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Have modern brides forgotten feminism?

Date

Sunday Life

In public, she was the perfect mother of the bride. But, inside, she was torn. April Fraser asks why have women reverted to weddings that feminists fought against?

Has the traditional wedding made a comeback?

Has the traditional wedding made a comeback? Photo: Michel OSullivan

In many ways, I was an outstanding mother of the bride. I smiled and supported and suggested. I accepted all decisions about the guest list. I praised the choices of colour scheme and table layouts. I did none of the expected interfering. But, in truth, that part was easy: I had no opinions. In other ways, of course, I was useless. I could not provide the reassuringly confident judgments needed on flower combinations or style of photography or lettering on the wedding invitations.

I avoided the three-day full-on hen's party, and struggled to summon up the enthusiasm required to sustain a 160-kilometre round trip to view a potential bridesmaid dress in a particular sub-shade of the selected midnight blue.

Having spent the '70s fighting the common assumption that a traditional wedding was every girl's dream, I was stunned to discover that it seemed to have become exactly that. I had failed to take in that the traditional wedding had made such a spectacular comeback and, more shockingly, that it had resurrected itself with (almost) all the gender-role trimmings in place.

How had that happened? In the '70s, I naively thought we were fighting off gender assumptions not only for ourselves but also for women of the future. Why should it be the man's job to propose? We just agreed to get married. Why should I advertise my unavailability when he did not? I had no engagement ring. Most publicly of all, why should I be given away by a man? I remember enjoying our small visual contribution to the feminist cause as my mother and I walked down the aisle together.

And then, more than 30 years later, what did I find in my daughter's 21st-century wedding organiser? That if the bride's mother is a widow, the bride should be given away by "a relative of mature years, an uncle for example". Oh, and that the toastmaster should refer to the bride's mother in the absence of the father as "Mrs John Jones".

I can hardly claim to have been the most rebellious bride of my era, though. I did wear a white dress (bought off the peg); I did have two bridesmaids (in summer frocks); and the bridegroom did wear a suit (wide-lapelled, flared brown pinstripe, clashing beautifully with the best man's mauve). I reassured myself that we embraced those traditional elements to appease our parents. Now we, in the parental role ourselves, are embracing them again, only this time to appease our daughters.

For ageing feminists like me, our daughters' decision to go for the full froth-and-flowers function can be baffling - even something of a betrayal. My three strong and independent daughters and their friends expect to be proposed to, advertise their status with expensive engagement rings and agree that it is the groom's duty to decide on the honeymoon destination. They also seem prepared to plan the wedding details for months. The wedding industry, of course, has risen magnificently to the occasion and expectations seem to have grown exponentially. In the 1970s, our photographer stayed for an hour, did three other weddings on the same day and delivered the proofs by the end of the reception. Now the photographic event begins with a prenuptial photo shoot, followed by dawn-to-dusk digital recording of the day itself.

Alongside this growth in expectations is a similar growth in cost. The average Australian wedding apparently comes with a $50,000 price tag. Saddled with student debt as they often are, and often saving for a deposit on a house, why does this generation think it appropriate to spend that sort of money on one day? I can't imagine that they will look at their wedding photos any more frequently than we have looked at our - so much less expensive - ones. I am sure it is not the $2000 cost of the dress that makes the bride look beautiful. And do the couples enjoy their day so very much more than we enjoyed ours?

Perhaps it's because that is their peers' expectation, too. They are as much a product of their times as we were of ours. For us, getting married was still a rite of passage. For most of us it still marked the official moment of leaving home, the start of living together, and therefore it brought a huge change in our circumstances. A wedding probably did not mark the start of a sexual relationship, but it did mark the start of the public recognition of the sex.

Perhaps that is the difference. My daughter has not had to creep across the landing. She had been living with her now husband for some time before their wedding. Getting married was not a growing-up moment in quite the same way.

If the event is no longer a rite of passage, maybe the day itself has to take on greater significance: it needs to be bigger because the transitional moment itself is smaller. If it is to have the ceremonial solemnity that matches, and justifies, the investment in time and money, old traditions need to be revitalised, including those that depend on gender roles.

Maybe there is a more positive interpretation - that our children can afford to play gender-specific roles at the wedding because in reality they all assume an equality in marriage that we were still fighting to establish. But I can't help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the knowledge that my daughters and so many of their peers, male and female, have been persuaded by a successful industry that they need to act out ancient inequalities to celebrate a modern union and pay through the nose for the privilege.

*April Fraser is a pseudonym.

Guardian News & Media 2010 with Sunday Life

129 comments

  • I am not sure I get this story? are you saying you somehow failed to get the message across to your own daughters?

