Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

Marriage is viewed uncomfortably by many feminists. For years, women placed themselves at a significant disadvantage when they married, and, even now, marrying means a constant battle against traditional assumptions. In fact, many would question if a feminist marriage – a marriage that attempts to practice gender equality, legal or common law – is even a possibility between a man and a woman.

I happen to be in a position to say that it is possible. One of the proudest boasts is that I practiced feminist marriage for thirty years, and with considerable success.

In fact, if my partner Trish had not died unexpectedly young, I would still be married today.

Much of my pride in the accomplishment I shared with Trish is that feminist marriage was hard work. No sooner had we married than people started treating us differently. Suddenly, we were much more acceptable to each other’s families. Friends who had known us for years assumed we would immediately settle down to having a family, and filling traditional roles.

Fortunately, neither of us was conventional enough to be heavily influenced by such expectations, but, all the same, resisting them often took more energy than we expected – although we did enjoy confounding those expectations whenever possibly. At times, we even took a gleeful satisfaction in educating people by going against those stereotypes.

For many couples who want to practice feminist marriage, division of domestic labor is the largest problem. Notoriously, many men cannot get in the habit of doing their share. For us, however, this was never much of a problem.

For one thing, my mother returned to work when I was late elementary school, so I was more prepared to take on my share of responsibilities than most men.

More importantly, by consulting our preferences and the patterns of our lives, we soon talked out any difference. I was a student when we married, and for much of our life together I worked freelance. Usually, I was home long before Trish, and, since I like cooking, having me in charge of meals was only sensible, especially if we were going to eat before eight or nine o’clock. Similarly, Trish did the driving, so maintaining the car fell largely to her. The tasks neither of us cared to do, we compromised on – for instance, Trish turned out to dislike doing the dishes less than I did, while I tolerated vacuuming better than she did. A few tasks, like doing the laundry, fell to whoever happened to need it done at a given moment.

We never found such decisions difficult, because both of us from the start had a commitment to living up to our ideals of a partnership. Part of that ideal was to talk about everything as frankly as possible, even what seemed obvious, just in case what seemed obvious to one of us was not obvious to the other. Early on, we each agreed as well that displays of temper were inappropriate toward the major person in our lives. As a result, we rarely argued – not because we never disagreed, but because we were committed to finding a civilized solution. Also, by the time we reached the point where we might have argued, we generally had long ago agreed how we would handle it.

Still, others’ assumptions were always there. When someone would note that our division of labor was non-traditional, we took to paraphrasing Lloyd Alexander, noting that while some work was called women’s and some was called men’s, the work itself never cared who did it. What mattered was that the work got done. Most of the time, the comment ended the discussion.

Of course, the expectations annoyed us. However, unlike modern feminists, who are fond of saying that their role is not to educate, we did take it upon ourselves to teach – or at least confound – whenever possible. When we were at a restaurant and the waiter handed me a sample of the wine, I would pass it to Trish to taste as well, and we would both discuss it before we both nodded acceptance. At the end of the meal, Trish would pay (not that it mattered, since the money came from the same credit union account). Sometimes, we would make a great Three Musketeers-like display of Trish holding the door for me, or presenting me with flowers on my birthday. These lessons might have been spoiled by the fact that both of us would end up giggling, but, we would quote Utah Phillips and say that people had to learn these things somewhere, and giggle more.

Once, we were sitting in the university pub, and I expressed the opinion that children probably benefited from having a parent at home. A woman who had come late to the conversation immediately accused me of sexism – then, with what I can only call a smile of vicious delight, instead of siding with her, Trish pointed out that I had stated earlier than I was expecting to arrange my life so that half the time I was the parent at home. As things happened, we never brought a pregnancy to term, but I did arrange my working life so that I could have been a hands-on parent.

Breaking these expectations was a way to get some of our own back on those who wanted us to act traditionally. Instead of exploding in anger or exasperation, we gave them a teachable moment (and ourselves a moment of amusement).

Our marriage was not a matter of us against the world. However, it had something of that flavor. You might say more accurately that it was our beliefs against the world’s, and that we were allies in a shared cause.

Yet, however our marriage is described, its success was undeniable. People meeting us after we had been together for twenty five years thought we were a new couple after seeing us together in public. At Trish’s memorial service, several speakers mentioned the strength of our marriage, and I took some comfort in hearing that several nieces considered us an example for them to live up to. So if you accuse me of filtering memories through nostalgia and grief, you are wrong.

What I have described was real enough, if rare, and we both realized how lucky we were to have it. Except we knew that luck had little to do with it. It was hard work and ideals that was responsible. To me, there is no question whatsoever: marriage in defiance of convention made me a better feminist, and what we built is one of the accomplishments of my life.

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I knew that marrying Trish was a good idea when we both chose the same moment to propose. Better yet, we both had the same condition: she wouldn’t change her name.

This condition was more complicated that it would have been for most people. Trish had been recently widowed when we met, and she had changed her name because her first husband wanted to. However, she had changed her views since then, and didn’t want to go through updating her identity a second time, whether she took my name or returned to her original surname. Besides, she considered her first marriage an important moment in her maturation. The choice seemed completely personal, and we imagined that nobody would think it anybody’s business except ours.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Everybody felt entitled to advise us – and most wasted no time in telling us that we were wrong. One of Trish’s co-workers, for example, proclaimed in the middle of the office that it was a woman’s “honor and privilege to change her name.” Others insisted that having separate names would be confusing for any children, and they would be stigmatized, or assumed to be her first husband’s – even though, at the time, a couple’s children automatically took their father’s name.

