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An Alphabet of Feminism #13: M is for Marriage

2011 January 10




Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.

Genesis 2.24

So begins marriage. In this day and age, most people think of such ‘cleaving’ as kinda cute, an emotional commitment “’til death do us part”; and indeed the union matrimony represents (‘bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh’) begins with the word’s Latin ancestor, the double-gendered maritus / marita (= ‘husband / wife’). Ever-efficient, the Romans join husband and wife in one word, giving us, in miniature, marriage’s first definition: ‘the relation between married persons; wedlock’.

Ooh little darlin’…

Claymation marriage scene from The Corpse Bride - Tim Burton

I do... Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride. Image from

But before all our newfangled post-Romantic notions of individualism, marriage was much less dewy-eyed. It required nothing more than parental consent, and its functions were social, religious and legal. Firstly, it acknowledged a sexual relationship and those children born within it, thus easing the financial burden of bastard upkeep on society and oiling the cogs of inheritance. Secondly, it was a Holy Sacrament, an institution to prevent sin, though it did not sanction guilt-free sex – too much fun with your wife, and it became adultery (= ‘pollution of the marriage bed’).

Finally – then as now – marriage linked families, dynasties, and countries together ‘in-law’, in a way that could be personal, symbolic, or world-changing: new money meeting impoverished aristocracy; the Venetian Doge annually ‘marrying’ the sea; Catherine of Braganza bringing England £300,000, Bombay and Tangier as her dowry. In extension, it helped negotiate the legal exchange of worldly goods, including a dower for the bride should she survive her groom, inheritance for the children, and the resolution of all money matters under the auspices of the pater familias. So it was impossible for a wife to run up debt, to own property, or, in any sense, to exist independently of her husband. In consequence, marriage became the Holy Grail for 99.9% of young women, who dreaded remaining financially dependent on rich relations or married sisters should the marriage-market reject them (as it did, if you were the wrong side of one in three aristocratic women).

…if U ain’t busy for the next 7 years…

Phew. In its second definition marriage takes up the legal challenge, becoming ‘the action, or act, of marrying; the ceremony by which two persons are made husband and wife’.

Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin

Dearly Beloved... Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin.

The non-specifics here are no accident: to the irritation of the early modern church, ‘contract marriages’ and Dodgy Marriage more generally (Scotch Marriages or Fleet Marriages) endured for centuries before the Marriage Act of 1753 put paid to such shenanigans and demanded a public service or none at all. Previously, ‘the ceremony by which two persons are made husband and wife’ could be an exchange of bent or halved coins, the presentation of a ring, or a declaration (‘I make you my wife’). There were certain caveats to this last, of course – you had to use the present tense (no conditionals), unless you used the future and then tumbled into bed: present consummation is present consent.

All very neat, in theory, although such marriages generally took place on the hoof between impetuous couples and only became of real significance once the bride fell pregnant or one or both of the parties got into difficulties. Then you get into semantics: what does ‘will’ mean, exactly? It’s an uncooperative word, conflating what you ‘want’ and what you ‘will do’. Church courts agreed, and many of those marriages that were challenged were dissolved, with an inevitably skewed impact on the would-be wife.

So marriage is as much about speech and silence as ‘cleaving’: moreover, much of its value depends on the weight society gives how you live (today, you can lose your state benefits if you ‘live with another person as if you are married‘). It also creates interesting problems if you are physically silenced before you can assert your consent (as happens in Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed), or if your marriage is explosively interrupted, as in Fassbinder’s film The Marriage of Maria Braun. Conversely, Renaissance actors wondered what God thought about marriages carried out on stage as part of a performance: valid or not? Why not? This whole idea is, in essence, the premise of Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2004), where nobody questions the legality of Victor’s (clearly accidental) declaration to the bride of the title, despite trying every other conceivable method to get him out of it.

…Let’s pretend we’re married and go all night.

The word marriage reflects this in a now-obsolete sense, as ‘intimate union’, antonymic to virginity. And here I nearly tripped up on another little tradition: breach of promise, a common law tort allowing a partner to sue their long-fled lover for damages based on the impact of such ‘intimate union’ but also on the value of language – ‘Does she know how you told me you’d hold me until you die? Well you’re still alive…’

This tort was overwhelmingly used by women, although originally payable to the father of a seduced girl, who had lost ‘services’ (make me a cuppa, love) because of her pregnancy. Later on, it became a means of quantifying waste of time, reputation and trousseau-money in a marriage market competitive enough that such things mattered. Although the tort was abolished in the UK in 1970, a version is still in use elsewhere: a jilted woman in Chicago is currently suing her fiance for the costs of her cancelled wedding, and ’emotional distress’. Whether or not she will succeed is unclear, but her early-modern precursors inevitably triumphed:

See my interesting client
Victim of a heartless wile!
See the traitor all defiant ,
Wears a supercilious smile!
Sweetly smiled my client on him
Coyly wooed and gently won him….

