‘Why would a feminist get married in this modern world?’ I encountered this question before my recent engagement in December last year.
My relationship with Cam is a modern one – for one, we met through the popular dating app, Tinder. We ‘matched’ and met on a whim the same day; neither he nor I expected much to eventuate on that date at the NGV. But the Tinder Gods were on our side that day. Or maybe the endless rooms of Chinese pottery forced us to push through those first-date nerves. Something worked because we went on a second date and a third… fast-forward to now, we’re living together and, with our flat mate, navigating the waters of student life (for me), new jobs (for them), and trying not to exist on takeaway. I catch the spiders and Cam does the dishes. On the other hand, I do the cooking and Cam carries the heavy groceries. We’ve found that we adhere to gender norms in many ways without being trapped by them. In the same vein, our decision to get married follows a social norm, but at no point have we felt trapped by it. A few centuries ago, this would have been a vastly different story.
A contract. A property exchange. A means of shelter, reproduction, food, and protection. All of this extremely practical, none of this remotely romantic. But this was (and in some places, still is) the reality of marriage. It was a transaction of people between two families – and more critically, of women as a commodity. With the birth of romanticism 150 years ago, much has changed for this institution and we, for the most part, get married for love. Even now we still search for a protection of some sort in the modern world – it’s just less literal.
With second-wave feminism and a relaxation around sexuality, and the means in which to express it, there came a drop in the popularity of marriage. Many of my friend’s parents didn’t marry and instead live quite happily as de facto couples. Out with old, in with a new gender equality that, naturally, shied away from a dirty past. Less expectation to marry came with women’s greater focus on career and more openly queer relationships. Divorce became commonplace – but not necessarily more common according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Fast forward to now; sitcoms illustrate a greatly diversified ‘modern family’ in personal values, sexuality and religion. But to have a typical nuclear family is still a pervasive norm. This has been and will continue to be challenged, especially as Millennials are starting to ‘settle down’ and become the newest sets of parents.
Broaching the topic of marriage with my friends, the conversation would begin with a few shouts of disapproval and ‘signing your life away’. No one wants to sound archaic, or even worse, be compared to their parents. Eventually, someone chips in, “Well, I suppose it might happen one day. If it does, yes, I suppose I would eventually want kids.” They will then go on to mention, “You wouldn’t want your partner to be absolutely everything to you. Those expectations can be extreme and unhealthy. Romantic relationships aren’t the only ones that matter.” We will all nod agreeingly and toast to our continued friendship before the conversation closes with the disappointing afterthought, “First, it needs to be legal for me to get married.”
Once we’ve passed the obvious youthful concern of catering to our hormones, it’s not an aversion to commitment or a family, or even marriage itself. The comments come from wanting to learn from the mistakes of past generations, and of course, the glacial pace of Australian politics.
For the last few decades, there has been a fear of being ‘stuck’ in the present and stunting your future. The very word ‘commitment’ implies counterproductivity. The Millennials, those who grew up in a period of relentless ‘productivity’ with technological change and upheaval, have now entered adulthood. Many of us are returning to marriage in the same nostalgic sense that we are returning to ‘vintage’ fashion of the ‘90s and the styles we remember when growing up. In a similar vein, we seek to emulate the sexual liberation of the ‘60s along with all its drug use.
But the world has changed now; ‘vintage’ clothing is more expensive than brand new, sexual liberation comes with emotional avoidance of Tinder hookups, and pot is synthetic. Marriage, too, is not what it once was – and this is exciting. It’s historical instigators such as being financially stable, physically safe, or wanting children don’t come with a marriage prerequisite. Ending relationships does not come with the same stigma. There’s less of an expectation that we will, inevitably, get married.
So to reiterate the opening question: ‘Why would a feminist get married in this modern world?’
Answer: Choice. I think, for the first time, our generation may truly have a choice. Choice to divorce, choice of partner, choice to marry at all. Believing in the importance of ‘choice’ is something distinctly feminist. This generation, our choices will be distinctly varied. At present, there seems endless options in ways to conduct relationships. Be casual, be many in number, be discrete, be open, be traditional. I am lucky to have so many freedoms now and many choices to make – more so than any other generation of women that’s come before me. I want to marry Cam. I can see us together at 80 and 87 respectively… assuming we live that long. I would love to exercise my choice to make formal my commitment to him. Young? Yes. Naive? Possibly. In love? Absolutely.