I do -- kind of

"I won't" feminists go up against "I did, but I have a good excuse" feminists in a holier-than-thou battle over what it means to walk that aisle.

Published August 15, 2001 7:45PM (EDT)

Every revolution gets a little boring without rebellion and dissension in the ranks. For "feminists" -- in quotation marks because no one seems to agree who exactly gets to call herself a feminist -- marriage has become so taboo that getting hitched has come to seem like rebellion. This may be why the most traditional social institution of all has started to gain new street cred with some women who consider themselves to be feminists, a state of affairs that leaves certain other women who also call themselves feminists nearly apoplectic with rage and disbelief.

Marriage: It's so old school, it's formed (two) new schools.

Consider how Gloria Steinem, in an interview with the New York Times, defended her decision to marry David Bale (father of actor Christian) last year: "I had no desire to get married and neither did he. He often in his life did what men were not supposed to do and I spent mine doing what women aren't supposed to do. And I guess a little bit of it too was that what seemed conformist at 26 -- getting married -- seems rebellious at 66."

So there. Feminist marriage for Steinem is rebellion -- no-fault nuptials as the no-fault divorce of the new millennium.

Implicit in Steinem's defense of her marriage is the idea that one "earns" the right to marry by rejecting traditional gender roles throughout one's life. In her case, she paid for her right to marry by rejecting the institution for over 30 years in favor of being the most mediagenic feminist of her generation. Her best-known statements on matrimony include the scathing satiric essay "I Want a Wife,"(written by Judy Brady Syfers) which Steinem published in Ms. magazine in 1972, and perhaps the most famous anti-hetero-coupling maxim of the 20th century: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" (a phrase that Esquire chose to throw back in her face in its "Dubious Achievements 2000" issue, writing, "Turns out a fish does need a bicycle").

About any excuses offered by Steinem's husband, less is known, but, in a defense of his feminist cred (which, as we will see, is an important ritual for all feminists defending their male partners), Steinem points out that he was a single father, which I suppose counts for something. Also implied is the idea that scorning marriage as an institution -- having no "desire" for it -- gives one the option to reclaim it as a personal, conscious choice. (The corollary is that the pressure to prove that one's decision is motivated purely by love, rather than social approval, actually increases the romantic basis of -- and the potential to mythologize -- feminist marriage.)

And what self-respecting feminist would argue against a woman's inalienable right to choose? "Choice" has been the one word that every feminist can agree on -- in principle. Once upon a time, when women had very few choices, it was a matter of civil rights: Steinem herself (correctly) pointed out to Dave Tianen of the Milwaukee Journal, "If I had got married when I was supposed to have in my 20s, I would have lost almost all my civil rights. I wouldn't have had my own name, my own legal residence, my own credit rating. I would have had to get a husband to sign off on a bank loan, or starting a business. It's changed profoundly."

The fact that a woman no longer leaves her civil rights at the altar takes care of part of the legal argument against marriage (though, as we will see, it does not alleviate the guilt of straight people who recognize they are participating in a legal contract that excludes gay and lesbian couples). But almost as soon as women gained the civil rights and cultural approval to make their own choices -- on motherhood, sexuality, careers, marriage -- they began fighting among one another to define what, exactly, constituted the correct choices to make. Can a woman who makes a traditional choice -- to be a stay-at-home mother, a Republican, a wife, a pro-life activist -- still call herself a feminist?

It all depends upon whether other feminists agree with one's choices. Most of the time they don't. The history of feminism is the history of women attempting to excommunicate each other from the High Priestesshood. And once one choice is made taboo by one group, another group springs up to defend one's right to indulge in feminist sin. Thus Andrea Dworkin begot the sex-positive movement; the magazine Off Our Backs begot On Our Backs, the lesbian porn magazine; the attachment parents of Mothering magazine et al. begot the child-free movement; California Sen. Dianne Feinstein begot Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift; androgyny chic begot the '90s girlie feminism of Bitch and Bust.

