Last week I was lucky enough to attend an event which saw Harriet Harman, one of the U.K.'s longest-serving female Members of Parliament, interview a 'hero' woman of her choice; a woman she had long admired from afar who worked in a completely different field from her own. She chose British comedian Jo Brand. They made a powerhouse duo, and suffice to say it was quite the chat.
Rather than an interview, it was more conversation between the two women about working in the respective mens' worlds they each pursued careers in. From experiences they have had and lessons they have learnt to their hopes for the future, they discussed so much that I've never really considered before. I certainly left with eyes a little more open than when I arrived.
I can't easily recap the full 2-hour event, much as I might like to, but fierce feminist Mrs Harman did raise one point that particularly struck a chord with me. Her point was on weddings; and she voiced thoughts reflected in my own opinion, though a variation on my take on the subject.
So often when a couple get married, there is such an exaggerated focus on the wedding, it becomes all about that one day, its lavish and tiny details, and not about the actual marriage which follows.
Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of gathering everyone together to celebrate a really beautiful relationship between two individuals, and for those two people to make a commitment to each other. But I don't think their choice to do so is the most important choice they'll ever make, and I don't think it means what they have is more valid or real than a couple who decide not to get married.
I think marriage is an old institution. It is a social contract from a time when society was different from the one we inhabit today, a society that rendered such a contract necessary. A lot of the traditions of marriage - the "giving away" from the father to the husband, the bride adopting her husband's surname - hark back to a time we no longer belong to.
I can acknowledge there are factors which I am sure contribute to my views in this area. For one, I don't hold religious beliefs that dictate marriage is mandatory. Secondly, I grew up with parents who were separated, so never had an idea growing up that marriage equalled a perfect family life, because I actually found my family life pretty fantastic as it was. I also don't happen to believe in the soulmate theory, that there is one person for everyone, and so when you find that person, you should marry them.
I believe in compatibility and yes, true love. When you are lucky enough to find someone with whom you have large amounts of both, marriage may be something you want to do to celebrate this. But also (cynic alert) this love and compatibility is not guaranteed to last - people change and grow, it's human nature - and so I feel marriage can set us up for feeling like we have truly failed at something essential when, in my opinion, often it cannot be helped. Without marriage, the sense of failure and remorse that naturally accompanies a separation would be so much less of a personal burden and source of shame.
Just because I do not view marriage as essential, it doesn't mean I don't think it holds a place in modern society. In fact, I almost think it is all the more powerful for couples to choose marriage in an environment which no longer stipulates it is needed. To marry for all the other beautiful reasons that people choose to do so is an incredible thing, but weddings so often detract from that beauty, being the commercial, stressful and exhausting things they have become.
Anyway, that's my wee rant over (have you missed me?) but now, let's hear from Mrs Harman...
This is my bugbear actually, and this is about weddings. In my day – in the days of the women’s movement – the idea that the father should give the daughter away to the husband…! I mean my mum, actually not only took my dad’s surname, but she used to have letters addressed to her as Mrs John Harman. It’s like literally her identity had been completely absorbed in his.
So we were like um no, we don’t want to take the husband’s name... we are ourselves, we shouldn’t have to. No, we are choosing our own husbands and we are not going to be given by our fathers, we don’t want to be given away and then have the best man make a speech and all of that, and spend a whole load of money on it because it’s about "the most important thing in your life." We were really against all of that.
Lots of us didn’t get married at all because it was like patriarchy, so why would we do that? But because I’d been selected to stand for parliament I didn’t want to create too much of a fuss – just being a young woman in parliament brought trouble enough in itself. And because I was pregnant… the idea of being an unmarried mother in parliament was just going to be too much, so I got married but did it in a registrar office with just two witnesses there to sign. It didn’t occur to me to invite even my beloved three sisters or my parents or any friends or anything. It just needed to be done.
And somebody hearing this – this young woman – I can’t remember, I was handing round cake because there had been somebody’s birthday and I said, “Oh, I suppose this must be like handing round wedding cake… of course I don’t know because I never had one.” And she was like, “What? How awful.” And I just explained no we didn’t do all that, I didn’t even invite my parents.” And she said, “did your mother ever forgive you?”
Now I find myself perplexed by those of you who have massive hen’s parties because that’s the last moment with your women friends before you get handed over to your "iron partnership," and stag nights and all this spending of money and taking time off work. And most people – is in 1 in 3? – yes, 1 in 3 marriages break up anyway. So the irony is, the higher the divorce rate, the more people spend on weddings. I would rather just get a new kitchen!