Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique

Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique

by Jaclyn Geller



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781568581934
Publisher: Avalon Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/28/2001
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.53(w) x 8.26(h) x 1.17(d)

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Chapter One

    Courtship and the Marriage Quest

We live in a conjugal age, when the couple has become the standard for all intimate relationships, the unmarried and the married, the homosexual as well as the heterosexual. Commerce panders to the conjugal ideal, and municipalities zone in its favor. Children play at it. Marriage has become a form of serial conjugality, a sequence of partnerships taken up and abandoned with bewildering rapidity, as men and women seek the perfect mate. Most of us will spend at least two-thirds of our lives in couples, much longer than any previous generation. Of course, there are moments when couplehood is broken by death or divorce, but these are perceived as intervals of loss and deprivation, when the sense of wholeness can best be restored by finding a new partner.

—John Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present

The clustering of women writers occurs in direct relationship to the development of a female reading public.... The relationship is complex: the existence of a female reading public enabled some female writers at last to make an independent living. Some of those who did also developed an independent lifestyle, which may have led them to an increasingly feminist consciousness.... On the other hand there are countless examples of female writers with vast female audiences who never developed any feminist consciousness; on the contrary many made their living by celebrating women's traditional nurturant and maternal functions or by fostering women's traditional focus on love and marriage. —Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness

I. The Marriage Mystique

The late historian John Boswell has written that the most salient feature of the modern West's psychological landscape is its widespread obsession with romance and its assumption that amorous love should be the basis for marriage. Those immersed in what Boswell calls the "sea of love" mentality tend to take it for granted: "even many scholars of the subject fail to notice how remarkable is the degree of its prominence in the cultures in which they grew up. Very few premodern or nonindustrialized contemporary cultures would agree with the contention—uncontroversial in the West—that 'the purpose of a man is to love a woman, and the purpose of a woman is to love a man.' Most human beings in most times and places would find this a very meager measure of human value."

    The belief in erotic love as the wellspring of personal happiness and the equation of long-term amorous relationships with maturity and mental health are ideas that now saturate every corner of American culture. But a cursory glance at popular advice literature reveals that these subjects are not assumed to be the equal obsession of men and women. Magazines, self-help books, and radio talk shows aimed at men cover issues ranging from health to consumer guidance to recreation to career management, but popular advice to contemporary American women is single-minded in its concern with obtaining and sustaining a monogamous sexual partnership. The dominant theme of virtually every current American woman's magazine is the romantic relationship. Other frequently discussed subjects in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Mirabella, Self, Marie Claire, and Glamour are fashion, fitness, home management, and career strategies. It could be argued, however, that such topics are subsumed within or at least directly related to the culturally mandated quest for officialized love. When a woman colors her hair, tones her body, redesigns her apartment, or even augments her resume, she builds cultural capital that will recommend her on what relationship experts call "the dating scene," helping her to attract a male partner. Magazine articles, newspaper columns, how-to dating manuals, and call-in radio shows ready the female consumer for the hunt, instructing her to fortify herself physically, psychologically, and financially. (Similarly, as we will see in Chapter Nine, advice columns to wives that feature get-to-know-your-partner quizzes and sexual bromides propagandize on wedlock's behalf, reinforcing in women the linked ideas that wedlock is their central project and marital commitment is a precious commodity to be reified and guarded. The myriad celebrity couples profiled in popular magazines praise conjugal life, enhancing the marriage mystique with domestic anecdotes and bits of romantic folk wisdom through which they present themselves to the population at large as emulative role models.) Televised daytime talk shows have become venues for husband-hunting advisors, and the popular psychology branch of the publishing industry panders increasingly to "single" women, offering a range of strategies for snagging a male partner.

    Relationship experts focus on immediate romantic goals, appealing to the emotions rather than the intelligence of their female readers and urging women to use their analytical capacities solely as amorous strategists—operatives who secure male commitment through the clever deployment of tactical game plans. Self-scrutiny, and analysis of one's aspirations for an erotic relationship, the type of man one hopes to attract, and areas of compromise necessary to secure marital commitment are de rigueur in dating literature. But inquiry, through analysis and contextualiztion, of the institution of marriage itself, is taboo. Relationship pundits operate in an ahistorical void, a vacuum in which male-female partnership is a perpetual unassailable truth. Representatives of a media that provide easy ready-made solutions to female distress and assume such distress to always be personal, these advisors treat human relationships with a short-range approach that lacks the depth of historical perspective. Their twofold project—instructing the masses of American women presumed to be "single" and therefore love starved in the arts of winning male devotion and the follow-up task of helping frustrated wives jump-start their faltering marriages with techniques of erotic ignition—are short-term. The modern advice-giver's frame of reference is limited to the immediate, the quotidian, and the romantic.

