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A Counterproposal

One Young Woman Resists On–Bended–Knee Conventions

About a year ago, my partner (it’s so hard to figure out what to call him) of three years—knowing I would squirm at a grand gesture—timidly handed me a peach-flavored candy ring and suggested we might formalize our relationship.

“Me, a wife!?” I thought to myself. My associations with the word were fairly grim: It was one syllable away from “housewife,” with whatever pejorative connotations that carries; there was “wife-beating,” Henny Youngman’s oft-repeated “Take my wife, please,” and the vaguely terrifying “Stepford wife.” In line with Carol Gilligan, my ego had barely survived the leap from girlhood into womanhood, let alone wife-hood.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but the first thing I did was run to the OED for some background. Together Daniel and I looked up “wife.” Most of the references were to economic roles like “alewife” and “fishwife” and I can’t say I was much inspired.

I told Daniel I was committed to him, but as for the rest, I just didn’t know. After sharing bills and vacations, and the grief over his mother’s death, our relationship seemed pretty stable, with or without three rings. Nonetheless, Daniel suggested I take the next week to think about a public ceremony. Since then, the clock has been ticking, and Daniel has been announcing me as his committed one, which has the added meaning (a bonus!) of referring to me as an inmate of an institution for the mentally unsound.

As that week has drawn out into many, my initial objection has multiplied. The process of sorting it all out has made two things clear: Just how much I object to participating in my own white wedding; and just how much the rest of the world insists upon it.

Few people I know are comfortable challenging the wedding trope. Tell a married couple you’re uncomfortable with the notion of a wedding and there’s this eerie silence, as if you are mocking them. Tell it to a single person and she becomes cranky that you are failing to appreciate your loving partner. Girlfriends flinch when I say I’d hate a diamond (“But you’ve got it coming to you!”) and shrug when I say I can’t possibly sign a Jewish legal wedding contract selling my virginity for the price of 200 zuzim. All of them quietly assume that I am afraid of commitment, disloyal, unsure about the fellow, or perhaps more seriously psychologically disturbed.

Don’t believe me? Take the words of an expert, sociology professor Chrys Ingraham. “To develop critical consciousness when romance is the prevailing form is to challenge the boundaries of acceptability,” she writes in her fascinating new sociological study, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture. “To explain my critique the reader could construct me as unfit for marriage, embittered by love lost, or just not a very happy person.”

In other words, if you’re going to resist the formal wedding tradition, prepare for the pathologizing response, and a shrink-wrapped Rx.

But I’m not scared, and I don’t feel crazy. Most days, I feel frustrated that what seems so intuitive to me—that a traditional wedding makes no sense in the feminist world— should be so hard to communicate. Many days I feel lonely because, as patient as Daniel has been, I’m figuring this out in a generally hostile world. Often I feel confused, knowing how much easier it would be on my relationship, and on my spirits, to walk down the aisle. But how much harder it would be on my soul! And once, recently, I felt grateful for the visit from a couple, dear friends, who were unified in their rejection of official oversight of their loyal and long-term relationship. Most days I know that to wed would change little because Daniel and I already do our best relationship work every day. And most days I also know that to wed would feel like I was being sentenced to the silence and passivity that marked women’s pasts and indeed my own fairly typical middle-class girlhood as well.

Some say that the social pressures of a wedding—the public ceremony, the witnessed ketubah, the extraordinary expense—play an important role in turning the one-day ceremony into a life-long commitment. But if feminism has taught us anything, it is to acknowledge the social pressures that direct our lives, to become aware that our assumptions, our choices—indeed our very desires to dress up in white and play fairy princess—might be created by forces outside ourselves, forces we don’t veiy much like. We happily question our fashions—are we really more comfortable in panty-hose and pumps?—our motherhood, our sexuality. So why, when I ask people to apply that same soul-searching questioning to the white wedding, do I become the iconoclast I’m not trying to be?