And now we have the "I do" feminists, a term coined by New York Observer writer Alexandra Jacobs in her profile of Jaclyn Geller, author of "Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique," a scathing (and shrill) indictment of the $70 billion-dollar wedding industry and the women who choose to patronize it. Jacobs sees the "I do" feminist as the ultimate, "perhaps even more troubling" incarnation of the "do me" feminist. Do-me feminism -- as defined by Jacobs -- is "a sort of take back the make-up movement that proclaimed: Why not milk the beauty myth for all it's worth and land a man in the process?"

Strangely enough, Geller, by the looks of it, is pretty much a do-me feminist herself: In her book she defends the beauty myth. ("Since good make-up and skin care products can dramatically improve an individual's appearance, women who purchase beauty products with the desire to look their best seem to me to be behaving quite reasonably, rather than acting the part of self-hating brainwashed victims.") She also puts in a good word for pornography: "I have likewise always believed that pornography exists to offer an enjoyable sexual outlet to men and women who like it."

(When Jacobs arrives at Geller's apartment, she finds Geller dressed to prowl in "a sleeveless black turtleneck, black pants, black slides, silver hoop earrings, blusher, lipstick and a generous spritzing of Elizabeth Arden Red Door perfume." Over dinner, Geller coos over the cute waiter, retreats to the restroom to reapply her perfume and confesses that she is dating a cop: "We met in a bar; we went home and fucked and I didn't think he'd call, but he did and it's been great.")

Despite the fact that do-me feminism, a sort of reclaim-the-slut offshoot of third-wave feminists, was received with horror by many (though certainly not all) second-wave feminist mothers, Geller has no problem with outright condemnation of I-do feminists -- including Mama Steinem. Geller (who prefers to refer to herself as a "spinster by choice") rejects the new feminist rhetoric that proclaims that "all choices are 'valid' merely because sane individuals make them." To Geller, marriage -- which in its historical form represents nothing more than economic and social slavery for women, and in its current form privileges "amorous heterosexual relationships" above being single, being gay or being just good friends -- is simply "unacceptable."

She mostly glosses over the fact that more and more gays and lesbians are embracing the institution -- taking advantage of legal domestic partnerships, registering at Bloomingdale's and holding lavish ceremonies. In her book Geller writes: "We must stop repeating the absurd mantra 'It's OK to be single,' and adopt the more aggressive stance 'It's not OK to be married.'"

Geller's book focuses almost exclusively on the commercial and historical underpinnings of the traditional white wedding: Her "investigative" reporting takes her to the Bloomingdale's marriage registry, where she is shocked and appalled to find that, were she a bride, she could get some really great china. ("I have good taste too," she mourns, and wishes that the custom of giving household goods were reserved for a woman's 25th birthday rather than her walk down the aisle.)

She pores over the most traditional wedding manuals (from Emily Post to "What the Hell Is a Groom and What's He Supposed to Do") and bridal magazines, and describes, over and over again, the most lavish celebrity weddings published in InStyle and People magazines. (If you want to know exactly what Barbra Streisand, Diane von Furstenburg, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Aniston and dozens of other celebrities and socialites wore at their weddings and exactly how much the galas cost, read this book.)

Geller is absolutely correct in pointing out that there are some absurdly opulent weddings going on out there, and she's not the first person to cite Manhattan's supposed wedding fever. But what gets lost here is the fact that fewer people than ever before are choosing to marry: Recent census figures show the lowest number of married people on record since 1945. The age of men and women at their first marriage is rising, and Manhattan (which, in typical myopic Manhattanite fashion, is Geller's almost exclusive purview, with the exception of the odd California celebrity weddings in popular magazines) has the highest number of singles per capita in the entire United States.

What's more, one wonders if any of Geller's women -- mostly Hollyood stars and royalty -- would particularly care that they are not being good feminist role models for ordinary women. It may be that more and more successful career women are embracing lavish weddings, but that hardly comes as a shock. Being a successful career woman may make one a byproduct of the feminist movement, but it can also make one rich. And rich people do tend to spend lavishly. Hollywood stars probably spend more on their annual birthday parties than the average working- to middle-class woman in the Midwest spends on her wedding.