    What one scholar has described as a "present-minded" approach to reality is necessary for these contemporary dating experts and essential to the cult of matrimony. Historical myopia on the part of both advisors and advice recipients is the fundamental requirement of today's marriage mania, a fetish for conjugality that demands each woman view herself as potentially or actually part of a marital unit—the female half of a couple—rather than a link between past and future generations of women. Viewing ourselves on a historical continuum of women who have been subordinate within male-dominated institutions such as wedlock would cloud the matrimonial mystique and problematize the all-important quest for conjugal commitment. Because marriage as an institution has been inextricably connected to the most potent forms of female oppression, its proponents cannot survey it from a detached perspective but must instead transform its inherently public, political nature into something magically personal, private, and inevitable. When a dating expert helps a female client determine whether her current beau is capable of "commitment," he assumes the permanent domestic contract to be a basic and universal female desire. He also naturalizes that desire. When a radio therapist advises a husband and wife to spend more private time away from the children—to reserve a part of each day solely for each other or to take romantic weekends away—she presumes the marital relationship to be sacrosanct and in need of unique kinds of maintenance. She also, perhaps without consciously intending to do so, projects romance-based marriage as a cultural ideal.

    Matrimony is not, however, a set of raw, untempered, universal experiences. It is a humanly shaped institution that has its origins in the inception of western civilization itself. It is a political arrangement that merits a political critique rather than a personal impulse that deserves automatic complacent respect. When we remember the extent to which culture is cumulative, with each generation transferring economic conditions as well as social norms, precedents, laws, and interpretive metaphors to the next, we can begin to understand the fusion between contemporary women and the marriage ideal, a collaboration that has spawned and continues to sustain America's expanding relationship industry as well as its virtually recession-proof wedding industry. Marriage mania in modern American women did not arise sui generis. It is the result of millennia of law and social custom that have valued women solely in terms of their relationship to men, predicating female respectability on male stewardship. To understand the female obsession with romance-based domestic partnership we must preface our examination of popular culture with a brief foray into more complex and challenging sources: the history books that reveal to us our own past.

    Simone de Beauvoir wrote famously in 1949 that women have no past and no history. She was wrong. Women have a history, which, for the most part, appears unglamorous to modern female intellectuals, a history of private unpaid service within the family, a history in which marriage has been the central and defining act of most individual's lives, a history of absorption within an institution that has offered certain protections in exchange for the imposition of rigid restrictions. Wedlock has tended to offer women immediate social and psychological rewards while obstructing long-term female progress. Its traditional securities have come at a high price: the containment of female sexuality and the limiting of female agency. Yet this contract has been central and desirable to most women in most times and places. As Olwen Hufton has written of private life in early modern Europe:

Marriage was seen not merely as women's natural destiny but also as a metaphoric agent, transforming her into a different social being as part of a new household, the primary unit upon which all society was based. The husband's role was that of provider of shelter and sustenance.... The role of the wife was that of helpmate and mother. At the highest levels of society, women became mistresses of houses with servants to organize, estates to manage with the help of stewards and agents, and hospitality to offer on their husband's behalf. The appearance and dignity of the wife confirmed the status of the husband.

    A helpmate, a domestic partner/subordinate/manager, and a visible index of male prestige, the wife traditionally received, and continues to garner, powerful social approbation. When we consider the primacy that the marital experience has had for western women, the current female obsession with wedlock as reflected in popular culture becomes comprehensible as yet another historical chapter in which matrimony has been mandated as a natural and laudable female good.