On one of the many web sites that pop up when I search for “Jewish weddings,” I recently found “A Word about Wedding Gowns—Especially for Grooms.” The priceless advice read, in part, “There’s something you should be aware of, especially all you grooms out there. A WOMAN HAS PICTURED WHAT SHE WOULD LOOK ON HER WEDDING DAY FROM THE TIME SHE WAS A LITTLE GIRL.—THIS IS NOT THE AREA TO CUT BACK ON EXPENSES.” The words were written in all caps and in bold. The message, I assume, is important.

If I pictured myself in a wedding gown when I was a little girl—a fact I highly doubt—I can honestly say it’s been decades since that vision has visited itself upon me. That’s not to say that throughout my teens and 20s I didn’t imagine a man who would become my companion, my champion, who would embrace and accept me. But it had little to do with walking down the aisle. Indeed, the older I’ve gotten—and the more imminent the wedding decision—the clearer it has become that a wedding, with all its adherence to an outdated model of gender relations, is itself the biggest stumbling block to my marriage. The trappings of the wedding simply do not represent what I aspire to in my life, or in this intimate, chosen relationship. As I imagine it, marriage is a process—a figuring out day in and day out how to walk side by side—and I’ve been engaged in that process with Daniel for several years now. The public imprimatur on my worthiness changes me not a whit.

In her book, My Life as a Boy, Kim Chernin imagines herself as a woman exploring her own boyhood. Courting a woman, holding the door and kissing her hand, the boy/woman/Chernin begins to notice change. “A sense of privilege began to inhabit my whole body, which no longer set out into the world in apology for itself, shoulders stooped, breasts submerged….My body had acquired arrogance, a pride of limb, an inclination toward self-assertion.”

As an adult, I have always yearned for this feeling, imagined that I, proposing on bended knee, would embody the energy of the adventuring boy. Then, I thought, I would really know, the way you know when you’ve spent months looking for the right job, or days searching for the right gift, that it’s just the thing you want. Then, I thought, I would not say yes, high-school style, simply because someone asked. If I did the proposing, I thought, then I would be the Actor, and not the poor wench in the spotlight as the rest of the cast holds its breath, “yes” or “no.” But Daniel jumped my gun, and the truth is now that he’s asked, I can’t. As for The Ring, forget about it.

I’m haunted even today by those high school years when this whole long process of mating began—with our initial attempts simply to speak to the opposite sex. As boys crept onto our radar screens, all we could do was hope that we were creeping onto theirs. In a girl, wanting was bad. Waiting was good. When word of my first crush got out (was I 12 years old?), I blushed to my very core. With teasing words ringing in my ears, I learned that my desire (albeit laughingly modest at the time) was embarrassing, shameful, and probably wrong.

On the other hand, when, some years later, another boy I desperately liked asked whether I wanted to go to the prom, with my heart breaking I said “no.” My response was visceral, not theoretical. Already, then, I didn’t like the chivalry. Nor did I relish the eternal shopping and primping—a rehearsal dinner?—for the benefit of my “date.” More than a decade later, feminism would help me clarify what I might have wanted then: to have invited my crush to my prom myself? Or perhaps to have invited him to conspire somehow in my rebellion? But then I didn’t know there might be another way.

Today, I’m still trying to find that other way. Daniel’s proposal notwithstanding, I made a decent attempt at regaining my Agency. Daniel had been eager to settle this thing called our relationship, and the truth is the effort of staving off a wedding was wearing on us as a couple, and on my peace of mind. So, on my 30th birthday, I surprised Daniel and the 30 dearest gathered together with a speech I’d prepared in advance. It took about 10 minutes (and a glass of wine gulped beforehand), and I suppose amounted to a counter proposal. I was funny and charming and in control. My audience was rapt. Daniel, in shock, was bashful and shy.

“Suddenly it began to dawn on me that making a commitment just might be an essential, deep and altogether mysterious necessity,” I told the group, my wine glass raised, Daniel unmoving at my elbow. And while I successfully avoided the words “marriage” and “engaged” and “husband” and “wedding,” I did announce my commitment in front of the most important witnesses in my life.

