This is the second part in a series answering the question: “How do you reconcile getting married with being a feminist?” which was put to me in 2015 when I, a feminist, was engaged to be married.
In 2016 I published part one of my answer, which was about what marriage is not.
Here, in part two, I explore what marriage means, going through four aspects of marriage meaning plus a bonus category.
Some time later I will write and publish part three, which will take the ground we have already covered and use case studies to explore how to reconcile marriage with feminism – or if it is even possible to do so.
The four meanings of marriage are: Legal, Cultural, Religious and Spiritual. The bonus category of meaning is Practical.
Marriage is a legal category. We sign paperwork which implicates us for certain rights and responsibilities. For example: next of kin is automatically conferred. I was recently in hospital and was unable to communicate effectively. As my next of kin, Matt was the one the doctor spoke to.
When she was Prime Minister, Julia Gillard changed the law so that de facto relationships have the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. This was her contribution to marriage equality. Some of these legal aspects of marriage you can arrange yourself, and some automatically happen when you appear to be in a marriage-like relationship. My understand is that the legal framework for marriage is more clear-cut and a lot happens automatically when you sign those documents.
Fun fact: In Australian wedding ceremonies, “signing the register”, the legal aspect of the marriage, is part of the wedding ceremony, but in American wedding ceremonies, the legal aspect of marriage occurs outside of the wedding ceremony context.
People who look like me often think of ourselves as not having culture or ceremony. But we do; we just don’t tend to see it for ourselves.
A wedding ceremony is one of the biggest ceremonies we have. The word ceremony is right there in the title.
A ceremony is a recognised ritualised form that is enacted by a community.
There are certain aspects that have to be present for it to be recognisable as a wedding ceremony. You can tinker with the form but you can’t reinvent it. If you change too much, it won’t be recognisable as a wedding ceremony. Your guests will walk away thinking, “I don’t know what just happened, but that wasn’t a wedding”.
I absolutely loved planning the wedding ceremony. And we did a really good job. That’s not just my opinion: the guests loved it. Our wedding ceremony did what ceremony does: carried meaning without using only words. My parents both walked me down the aisle. Both sets of parents participated in a ‘giving away’ style ceremony. The only thing I would change is that I would have both Matt and I walk down the aisle and meet together at the front.
This is technically a sub-category of cultural. I define the bright side of religion as a set of cultural structures that help a community connect with spirituality.
It was important for Matt and I to be married in a religious ceremony. Our wedding ceremony was designed using Baptist Marriage Rites. I liked the feeling of being connected to something bigger, for example saying vows that had been said before so many times by so many people.
I liked that we got to put together our own ceremony, choose-your-own-adventure style, picking from a number of options for vows etc. It was traditional enough to feel part of something bigger but with enough choice to not feel constrained.
This is the bonus category. I am putting it in the penultimate position because I want to finish on the beautiful note of spirituality, as expressed through poetry.
The practical side of marriage is our social assumptions about what marriage means. These include living together (and sleeping in the same bed), raising children together, probably sharing bank accounts and other assets. This side of the meaning of marriage will come to the fore in Part Three, when I discuss what it means for people to be together but not marry.
I define spirituality as connection to oneness. In terms of what Matt and my marriage means to me, spiritual connection is the most important aspect. The spiritual connection of marriage means that our marriage is not just the two of us. It exists as the space between us.
At its best, our marriage brings joy to the world beyond the two of us. The best way of explaining the spirituality of marriage is via the poem that we chose for a special friend to read at our wedding:
This Marriage, by Rumi
May these vows and this marriage be blessed.
May it be sweet milk,
this marriage, like wine and halvah.
May this marriage offer fruit and shade
like the date palm.
May this marriage be full of laughter,
our every day a day in paradise.
May this marriage be a sign of compassion,
a seal of happiness here and hereafter.
May this marriage have a fair face and a good name,
an omen as welcomes the moon in a clear blue sky.
I am out of words to describe
how spirit mingles in this marriage.