And when was the last time anyone declared Aniston to be a feminist role model? How many women's studies majors read People magazine to find out where to get a gown just like Jenn's?

It's also absolutely true that anyone looking for examples throughout history to support the case that marriage, as an institution, has been used to deprive women of life, property and civil liberties will find ample (and horrific) examples. But the fact is that virtually all social institutions -- from religion to politics to feudalism -- have been used to deprive people of life, property and civil liberties.

Geller's "spinster by choice" heroines include Heloise, the 12th century nun who wrote to her lover and teacher, Peter Abelard: "The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore." And there is, in every culture -- from French courtesans to Japanese geisha -- a history of single women who exist as concubines or whores. But it would be difficult to make the argument that their lot in life was any better than that of the wives. And citing Heloise as some sort of rah-rah historical precursor to do-me feminism is about as disingenuous as those who cite Geoffrey Chaucer's Wyfe of Bath as a feminist role model for modern marriage.

But the real shortcoming of "Here Comes the Bride" is the absence of actual brides from beyond or behind the glossy page. Nowhere does Geller interview a real, live married woman (unless you count the retail clerks at bridal shops and the few times she snipes at her married friends for having better table services than she does).

Feminist (and post-feminist) marriage takes place far from the viewfinders of celebrity photographers, but Geller seems completely uninterested in what's going on in the minds of not-so-famous women who find themselves wanting to be legally bound to their lover. Early on, she informs us that while she draws upon the work of Mary Daly, St. Augustine, Mary Astell and Francis Bacon, it would be "pointless" to reference them in her work, as these writers are only "read seriously by a dedicated but tiny elite" while "self-improvement books, ladies' magazines, and dating handbooks are consumed by millions of American women."

It never seems to occur to Geller that there might be women out there who read St. Augustine and Mary Daly and a bridal magazine or two before they choose to walk down the aisle -- or enter a pagan circle -- with a partner.

Lillian Ross once wrote in her rules for writing, "Never write about anybody who you do not like." Jaclyn Geller has devoted half a dozen years of her life to exploring an institution -- and by extension, its participants -- that she despises. No wonder she's so cranky. Even the most devoted professional bride doesn't spend much more than 12 months immersed in the treacly, sugar-iced worlds of Modern Bride and People's wedding issue.

In her interview with Jacobs, Geller mentions that her editor at Four Walls, Eight Windows was concerned that people would attribute her opposition to marriage to sour grapes -- as the jealous ranting of a woman in her late 30s who has yet to complete her Cinderella story by finding a good man who wants to make an honest woman of her.

Actually, says Geller, she has turned down marriage proposals. But she does come off as jealous and, to be honest, completely unlikable -- the kind of woman who would go to a friend's wedding and buy the damn soup tureen merely for the pleasure of sitting in the corner and bitching loudly about the bride. (In fact, there is a scene in the middle of her book when Geller goes to the wedding shower of a friend and immediately begins scoping the room to find out how much of the woman's kitchen is made up of free bridal loot.)

One does not picture Geller pining for a mate (one believes her when she says she's not "a couple person," and one is tempted to extend that to say that she's not really a "people person" at all), and there certainly are many good arguments to be made against marriage as a potentially oppressive and exclusionary institution.

But Geller's argument is unconvincing, mostly because, despite research that ranges from bridal customs in the 12th century to the analysis of mother-of-the-bride guidebooks, she seems strangely uncurious about why women marry and how they actually feel about it. If she wanted to do some real feminist scholarship on women who marry, you'd think she'd look at feminists who married, rather than building straw brides out of women who couldn't give a shit about feminists and their rules.

