting my income taxes properly every year for years because their forms had no way to indicate different last names for spouses. Christine probably also had many experiences like mine. Hopefully, you’ll encounter fewer obstacles as the practice of a woman not changing her name is now more common than it was back then.

    As to terms like “wife” and “husband,” I quickly settled on something that still works for us:

    When I introduce my husband to people, I simply say, “I’d like you to meet my first husband.”

    And if people question the different last names, my answer is simply, “My husband and I are both feminists so I allowed him to keep his maiden name.”

    IOW: we didn’t sweat what is ultimately the small stuff. It’s now 26 years later and we’re still laughing.

    Cheers and best wishes,

    Dissent

  12. Seth R. says:

    Life is not a classroom debate.

    And sometimes ideological purity must give way.

    Exactly what it is giving way to, in this case, is not quite clear …

    But it must give way nonetheless! Best wishes.

  13. Kaimi says:

    Michelle,

    I’m all in favor of removing misogynistic terms from general use. However, I’m curious about what seems like a selective application of a rule I hadn’t considered before, and one which if applied even-handedly would result in disqualification of a good deal of the English language.

    Do feminist ideals really require us to go back to Indo-European roots for every word in the dictionary (or other etymological roots, for words of non-European derivation), and refuse to use any words that have misogynistic roots? That just seems unworkable.

    So if the suggestion is to strike _some_ words based on their Indo-European roots, how does one decide which words may be used despite misogynistic roots, and which may not?

  14. John Burkoff says:

    Michelle, however you want to explain/justify/rationalize it, Nancy and I still want to congratulate and/or wish you (and Gavin) all the best!!! Hey, look, marriage is simply what you make it. We’ve been married for nearly 37 years and we still don’t “obey” each other. Maybe next year. Probably not.

  15. jude says:

    It is clear why you did not promise to “obey” your spouse. Why did you not promise to “love” and “honor” your spouse? Is not every person, man or woman, due some degree of love & honor? Who would wish to marry someone who does not wish to love & honor that person?

  16. Liz Longstreth says:

    To Jude and Simon (above):

    (Correct me if I am wrong, MA) but I got the sense from the “love, honor, & obey” passage that Professor Anderson was aiming for a little satirical pulse and build up, not explicitly negating her love for Gavin. The dissection of that phrase (obedience vs. love) is also borne out throughout the post, at least implicitly. Am I turning this too much into English class?

    Regardless, have fun, Professor.

  17. JKS says:

    I think that the word “wife” maybe has some other connotations she didn’t like, besides just the root being offensive. I have no problems with the word wife as it exists today.

    I think maybe she could consider that her becoming a wife will change the definition of wife for her and for others, to include someone like her, not an appendage.

  18. annegb says:

    We left the “obey” in our vows and Bill does almost everything I tell him. He minds, yes, he does.

    When I introduce him, I say, “I’d like you to meet my third husband. The other two just wouldn’t mind me and I had to shoot them.”

  19. DB says:

    “My decision to teach and write is more important to me than my ability to land a man and manage a household.”

    I think most of us think about this as “having a family,” and yes, having a loving family is more important than teaching and writing, for men or women.

  20. SJB says:

    “For my part, obedience isn’t in my nature . . .”

    You may want to examine the etymology of the word “obey” before you pay a per-hour rate to a marriage counselor to obey you.

    Good luck!

  21. Aurelia Loveman says:

    MA: why do you equate marrying a man with “landing” a man? Nobody is forcing you, linguistically or otherwise, to disrespect yourself.

  22. Lyla says:

    I think that it is wrong to define somebody by any role they have in life, including their role in the family. People have different roles in different contexts. On my softball team, I am the firstbaseman. In school, I am a student. In church, I am a member. In marriage, I am the wife. Somebody referring to me as “Joseph’s wife” while I am at softball practice would be just as out of place as them referring to me as “the firstbaseman” in class. I can understand how frustrating it can be to be defined by somebody else. However, my relationship to other people in my life, both friends and family, is a part of who I am. Provided that it is in the right context, I think that knowing me by my relationship to my husband is appropriate.

  23. Philip says:

    Forgive me for putting a dampner on things. I AM happy for you, it would after all be selfish in the extreme to be displeased by someone else’s pleasure.

    Rather, selfish though it is, I am unhappy for myself. You see, I too love my partner ‘in a way that—despite societal evidence—burbles with the hope of lasting a lifetime?’. However, as a self-respecting feminist I feel that a public commitment to my sweetheart, what you have conceptualised as marriage, would be at best unnecessary, and at worst a noxious form of disrespect to the women I love.

    So yes, it is satisfying that you have found happiness through your marriage. However, please remember that, whatever your justification and whatever your interpretations of the ramifications of your act to feminism as a whole, your decision to get married just makes mine and my partner’s ethical stand to resist the pressures to be married that little bit more oppressing.

    What’s more selfish?

  24. Dave says:

    People with a surfeit of intelligence (like yourself) tend to over analyse everything. They nearly always straight-jacket themselves with their own ideology or dogma. You were whining over the etymological root of the word ‘wife’, for f**ks sake! Petty or what?

    You must love the guy to marry him against nearly all feminist belief. So what and welcome to the real world.

    Love him, cherish him and I wish you all the best.

  25. Laura says:

    Thanks for this post. As an academic, a feminist, a poet, a WS prof, and as someone who had not planned to be married, and now finds herself (after 13 years with the guy) planning a wedding, I totally “get” you. And I appreciate reading your point of view.

    I also am always troubled by folks who pretend like words don’t matter. I’m not sure what I think about “wife,” though many connotations in this society are awful, but I do appreciate your thoughtfulness about this word choice.

  26. Austin says:

    I am not sure I agree with your etymological root for the word “Husband”. This definition fits the understanding I was brought up with:

    Old Norse: hus “house” + bondi “householder, dweller, freeholder, peasant,” from buandi, prp. of bua “to dwell” The sense of “peasant farmer”

    I think this in fact implies that the married man is the chief bonded worker of a woman head of the house. Sounds awefully matriarchal to me. Ahhh … the unfair life of being “house-bound” and stuck having to do all the maintenance and farming (animal husbandry).

  27. Well done and congragulations! I hope you had a beautiful wedding day.

  28. Vladimir says:

    You do realize what followers of Lucy Stone were called in her day: stoners!