Strangest of all were those who chose to be insulted on my behalf. Although I had made my agreement very clear, some friends and relatives insisted that I was simply putting on a brave front. The choice showed a mental reservation about our marriage, they claimed; Trish was showing a commitment to her first husband that she was refusing to make to me. I should be jealous, even though he was dead.

I did my best to explain. Whenever the matter came up, I said that Trish’s first marriage was part of who she was – that, without it, she might not even be the person I loved. I suggested that I would be selfish to ask her to hide the fact of her first marriage – and that, although I might expect a preference, the choice was really hers.

But nothing I said made any difference. As late as the wedding rehearsal, people were telling us how wrong the decision was, and why it should concern me. I spent the night before the ceremony writing a letter for the priest to read to family members who objected, but whether he ever did, I have no idea. I suspect he may have thought inaction the best course, to let the issue peter out, since we obviously weren’t going to change our minds.

And, in fact, that was what happened. Every once and a while, a family member or two would disinter the issue as another grievance in the middle of another argument, but mostly it didn’t matter. It was even mentioned a couple of weeks ago, although Trish has been dead four years now.

My view now is unchanged from what it was at the time. I marvel at how free people feel to interfere with a personal choice, and I’m left in no doubt that Trish and I made the right choice. The custom of changing a woman’s name when she marries has always seemed dehumanizing to me, and I am proud that we resisted it, and maybe helped in our own small way to make it less of an issue.

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I’m surprised – and more than a little sad – to learn that women are still being pressured to change their names when they marry. I had hoped that my generation had put an end to the entire issue and it was now entirely a matter of personal choice.

When Trish and I proposed to each other simultaneously in my dorm room at Simon Fraser University, we both had a condition: she wouldn’t change her name. We both considered ourselves feminists, so it wasn’t even a question we needed to discuss. We would stand firm on the decision, and be example for couples in the future – or so we imagined in our naivety.

What we hadn’t imagined is how much we would be pressured to change our minds. “It is a woman’s pride and privilege to take her husband’s name,” a female co-worker told Trish, and stalked away angrily when Trish said she was marrying a partner, not a husband.

“Can’t you change her mind?” Family and friends asked me repeatedly, apparently unable to believe that the condition had been mine as much as hers.

“Won’t your children be confused?” Everyone said to both of us. Then they accused us of flippancy when we suggested that any children would somehow muddle through.

In the months between our engagement and marriage, we must have heard every argument imaginable against our decision. It showed a lack of commitment, we were told. It showed that Trish had reservations about becoming part of my family. We would have trouble checking into hotel rooms. It would be awkward socially. People would assume we were immoral. People would talk.

Of course, the reaction was worse because Trish had been married before, and had already changed her name. She had been reluctant, but the idea of continuing the family name was important to her first spouse, so she had gone along with it. But after he had died in an epileptic seizure, she had never got around to reverting to her original name because the paperwork was a nuisance. She had come of age with her married name, and it was something to remember him by, and she was not going to accustom herself to another name when she had become comfortable with the one she was using.

For reasons I have never understood, I was supposed to find her decision a deeply personal insult. Her first spouse and I might have been rivals had we ever met, but we hadn’t. We obviously had similar tastes in women, and Trish’s ten months with him had helped turn her into the woman I met, so why should I care if she kept her name as a memento? I don’t believe in existence after death, but I was so comfortable with the fact of him that I even had a dream in which he encouraged Trish and I to marry.

I couldn’t help noticing, too, that, her first husband’s family welcomed our marriage more than either of ours did. I couldn’t help but sympathize with him after Trish’s mother told me, somewhat grudgingly, “Well, I like her second choice of husband better than her first.”

But throughout all this, we kept to our original intention. By the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, we thought we had weathered the worst.. Then, after the dinner, family members on both sides told us privately that, if Trish didn’t change her name, scandal would result, and we would never be accepted by anyone – never mind that we were legally married.

I spent a sleepless night before the wedding, not worrying about whether I was making the right decision, or about the ceremony, but about the emotional blackmail with which we had been ambushed. Finally, I gave up trying to sleep and wrote a long letter explaining out decision which I planned to ask the priest to give to our parents at the reception after we had left.

To this day, I don’t know whether he ever did as he asked. But he was a bit of a diplomat regardless. As we left the church, he announced us as, “Mr and Mrs Byfield,” a form of address that gave both of us a start, but which he rightly judged wouldn’t disturb us unduly and would placate the families long enough for us to get away on our honeymoon.

Soon enough, everyone found out that we had done as we had planned all along. And for a few years, the conversation got a little frosty any time Trish’s last name was about to become relevant. But the families grew used to her choice of names, and none of the prophesied inconveniences or disasters came anywhere near to happening.

At the most, some strangers might have disapproved of us, but, if they did, we never heard their disapproval. Most likely, even such passing disapproval was rare, because by that time common-law relationships were becoming acceptable.

Our story amuses more than angers me now, although enduring it was an exercise in self-control while I lived it.. But when I remember the unfairness of the reactions to what we considered a rationally reached conclusion, I want to leap up and shout at any new couples facing the same pressures today to hold firm. None of the difficulties predicted for you will actually happen, and you’ll have the advantage of starting your lives together by having stood up together to emotional bullying. You’ll have learned that you can trust each other, and that will help your relationship to be a long one.

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