    Glancing back in time, though, we can perceive the facts of female subjugation in the West to be inseparable from the evolution of marriage law. In prehistory inchoate attitudes, tribal customs, and legal dogma ossified over centuries in the process Gerda Lerner calls "the creation of patriarchy": a legitimized system of male dominance that culminated in the first western law codes, the Hammurabic Law Codes of 1750 B.C.E. and the subsequent Middle Assyrian Law Codes of the fifteenth through the eleventh centuries S.C.E. These bodies of law institutionalized monogamous marriage arranged by men, with household assets transferred to male offspring; the custom that has, until very recently, dominated the West. Both corpi of law are based on assumptions that bear repetition. Ancient near eastern culture assumed the strength and superior rationality of men and the status of males as political citizens and women as contingent beings destined to exist outside of political life. While men through their rational faculties were equipped to order and interpret experience, women were intended to nurture and sustain life, overseeing the continuity of the species in a kind of perpetual service position. From the earliest marriage regulations on record this role entailed male controls of female sexuality and reproductivity with no parallel female controls of male sexual and reproductive functions. It as well contained the belief in marriage as an asymmetrical partnership and the married couple as a unit whose stability was essential to the integrity of the public domain. The contractually united couple was, in Lerner's words, "the basic building block" of the healthy organism that was the state, a belief echoed by marriage propagandists to this day. While historians disagree as to whether the ancient wife was a piece of property transferred from father to groom or a legally disenfranchised individual who garnered the symbolic gift of a bride price, it is clear that, from her beginnings as a historical entity, the wife occupied a subordinate position that was also, ironically, her sole option for respectability.

    In ancient Greece marriage was, once again, a process of transfer by which a woman's kyrios ("lord" or "controller") gave her to another man for the purpose of procreating children. Normally the woman's father, but if he was deceased, her nearest male relative, the kyrios acted for her in all legal and economic transactions, as female judgment was thought to be impaired. A marriage in Athens was valid only if it began with a formal statement by the kyrios granting the bride-to-be to her husband. In the Roman Republic matrimony was, again, "essentially the transfer of power over a woman, who had been under the control of her father (or brother, or uncle, or some adult male), to that of her new husband (or his father, if the husband was not head of his own household), who then stood in this role of her controller/protector? Roman betrothal in fact entailed a ceremony between two men in which pledges were exchanged to cement the deal: the groom-to-be would ask his future father-in-law, "Do you promise to give your daughter to me to be my wedded wife?" "The gods bring luck! I betroth her!" the latter would reply. While this concept of marriage, in which all persons in a household were subservient to a single adult male, changed in the later empire, imperial Roman marriage was by no means egalitarian. Roman law maintained mutual consent to be the basis of legal marriage, but the bride's consent was assumed unless she lodged an official protest, an objection taken seriously only if her fiance was proven base or unworthy. And although she was legally defined as an adult in her own right, the imperial wife was subject to the rampant sexual double standard prevalent throughout the ancient world. Her husband might well have married her for financial or dynastic reasons; this would not prevent his finding erotic fulfillment in concubines, slaves, and prostitutes with no fear of public recrimination, while, in order to ensure the "legitimacy" of his heirs, her chastity was requisite. "If your slave, your freedman, your woman, or your client dares answer you, get angry," wrote the Roman author Seneca.

    Early medieval marriage among the Barbarian tribes who migrated westward, penetrating and ultimately supplanting the waning Roman empire, was even more male dominated than Roman marriage had been, granting women few rights but imposing upon them many obligations. Betrothal was arranged by male relatives of the bride, whose consent was not required, and who, once married, could not seek divorce. It consisted of an agreement between two fathers sealed by a feast at which the groom-to-be s family paid a sum of money—a bride-price—for her. Barbarian men commonly had concubines, but a Barbarian woman's adultery was, according to the Roman author Tacitus, punished immediately by her husband, who stripped her clothes off, cut her hair, ejected her from his home, and flogged her publicly throughout the village. Tacitus appreciated these firm measures to curtail female sexual autonomy. "No feature of their morality deserves higher praise," he wrote of Barbarian marriage.

    Medieval men were theoretically free to choose their marriage partners as soon as they attained majority—between the ages of twelve to fifteen according to various law codes. The Lombard Code, written down in the seventh century, enabled a woman's father or brother to choose for her without her consent, even after she had reached her twenties. The ninth century archbishop, Hincmar of Reims, who defined legal marriage as mutually consenting (with the exception that a woman must be given and financially endowed by her father) presents an unsavory picture of medieval marriage. His writings depict men using various stratagems to rid themselves of their wives, ploys that include murder as well as legal deception: "They seized any pretext to suspend conjugal relations after a few years of married life, took mistresses, slandered their spouses to the clergy, forced them to tolerate concubines and to testify that their husbands were impotent or to pretend that they themselves longed to retire to a convent."