The fact is that Geller hates brides, and many of her arguments boil down to the idea that other women shouldn't marry because it pisses her off and offends her sensibilities as a single woman. Why, Geller wants to know, can't she "marry" her platonic best friend? Why aren't scholars rewarded with gifts of household goods? (I found myself asking: As opposed to research grants?) You get the sense that she really wants that soup tureen; she feels entitled to it. And you can't help feeling that she would have been better off spending six years of her life writing about the radical implications of marrying one's platonic roommate, rather than tearing down the motives of women she obviously cares nothing about.

To find the actual "I do" feminists, you have to turn to the brides themselves, who seem to be outing themselves in droves ever since Steinem jumped the broom. Personal essays on marriage are popping up in magazines and newspapers; Lori Leibovich (formerly of Salon's Mothers Who Think) has started a new Web site for brides called Indiebride.com; and Seal Press has just published "Young Wives' Tales," a collection of essays by young, self-proclaimed feminist brides, edited by Jill Corral and Lisa Miya-Jervis, the founding editor of Bitch, one of the best known of the girlie, do-me feminist magazines.

One theme that emerges over the course of reading "Young Wives' Tales" is how deeply indebted straight couples are to gay and lesbian couples for reviving institutionalized coupledom (legal or not) for progressive straight people. The domestic choices made by writers in this collection include everything from the kind of marriages that would pass the conservative litmus test of marriage as defined by the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act -- "one man married to one woman" -- to marriages that are so queer as to constitute a gleeful "Fuck you" to the entire institution.

There is the Filipina lesbian turned hetero wife who defends her right to call herself "omnisexual" for life; the lesbian who marries, then gets sick of being a "political action figure" and ditches her wife for a new lover; the gay man and lesbian woman who share every aspect of their (legal) marriage except for sex. There is even the token polyamorist -- a woman who has been a member of a three-way committed sexual and domestic arrangement for over 10 years -- who of course takes the time to point out that polyamory has no relation to the sexist institution of polygamy. (The cynic in me knew that there had to be at least one in existence; I picture the anthology's editors taking out ads in alternative weeklies across the country: "Desperately Seeking Polyamorist!")

Given the fact that same-sex marriage is still illegal in virtually every state (except for the watered-down domestic partnerships available to same-sex couples in Hawaii and Vermont) and country (except Denmark and, recently, Germany), it would be deeply disingenuous to suggest that this is an unequivocally positive, or even fair, development.

Andrew Sullivan, one of the most vocal advocates for gay marriage, complains that when he attends the weddings of straight friends, "At no point, I think, has it dawned on any of the participants that I was being invited to a ceremony from which I was legally excluded." On the other hand, Laurie Essig, who has two daughters with her lesbian partner of over 10 years, ranted against gay marriage in Salon last year: "The legalization of gay marriage does not make me feel liberated as much as it makes me feel depressed," writes Essig. "It's sort of like getting gays in the military -- until I remember that I don't really care about the military as an institution."

What gay marriage has done for marriage as an institution is similar to what drag did for girlie feminism in the early '90s: It denaturalized traditional gender roles, and therefore made the act of assuming a traditional gender role seem less like assuming one's "essential" gender and more like choosing a costume. Once a drag queen could play "girl," or a butch lesbian could play "boy," it seemed OK to mix and match one's gender at will: A woman (like, say, Courtney Love, or a riot grrrl) could play "girlie"; a boy could play "macho" (like the gay men at StraightActing.com or leather boys).

So if a lesbian couple can do a full-on "white" wedding, complete with a Niagara Falls honeymoon, who's to say that a straight couple who do the same aren't also adding quotation marks to their wedding?

Only a few of the 30 women in "Young Wives' Tales" spend much time dissecting or participating in the white wedding ritual: a pair of lesbians who debate over who gets to wear the white gown; a hetero couple who are married in a pagan ceremony and choose to exchange a pair of matching handmade engagement rings to denote mutual respect rather than ownership; and a woman who reluctantly agrees to have a traditional Indian wedding to placate her traditional parents.

In fact, a quick perusal of women's writing on their weddings suggests that the trappings of the white wedding are most likely to inspire fear and self-loathing in feminist brides, rather than a deep pining to be a princess for a day.