W.S. Gilbert, Trial By Jury (1875)

Trial By Jury explains why the tort was so useful to jilted women, but also why it declined: by 1875 female financial options were expanding enough to change the public perception of such cases from ‘poor innocent maid vs. base seducer’ to ‘I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger…’ So what began as a way to compensate gender inequality itself ended as a vehicle for misogyny, with stories of pretty girls luring men in and then threatening to do the legal equivalent of ‘thcreaming and thcreaming until i’m thick‘. What God has joined, let no man put asunder.

Illustration: M is for Marriage. A couple join hands over the letter M with a ribbon reading 'breach of promise' joining their hands together.

Further Reading:


NEXT WEEK: N is for Nanny

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    January 10, 2011

    That “leave a comment” button is so sad when there aren’t any comments, so I’ve decided to leave one.


    The complications you bring to light as a result of your etymological research are just a few of the reasons why I and others, I expect, are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of traditional marriage. I recently read an online article detailing the legal struggle several couples, both gay and straight, were going through in order to level the playing field for marriage; essentially they wanted gay couples to be allowed to marry (equality) and straight couples to be allowed to form a civil partnership. Many of the commentors were bemused as to why a straight couple would want to form a civil partnership rather than marry, and this article goes some way to providing an answer: this kind of bullshit. When I attended my the wedding of my cousin, a successful, modern, non-conformist career type, I was shocked that at one point in the ceremony the, um, ceremony-conductor type asked for her father to give her away. I was repulsed. I can confidently state that I never in my life want to be given a woman as though she were a thing to be passed from one man to another. It’s a wonder so many marriages survive when there are such problems with the very concept.

    I understand that these alphabet articles are etymological in their focus, but they raise interesting discussion points around the topics (or what would be the point of writing them). Perhaps a deeper gaze into marriage as a social and political topic could also be interesting, or perhaps we can do that in the comments. Thank you Hodge.

  2. Hodge permalink
    January 10, 2011

    That ‘giving away’ thing is presumably what lies at the back of *fathers* (not daughters) claiming for damages in early breach of promise cases. Love how the colour of the wedding dress acts as a guarantee, too (especially odd considering it’s not that old a tradition: Mary, Queen of Scots got married in white, but she was considered very strange, since white was the colour of mourning. I suspect the white thing was a Victorian innovation).

    I was pontificating about this in the pub last night, actually: why do so many agnostic / atheist couples insist on going down to the church for their wedding? And having the father and white dress and all that? What merit does a vow sworn before God have if you don’t believe in his existence? You might as well swear ‘by Merlin’s beard’. What’s the point of wearing white when everyone knows damn well you ain’t no virgin? Even if you argue that a ‘traditional church service’ has the weight of, er, tradition behind it, well, that ‘tradition’ could be legally carried out with both parties shouting and screaming against the wedding throughout the service until a couple of hundred years ago.

    It’s an interesting question, then, how you *make* language mean something performative – does a marriage vow mean anything now that so many marriages end in divorce, for example? How can you make a statement that ‘this love goes beyond a short-term relationship’, when you can undo it with relative ease? For me, the loss of breach of promise seems to be saying you can no longer take someone at their word, which is a very curious idea all round.

    • kaberett permalink
      January 10, 2011

      Re the white thing – yes, it is a Victorian tradition. Where previously women had worn simply their best dresses, Victoria got an elaborate white dress made up to show how wealthy she was: it was an utterly impractical garment (white shows the dirt!) to be worn once, and to show that she could afford to have an elaborate dress to be worn once. (Well, Wikipedia claims “to use up some lace she owned”…)

      So then people (who could afford to) copied her. I’d argue that the “elaborate and impractical dress to be worn once only” part of things is far more relevant, at least these days, that the misconception that it symbolises virginity.

      Mostly unrelatedly I note that the post seems to be discussing heterosexual marriage only (judging by the pictures) – I assume discussion of civilisation was deliberately omitted precisely because “marriage” isn’t the same thing as a “civil partnership”? (Though I hope that’s set to change…)

      • Hodge permalink
        January 10, 2011

        Yup – certainly in pre-twentieth century literature people seem to have made their dresses themselves, and chosen patterns and colours that they could reuse after the wedding. I find it hard to believe that white as the colour of virginity is completely irrelevant though: it’s a fairly self-explanatory symbolism (as you say, it’s a colour that shows up ‘stains’) and there are reams of references in the c17th and c18th that conflate marriage and death, using the shroud as a symbol for crossing a threshold (which was almost certainly what Mary Stuart was doing with it when she got married).

