A while ago I wrote a blow-by-blow post about how my husband and I put together a feminist wedding that satisfied my feminist sensibilities. I realized later that my post failed to capture my incredible grumpiness in the months leading up to the wedding. I was (and am) very happy with my husband and happy about getting married. Yet in that pre-wedding period of my life, thinking about my wedding often made me very angry. Amanda's post on Weddings and Fear has made me understand why -- and captures a central cultural conundrum for independent, feminist women.
When my husband and I agreed to get married, it was natural for him to want a big celebration to share our decision with all of our friends and our family members. In contrast, my response to his happy assumption of a big wedding was a very suspicious, "What you talkin' about Willis?" and a LOT of resistance. My husband was puzzled by my response. He was able to view the prospect of a large wedding as simply a happy occasion. But for women, weddings carry a lot of humiliating cultural baggage. As Amanda says in discussing Kamy Wicoff’s book I Do But I Don't:
. . . Wicoff came to the conclusion that while weddings are supposedly a big pageant celebrating the bride, the reality is that they are about male dominance and other social hierarchies and the reason that brides have to dress more and make a bigger fuss than grooms is the principle that “the slave acts more than the master”. In a lot of ways, how this works is obvious—women put more work into weddings, women are dressed up more, women have to suffer the trouble of name changing (or explaining why they didn’t do it), etc.
There is something about the cultural script surrounding the traditional wedding hoopla that has always struck me as unbearably humiliating. The underlying assumption seems to be that the wedding day is the woman's crowning moment, a day of far more defining importance to her than it is to the man. The bride is supposed to work in a feverish frenzy to ensure that the napkins and the bridesmaid's dresses and the decorations on the cake and the flowers and every other little detail are exactly right while her future husband tolerates all the fuss indulgently.
My anger as a prospective bride was a product of my fear of being perceived as embracing this humiliating role. I struggled to be gracious to women who asked avid questions about my "color scheme" or what music I had chosen for "the spotlight dance" or the "father-daughter dance." I gave my rarely seen Thousand Yard Death Stare to people who made fatuous comments to my father about "a big day coming up for Daddy's Little Girl" or the bridal shop ladies who called me "a little princess."
Even more than that, though, I was angry because I did love my future husband and I did want to celebrate our commitment with our friends and family. Yet the cultural narrative for women to express love and commitment to a man carries connotations of debasement for the woman, an expectation that the woman subsume her identity to the man's. So how is a feminist woman to express her love for her husband without playing into these connotations? It's incredibly frustrating because the choices always seemed to be to debase myself or otherwise to appear like a coldhearted, selfish person.
This conundrum carries over into other areas of life. Let's say I want to do something nice for my husband. For example, I will sometimes do his laundry for him just as part of my quest to be a considerate, giving spouse. But it pains me that I can't perform this simple act of doing something nice for my partner without worrying that I am playing into the role of woman-as-performer-of-drudgery-that-is-beneath-men-to-have-to-do. Whereas, if my husband does my laundry for me, it's just a straightforward case of being a helluva nice guy. There are other examples of this difficulty, like the cultural narrative surrounding the Marriage Proposal which Amanda discusses both in the original post linked above and here.
I think this is part of the reason a lot of women opt out of feminism or find feminism difficult. Women who want to be in relationships with men and who want to be loving, giving partners to their man are stuck with a traditionalist gendered cultural script for expressing those often very important, very central, very human desires. These scripts are so entrenched that rejecting the script often seems to women like rejecting the notion of being a loving partner to a man.
This is also the source of the idea of the angry, selfish, man-hating feminist. Because we feminists don't want to express our kindness and our love and our commitment to our men by cleaning up after them or taking their names, then the assumption often is that we are not kind, or loving, or committed because there is no widely accepted egalitarian cultural script for a woman to express love and kindness and commitment to a man.
I am not sure I have any brilliant solutions. As Amanda notes, its hard to opt out of these cultural scripts because no matter what we do, our behavior is understood in terms of those entrenched expectations. So I plow ahead and do my own thing. Some people probably view me as a "man-hater" and some people probably view me as "the little woman." To the extent it comes up, I try to convey to people that my not taking my husband's name is not a sign of my lack of commitment to him, nor is my doing his laundry from time to time a sign that I view his laundry as primarily my responsibility.
UPDATE: As noted above, weddings and laundry are just a few ways in which these issues may permeate many women's lives. In the comments, Natalia raises the notion that many women students feel that as women they shouldn't or can't do math or physics. I have written before how women I knew in college hesitated to try out for the crew team for fear of developing an "unfeminine" degree of upper body strength. This kind of difficulty seeing alternatives to the gender norms by which we live can affect our lives in a multitude of ways -- and may manifest differently in different communities. I perhaps shouldn't have titled this only for straight women but I did want to acknowledge that heteronormativity of my examples, which both involved intimate relations with men. The larger point of course is the difficulties in finding alternatives to gendered scripts -- and the possibility of being misunderstood in our communities whether we accept or reject the status quo.