Though I was sorry to take Daniel by surprise, I was not sorry when he ended up speechless. I’d seen this scene, gender-reversed, a million times before, in movies, on TV soap operas and junky talk shows. I had heard a close friend tell me that she was waiting for her boyfriend of 10 years to propose. He would feel deprived if he didn’t have the chance to ask. Deprived, I thought but did not say, of the chance to prove his manhood. And here, I had proven mine. It was not a game. It was perhaps the bravest thing I’ve done.

Still and all, with the proposal done to my satisfaction comes the difficulty of actually holding a wedding. I’m still stalling. The feminist objections are manifold, responding to a whole body of thinking that holds that silent beauty is a woman’s natural role. In a wedding, everything happens to the bride, while she herself does little. She is given away, she is unveiled, she is kissed, and—in the Jewish tradition—she is acquired. [Need to know more? See Heidi Gralla, page 20]. And then, of course, she is deflowered. It hearkens back to the days when all brides were blushing for a reason.

In an optimistic mood, I told Daniel that I would have a wedding if I could wear crimson. Crimson gets around the false virginity and, frankly, asserts itself. You can’t do to crimson, I thought to myself vaguely, just what you can do to white. He said, “How about a white dress with a crimson sash.” I told my hipster friend the same thing. She said, “How about white with a crimson sash.” I continue to dream in crimson.

So why is it that when you speak to a woman about her wedding day, she is so totally enthusiastic? Even vocal feminists eye weddings with appreciation. They’ve rejected so many forms of the old gender roles, but when it comes to this one, where the woman appears to be in the starring role, they buckle. If you ask secular Jewish women who had traditional weddings why they did so, nine times out of ten they will mention tradition: I wanted to feel connected to my grandmother and great-grandmother and so on. (Women rarely mention connecting with their mothers’ weddings: It happened too recently, and they’ve had to live with the often mixed results. Few fairy tales there.)

And sure enough, standing under that huppah, backs turned to the audience, wearing the sprightly white of youthful virginity, circling her groom or receiving her ring, that bride has stepped through the looking glass into the past and become a distant image called BRIDE. Forget about connecting to her grandmother. She could very well be her grandmother.

I ask the question, Why would you want to be that grandmother? Do you imagine that she went gaily up that aisle? Do you imagine hers was a marriage of love and not of arrangement? Don’t you know that, at the very least, she acquiesced to the formulaic “acquisition” of a Jewish marriage? For at least one of my two grandmothers (and many other women like her), the walk down the aisle was an act not freely chosen. And to a certain extent her entirely familiar white wedding accurately prefigured her relationship. (Minus, of course, the glamour.)

The weddings we hold today, as in yesteryear, are not dramatic productions with the bride in the starring role. They are real life, significant large-scale public events that should reflect our values. And if we’ve rejected those old gender roles, we ought to reject their most celebrated moment—the prototypical faceless figures on the cake—as well. For me, the idea of stepping into those white slippers walks not only us but our foremothers into never-never land. And if we’re ever going to clarify the distorted picture of women that history offers us, that’s not a step we ought to take.

Truth is, no one I talk to wants to deconstruct the fairy tale. They just want to know “When’s the date?” I’m one alone (albeit with Daniel’s patient step beside me), worn down with worry, unable to gird myself against the shrugs and raised eyebrows. Contrary to public opinion, this search for resolution is no small effort I have undertaken, no symbolic defiance. Just when I think I’ve found a feminist ketubah with roots in actual Jewish tradition, I find out it will not be accepted by Jewish law, and I’m angry again. Just when I’ve taken comfort in the simplicity—for the sake of my relationship and my own throbbing head—of just taking the plunge, I am unwilling again to be compliant in the compromise. For even as feminism has forced change into Judaism, it has not silenced the echoes of the deepest patriarchal tradition. A wedding by its very nature compromises my feminism.

So I have gotten only as far as the “proposal,” which I offered up on my 30th birthday. Speaking to my friends and family, I said:  

“To help me get through this, I will assign you all four important tasks:

“First, to serve as witnesses that I still have not said the dreaded “M” word.

“Second, to raise your glasses to my parents and sister, who have brought me to this point.

“Third, to join me in wishing that Daniel’s mother Dorothy were here today.

“And finally, to raise your glasses to Daniel, to whom – or with whom (depending on how things go) – I hope to be committed.”