"The first time I bought a bridal magazine," writes Leibovich on her Web site, "I felt like I was buying porn. When I lugged a mammoth issue of Bride's up to the counter, I actually found myself asking the cashier to stick it in a brown paper bag."

"Yes that was me," writes Denise Ryan in the Ottawa Journal, "in a cold sweat at Chapters, skulking around the magazine racks, a tuque pulled low on my brow, reading a copy of Martha Stewart Weddings that I had discreetly folded inside of Harpers."

Even Leora Tanenbaum, who wrote the excellent "reclaim the shame" book "Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation," gets into the guilt trip when she blurbs for Geller's book: "I am, as they say, happily married -- but after reading this excellent exposé of the marriage mystique, I can't say I'm proud of my status." (You'd think that Tannenbaum would feel that writing a defense of promiscuous women gives her the option to "choose" to be married, but that would, of course, imply that you trust women to make their own choices.)

So why do it? In many ways, straight married women who identify themselves as feminists seem to share Geller's definition of marriage as an inherently sexist, exclusionary, state-sanctioned union, sealed with consumer goods and rewarded with health insurance, joint tax returns and happy relatives. But rather than refuse to marry, they go ahead and do the deed, then proceed to explore their motives and those of their partners, profess their guilt and general embarrassment and then put themselves through all manner of verbal and ideological contortions to explain how their marriage is different.

"Can I feel complete in a relationship with a man and still be a feminist?" asks Nancy Kruse in an article titled "If Gloria Can Do It ..." published in Salon. Kruse goes on to pose a litany of rhetorical questions, as if her personal feelings about her marriage mean nothing until they are compared with a master checklist of qualities that constitute Total Feminist Marriage: "What does it mean that Andy takes care of the garbage and the finances and I take care of the laundry and the social engagements?" "Am I still a feminist if I beg him to fuck me?" If "I comply with his wishes to get me on hands and knees in bed?" "Why was Steinem's marriage so freeing to me and many women I know?" (Kruse's answer: "We sighed with relief, thinking, 'She did it; now our relationships with men are OK.'")

Like Steinem, these women feel the need to defend their decision to marry by proving their husband's feminist credentials, often in flimsy ways. Kruse points out that her husband was raised by women (!) and his sister is a lesbian "as I like to playfully tout at parties when extolling Andy's feminist credentials." Kate Epstein, whose essay "A Marriage of My Own" appears in "Young Wives' Tales," describes asking her husband if he was a feminist before she agrees to marry him. "Well," he replies, "if feminism means supporting the equality of women, then I am definitely a feminist." Gushes Epstein: "I adored him for the entire conversation. If he were just saying what I wanted him to hear, he wouldn't have paused."

The man parrots back a cliché from Women's Studies 101 and he gets credit for a pause?

It's not that creating gender equality doesn't matter; it does. It's not that one can't take a historically messed-up institution, play with it and rearrange it as one sees fit -- if one couldn't, we'd still have serfs and lords. But it seems timid and small to be so embarrassed by one's choice that one has to talk about it endlessly, find ways to justify oneself to other women and be content with such minor pseudo-philosophical Band-Aids. (Another example from "Young Wives' Tales" includes Leslie Miller, who decides she's not a traditional wife if she chooses to call herself a "wyfe," as in Wyfe of Bath.)

Is marriage a relic of a patriarchal past that should be retired shamefully to the dresser like a used garter belt? Or is it an open institution that can be played with, screwed around with and reassembled at will?

It's unlikely that we will see any agreement soon.

Consider this: Amy Richards, the coauthor of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future" -- a book that strove to answer the question "What Do Third Wave Women Want?" -- enthusiastically blurbed the book jacket for "Young Wives' Tales," writing that the stories "prove that sweet fairy-tale weddings and seaside spiritual rituals are choices young women and men make today because of our feminism, rather than in spite of it."

Her coauthor, Jennifer Baumgardner, wrote a blurb for "Here Comes the Bride."

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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