I’m happily married and will celebrate twelve years of marriage this year. When my husband proposed near Beachy Head in Sussex, he was surprised at the detail of our conversation as we walked back to the car. I already had ‘thoughts’ about how the wedding might go. I was quite surprised myself. Very wisely, we agreed to have the ceremony fairly quickly to avoid wedding fatigue, and within eight months, we were wed. We were clear on a few traditions we didn’t intend to partake in. There was no cake (I was gluten-free, and David doesn’t like fruit cake), no line-up (cringy and unnecessary, everyone just wants to get a drink!), and there were no favours on the table for guests (partly for environmental reasons, and it also gave us one less thing to worry about). Not being religious, we didn’t get married in a church. I was mainly interested in the flowers and the food. The rest was less important, which is just as well because the seamstress who altered my dress got it a bit wrong. Not that anyone else would have noticed.
Having read my copy of Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage by Rachael Lennon, I realise there is so much more bound up in traditions than I realised. The passive role women play in wedding ceremonies. If I married again, I think I’d probably say something during the wedding breakfast. Would I still ask my Dad to ‘give me away’? It’s an institution primarily shaped by men, and women have been highlighting this and pushing against it for hundreds of years, their protests often falling on deaf ears. Same-sex marriages have raised awareness and pushed against traditions because when there are two people of the same gender, it becomes much more apparent that the act of marriage can be unequal or unfair towards women. Or what have become ingrained traditions are based on an inequitable past.
Rachael’s book is extremely well-researched and full of literary references, court documents and newspaper extracts. She lifts the lid on where various traditions come from, from the expectation to consummate a marriage through to the wearing of a ring. I was shocked to read it in parts. I didn’t know it wasn’t until 1948 that British women were able to retain their nationality in marriage, for example. Or that throughout the world, approx. one in five women is married off before their eighteenth birthday.
Rachael wants to build on the past to redefine marriage for the future. I think women owe it to themselves to understand the traditions and to question some of them. If you want to marry and follow a tradition, that’s great, but do it because you want to, not because it’s expected. And be careful in whose footsteps you tread.
This blog is written by Hannah Powell, book blogger, author and director of two garden centres. Her award-winning memoir, The Cactus Surgeon, compares her days in the concrete of London, leading to burnout, with her nature-rich upbringing in rural Essex. It’s a nature and health memoir full of mindful moments.