    Commenter
    Brigitte
    Date and time
    June 23, 2010, 9:52AM
    • I couldn't agree more with this article. I eloped 4 years ago after mutually agreeing to get married - there was no proposal and no ring. We had a fantastic holiday and a beautiful wedding with just the two of us. There was no way I was going to be 'given away' by my father - I hadn't lived at home for 10 years and was in no way anyone's possession to give away!

      We fight for equal jobs, equal pay and then turn into pathetic princesses when we get married. All my friends are well educated, intelligent, successful women who have had big weddings where they have conformed to gender roles. One friend spent nearly $10K on a dress! For many it seems it's all about the wedding and less about the marriage.

      Commenter
      Eloper
      Date and time
      June 23, 2010, 10:03AM
      • I found your article to be very interesting. My husband and I also married in the '70's. We had a nice wedding on a lower budget. It wasn't the cost of the event that mattered really. It is worrying to see young couples taking on high levels of debt for their fantasy style wedding. Maybe it is a form of peer pressure that is encouraging this.

        Commenter
        Nancy
        Location
        Calgary, Alberta
        Date and time
        June 23, 2010, 10:08AM
        • Wow, $2000 dress - sounds like the bargain of the wedding! As someone planning a wedding I agree that the industry is ridiculous, but I'm still enjoying it, and don't think that it marks me in any negative way

          Commenter
          Bride to be
          Date and time
          June 23, 2010, 10:08AM
          • Bravo April! I was in a similar situation a couple of years ago, when I was the maid of honour at my sister's wedding. Having to make the appropriate comments on the colour scheme and the dresses and the sashes and the table decorations just about killed me. Though I have to hand it to my sister, at least she didn't resort to walking down the isle with my father - both of my parents did that. But nonetheless, I find the very idea of being "given away" horrible.

            I have never understood the appeal of a traditional wedding, and the desire of some women to spend countless hours and ridiculous sums of money on one day. I am a 24 year old woman, and I can honestly say that at no stage in my life have I ever wanted to put on that ridiculous dress. I'd much rather go overseas and elope!

            Commenter
            spandy
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            June 23, 2010, 10:08AM
            • I hardly think that a traditional wedding indicates the forgetting of feminism. Feminists fought to obtain equal rights and choices for women - your daughter is exercising her right to chose, and she choses tradition.

              I work hard, I expect equal pay, I don't need a man to take care of me, but when it came to my wedding, I wanted to look like a traditional bride. I don't think it was slap in the face of feminism. In fact, those feminists demanding that women act in a particular manner and shun particular traditions are just as bad as the men that tried controlling us before the feminist movement began.

              Commenter
              Tracey
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              June 23, 2010, 10:09AM
              • you fought you're own fight - don't take it personal - perhaps the generation getting married now don't see a need or have a want to fight. IMO i'd walk down the aisle with both parents and hubby to be waiting with both his - that seems egalitarian to me.

                Commenter
                lahdidah
                Date and time
                June 23, 2010, 10:10AM
                • I think it's because young girls have a perception that the feminist battles have all been won, and that there is nothing left to fight for. A false perception, but a common one.

                  They have no memory of women not being able to obtain bank loans in their own name. They have been told that women are equal in the workforce (let's forget about that pesky glass ceiling and the fact that women are still paid less than men). They have been marketed to more intensely than any generation before it, with the message that being 'a girl' and 'a woman' is all about is pink and pretty princesses who group up to wear designer fashion and jimmy choos (I'm looking at YOU, Sex & the City franchise and YOU, Disney).

                  So why would they question the traditions of marriage that treat women like a marketable product? It's what they have been told that they are. Weddings have become evidence of the bride's success in the pink, designer Barbie world.

                  Commenter
                  Veracity
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  June 23, 2010, 10:14AM
                  • April, I'm in my mid20s and agree with you whole heartedly.
                    I can't get my mind around the massive and very traditional (i.e. backwards, sexist, bigoted, etc.) weddings people seem to be having.

                    I've bought my house, I live happily with my boyfriend of 5 years, am working, studing and travelling - I feel like I have the best life on earth and having a hoopla wedding would probably bring it down a few pegs, not raise me up any higher.

                    I think the key is choice and that's what women fighting in the 70s gave us and I'm sure many young women won't forget it.

                    Commenter
                    Kirby
                    Date and time
                    June 23, 2010, 10:14AM
                    • As a recently married Male, I don't think it's possible for weddings to be any more femenist than they currently are!
                      The whole day is about the bride, us men just stand around dressed as penguines!!
                      How about the hairy-armpit brigade worries themselves with something of more consequence, say, women asylum seekers or lack of male teachers in our primary schools???

                      Commenter
                      Dave
                      Location
                      Sydney
                      Date and time
                      June 23, 2010, 10:17AM

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