Women and Marriage: The Struggle with Identity
by Charlotte Audley-Coote
Please note: this piece is focused on cis-gendered heterosexual women and couples.
For a woman, it can be so difficult to be identified as an independent and whole person. The very fabric of our society not only encourages but almost demands women to exist only ever in relation to men. It seems so absurd to me, that the presence or lack of a male in your life (as if this narrow spectrum of existence is the only option for women) determines how you will be addressed in almost every aspect of your life. It’s so sad that no matter how successful a woman becomes (professionally, personally etc), the word first directed towards her won’t really be about her at all. To ground a women’s public title within her romantic life seems like such an invasion of privacy and simply reinforces that the most definitive aspect of a women depends on outside perception. Although I personally don’t feel that people need titles at all, it’s almost inescapable to either be a Miss, a Mrs or a Ms.
The fact that this variety of different and distinct titles are meant only for women really says something about the way women are expected to identify and how we are culturally positioned for passivity. I know that a lot of women choose Ms. because it is supposed to represent a neutral position despite of marital status – but because it is also tied to being divorced or widowed, I’m not sure how effective Ms. can be or what this association reflects in how society judges women who attempt to identify independently. Either way, the very fact that women have to navigate this identity minefield speaks volumes in terms of how women are perceived. In contrast, a man never has to struggle in the way women do (in this regard), to let the world know who he is. Whether he is married, single, divorced or widowed, the language and cultural norms will always support him as a fully realised human being and determine his identity as separate of his relationship status throughout every stage of his life – with the singular title Mr.
Titles are not the only issue surrounding a woman’s marital status. Women also have to struggle through decisions as to whether they will change, keep or hyphenate their last name if they decide to marry. If a women does decide she wants to keep her name (or even hyphenate it), she must also spend time evaluating about how this may be received by or effect her family, her partner or her partner’s family. Not to mention all the questions as to why, which may follow her throughout her entire life in different work places, children’s schools, doctor’s offices, at functions and so on. Women who do not want to participate in customs which reflect her as property within marriage definitely seem to be a conversation starter! I know that through my own personal experience, the most common responses I get (not just from men) is that the man may be ‘offended’, that it’s all for ‘practicality’ and not to mention that, ‘its tradition!’ Silly me, I do always seem to forget that when something is traditional it is exempt from any moral scanning, intellectual debate or common sense intervention.
Speaking of tradition, the change of name isn’t just a nice neat way to put your family under one word; it represents the exchange of assets (that would be you, brides) from under the ownership of your father to your husband. This is also depicted by the way women are walked down the aisle to be ‘given away’ by their fathers while in that lovely pure and white gown to represent how valuable that virgin bride is (another topic altogether!). If this isn’t enough to enforce your objectification, an engagement ring also serves as a great reminder that you are now off ‘the market’… Just in case you forget. I know rings are nice and shiny (and I’ll be the first to admit that I like anything if it sparkles) but in reality it is just another way of letting the whole world that you belong to someone. Knowing what these traditions really reflect, it’s kind of gross to see how romanticised this whole ordeal is portrayed by movies/shows/songs and how women’s identities being dependant on such factors is considered desirable. It’s even sadder to see so many women react to such sensationalism, where they dream about the day that they get to perpetuate a tradition which represents them as an object of exchange and as forever dependant.
Now, while I don’t think marriage has to reflect these things or that everybody should stop getting married, it’s important to recognise that it is internally problematic and will never be really be free from patriarchal roots. I know that there is progress in how weddings are being celebrated in less exploitive ways, but until a women’s title isn’t dictated by this and her own name isn’t so controversial, there seems to be a long way to go. It can be very difficult to go against these ideals which are basically thrust upon us but it’s important to remember that, men never have to explain or justify wanting to disassociate from being considered property because it has never been a question that they are anyone’s property but their own. No one questions a man’s personal or external life in order to correctly address who he is independently because it is not considered an important factor. Until I am regarded as autonomous in my own right and without scrutiny, I try to keep this injustice in mind when society begins to wear me down.
~ Charlotte Audley-Coote