        On the subject of homosexual marriage, I was sorry not to include it, really. Length and scope were the major reasons (this post is longer than previous offerings even as it is), and, as you say, the issue of civil partnership is a whole other question… Was hoping it would pop up in the comments though :)

  3. January 10, 2011

    I find it very hard to marry (ha!) the idea of traditional plus feminist because so many of the traditions depend on a woman being treated as chattel. I’m definitely not letting all the men in the wedding party do all the talking during the speeches and I want both my mum and dad to walk me down the aisle or else walk down it alone. I would, though, love to know where the white dress came from too as it’s not the original virginal colour (that would be blue).

    On the atheist/agnostic front: I was talking about this with some friends and apparently their point of view was ‘it makes it more official’ and ‘it’s a big thing, it should have something more than the legal side’ or simply ‘because our families expect it’. I had someone tell me that although they didn’t believe in god, they’d been christened in a church, would be married in a church and would be buried… well, not in a church, but you get the idea. It appears to be the ‘norm’ for our lazy CofE population, where religion equals sometimes feeling a bit guilty about masturbating or fancying your vicar and so inviting him for tea.

    I think I’m going to go research humanist funerals now…

    • Hodge permalink
      January 10, 2011

      I think a lot of what we now think of as the ‘traditional wedding’ may be American in origin (the US is, after all, the country that spends the most on weddings): I read an article somewhere (might have been the guardian) positing the theory that modern day weddings are getting ever-more elaborate because the institution itself is no longer the terrifying unknown it was before people started ‘fornicating’ as a matter of course and living together pre-marriage. Therefore, couples need something to panic about in its place.

      The laziness of the CoE is absolutely right – so many people seem to get married in church to keep some aged relation happy. I suppose in those kind of cases, you’re using the weight of your family’s opinion as the real ‘witness’ to your vows. A sort of God by proxy…

  4. January 10, 2011

    I’ve enjoyed all of the Alphabet posts so far, but I think
    this was the best one yet and I’ve really enjoyed reading through
    all the links. This might be because I just finished re-reading
    Pride & Prejudice and am seeing everything through its
    lens. Thank you, Hodge!

    • Hodge permalink
      January 10, 2011

      Ooh, silent readers coming out of the shadows! Thanks for your comment – I’m sure was a particularly thrilling link. I was rather hoping to spread the word about The Marriage of Maria Braun though – a very strange film all round.

      Incidentally, re: P&P, one of the things I’ve always found really interesting about Austen’s perception of the marriage market is how she seems to consider the men as much a part of the great bartering scheme as the women – what are Wickham and Willoughby doing, after all, other than trying to get the best financial reward off their looks and charm?

  5. Simon permalink
    January 10, 2011

    This comes to mind, I think its a brilliantly subtle
    exploration of what Churches – and by extension marriage (sorry,
    it’s not quite directly relevant) – could still mean, which avoids
    quite endorsing either side of the argument:

    • Hodge permalink
      January 10, 2011

      Ah man, I did that in my Special Classes at skool, always wanted to hunt it down again one day…

  6. Pet Jeffery permalink
    January 11, 2011

    I’m struck by the degree to which weddings focus upon (are for) the bride. I’ve heard them called “bride’s big day”, but never heard even a humorous reference to the “groom’s big day”. A lot of money is usually lavished directly on the bride, who gets to wear the dress (while the groom’s wedding clothes are usually downright dull). BBC3’s series “Don’t Tell the Bride” seems based on the idea that weddings are for the brides. I feel that this level of focus on the woman should please the feminist in me, but it doesn’t. I recall my own wedding (conducted, I’m pleased to add, in a registry office). At the reception, a significant number of people were clearly shocked that the bride insisted on making a speech. Many wedding dresses resemble meringues, and meringues are silent (at least until someone crunches on them).

    • Hodge permalink
      January 11, 2011

      Yeah, like that T-shirt I have (mercifully) never actually seen anyone wear, but which has a certain ubiquity in market stalls:

      I think it must go back to the idea that women want commitment and men want sex, hence no groom’s big day (he’s already had sex, and doesn’t want commitment). With the silent woman, I think a lot of the ‘blushing bride’ stereotype is ultimately originally the idea of feminine delicacy about the wedding night: in Sir Charles Grandison, Harriet Byron (engaged) cannot even bring herself to name the wedding day, for fear of seeming too forward.

      • Miranda permalink*
        January 11, 2011

        I can regretfully confirm that I *have* seen that shirt on a fair few passers by and passing acquaintances, although thankfully not on any closer friends. Criiiinge.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      January 15, 2011

      I hadn’t previously even heard of that T-shirt. For the first time, I’m glad that nowhere I visit regularly has a market.

  7. Pet Jeffery permalink
    January 15, 2011

    Channel 4 is running a series I’m not sure I could bear to watch called “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings”. I quote from this week’s Radio Times:

    Liverpool dressmaker Thelma Madine is the travellers’ designer of choice. “From the minute these girls can walk and talk all they’re thinking about is getting married and getting the dress of their dreams,” she says. “And they all want their dresses to be the biggest.”

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