    Hincmar may have been exaggerating in order to justify his own reforms, but medieval marriage law, which operated from the premise that a woman's sexuality was not her own but her husband's, did give men overwhelming power over their wives. Anglo-Saxon legal codes in fact contained a scale of compensatory payments to husbands for the seduction of their wives. According to the eleventh-century laws of Cnut, a woman who committed adultery was a public disgrace, "and her lawful husband is to have all that she owns, and she is to lose her nose and ears." According to feudal law in the high Middle Ages a wife could not plead in court without her husband's consent or make a will without his permission. His authority over her property was total; only when she reached widowhood did she acquire any degree of economic independence, and even then she was often subjected to powerful family pressures to remarry.

    Despite its brutal strictures marriage was, for medieval women, the universal objective. This was especially true for peasant women, to whom convents were closed. Aristocratic women were pawns in the game of establishing dynastic households. According to the historian of marriage Georges Duby, the late medieval landholder did his best to marry off all available young women in order to distribute the blood of his ancestors, forging alliances that would last into the next generation.

    Medievalist Christopher N. L. Brooke writes, "The kings sought marriage above all to provide themselves with male heirs and for personal satisfaction; if the wife was unsatisfactory she was changed." This changed in the twelfth century, when the Church took control of marriage, worked to stamp out concubinage, and imposed rules of permanence and monogamy upon both women and men. Succumbing to Church pressure, heads of aristocratic households came to center their aspirations on inheritance, which necessitated monogamy and demanded the chastity of women. Because it ensured the purity of blood lines and the orderly transmission of property from one generation of "legitimate" male heirs to the next, wifely fidelity was the bedrock on which the new family rested.

    Embedded in both medieval and Renaissance notions of marriage was the belief that the sexes were unequal. The biblical story of Adam's creation in God's image and Eve's emergence as a secondary figure taken from his rib reinforced the notion of inherent, timeless gender inequality. Male and female were merged into one unit, but that unit contained a hierarchy. Woman, who had caused humanity's fall from grace and exile from edenic paradise, was naturally inferior, a notion supported by Paul's letter to the Ephesians, which stated that the husband was head of the wife as Christ was head of the Church. In 1439 marriage was officially proclaimed a sacrament of the Catholic Church. Renaissance marriage was arranged, as medieval marriage had been, with negotiations between families centering on the dowry contributed by the bride's side. Once the couple married the husband assumed total control of both the dowry and all of his wife's effects. Renaissance wives were prohibited from acting for themselves in legal or commercial matters; yet, as in previous centuries, they were socially mandated to desire and hopefully await their own legal subordination in wedlock. Those without husbands had no hope of obtaining a prestigious position in society. In Italy and elsewhere a favorite form of charity was the dowry fund, established by communities to help poor young girls attract husbands.

    Protestant reformers rejected the notion of marriage as a Christian sacrament as they likewise discarded the Catholic idea of clerical celibacy as a superior way of life. Martin Luther contended that marriage existed in order to satisfy the natural urge to procreate, effecting the salvation of souls by allowing men and women to act sinlessly in accordance with their physical natures. Sexuality, in this view, was the reason for marriage, and matrimony was thus the ideal state for all human beings. Subsequent theologians developed this idea, delineating the urgency of qualitative marital relations and, ultimately, allowing for divorce. (If individuals were compelled to marry by sexual drives they must be permitted to separate and remarry when their unions failed.) The Protestant notion of holy matrimony, probably the distant wellspring of our own culture's obsession with the caliber and tenor of marital relations, was still absolutely patriarchal. Husbands were mandated to love and protect their wives; wives were expected to obey their husbands.

    The historian Lawrence Stone argued that the Protestant sanctification of marriage resulted in the further domination of wives. With its emphasis on the couple, Protestant morality isolated the family from the larger kinship and community network, stressing the household as a moral center for the socialization of children in which "power flowed increasingly to the husband over the wife and to the father over the children" and in which husbands were less hampered by interference from relatives, neighbors, and clergy. Early modernity also gave rise to the romance-based "companionate" marriage. In the seventeenth century the idea that two people could find fulfillment in a partnership based on unsupervised personal choice and mutual affection was still so radical that it was considered dangerously subversive. One century later marriage based on personal and erotic attraction had become a popular norm. A growing, Protestant middle class re-envisioned wedlock as a complementary but unequal friendship. A stream of conduct books and novels—similar publications continue to the present day—suggested that women were naturally suited for this new model of wedlock, instructing them in the domestic arts and celebrating their wifely capacities.

     These primers were, effectively, guidebooks on how to enjoy one's own subordination, since eigtheenth-century domestic law incorporated previous gender biases. In his 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England, the jurist William Blackstone codified preexisting regulations with the definition of coverture: "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything. As a femme covert a woman could not initiate independent lawsuits, and any income or property not protected by a prior marriage agreement was automatically her husband's. Family law dictated that children belonged exclusively to the husband; in the event of his death his widow had rights over them only if such rights were stipulated in his will. Wives who left their husbands could take neither children nor property and could be forced to return, regardless of the cause of the abandonment. In eighteenth-century England a husband who killed his wife was tried fop murder (punishable by hanging), while a wife who killed her husband was tried for "petite treason," a crime punishable by drawing and burning alive. In France things weren't much better. The 1804 Code Napoleon, influential throughout Europe, recapitulated the old terms of the marriage contract, proclaiming a husband head of his household and dictating the arrangement as one of male protection in return for female obedience. Under this code women were classified with children and mental defectives as legal incompetents. Again, a married woman's only possible source of legal protection lay in the marriage contract drawn up by her parents, but these contracts tended to subordinate wives to their husbands, making it impossible for women to manage their own assets without their husbands' consent.

    Bolstered by custom and law, the patriarchal family was the source of heated polemics in England throughout the nineteenth century. Supporters saw it as a sacrosanct institution, a tranquil haven in a rapidly changing world. Sanctified by the Victorian's brand of evangelical Protestantism, marriage was said to be an ethereal state in which men and women complemented each other by operating in separate spheres. The husband was protector and breadwinner to a domestic, submissive, and self-abnegating wife whom one poet referred to as "the angel in the house." Victorian culture seemed to have perfected the marital ideal set forth two centuries earlier by a Dorsetshire clergyman that "A good wife should be like a Mirrour which hath no image of its own, but receives its stamp from the face that looks into it." With its beatification of woman's role within marriage, the nineteenth century gave rise to the event that is the subject of this book: the big white wedding featuring elaborate pageantry and lavish displays of spending and sentiment. Victorians touted the components of the wedding—the gown and veil, the bridal procession, the throwing of rice, and the romantic honeymoon—as British traditions despite the fact that not one of these rites predated their own century. "The popularizing of the big white wedding as the British nuptial" was, according to scholar John Gillis, "an act of self-veneration by those seeking to legitimate and impose their own social standards." Giving away a bride adorned in virginal white, hosting a family reception, and sending the couple off on an exclusive honeymoon enshrined the Victorian's romantic notions of female purity, conjugal love, and the nuclear family. This was the era in which marriage reached its apotheosis as an ideal. Despite the fact that it was, once again, legal subordination, with a husband controlling his wife's property and earnings, wedlock continued to be the central aspiration of most women. ("Being married gives one one's position, which nothing else can" wrote Queen Victoria to her daughter in 1858.) With its extraordinary profusion of images sentimentalizing wedlock and its rigid code of marital gender relations, the nineteenth century was, also, not coincidentally, the era in which women organized and began, overtly, to fight, coming together with an agenda of specific demands and ultimately achieving a series of sweeping reforms that included not just the vote but the protection of matrimonial property (in 1882) and equal access to divorce (in 1923).


Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1 Courtship and the Marriage Quest15
CHAPTER 2 "Will You Marry Me?" The Proposal Scene
in the Contemporary Imagination73
CHAPTER 3 Spreading the Word: The Betrothal Announcement as
a Cultural Script103
CHAPTER 4 "We Request the Pleasure of Your
Company" The Crisis in Contemporary Wedding Invitations131
CHAPTER 5 The Politics of Marital Entitlement151
CHAPTER 6 Prewedding Charades: The Bridal Shower and the
Bachelor Party175
CHAPTER 7 An Angel in White: The Wedding Dress213
CHAPTER 8 "I Do" The Contemporary Wedding Ceremony255
CHAPTER 9 Aesthetics and Politics of the Wedding Day295
CHAPTER 10 Institutionalized Eroticism: The Honeymoon337

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