Planning my forthcoming nuptials has been remarkably pain-free. The most serious road bump I’ve encountered is my future mother in law’s disgruntlement that I’m not changing my last name. Genuinely curious, I tried to get to the bottom of what motivates her desire for me to take her son’s name. After a lengthy and circumlocutory discussion I discovered that it comes down to this: it’s tradition.
As she’s so keen on tradition I thought she’d be thrilled when I suggested a dowry is in order. I’m the breadwinner in our family, sallying forth to do corporate battle each day, while her son stays home to look after our child and household. Surely it is only fair that my future parents in law stump up some booty for me to take their son off their hands. I helpfully sent a list of dowry suggestions including a floor-to-ceiling bookcase, new car, the Mimco art-deco jewellery collection and twelve Bactrian camels. It is a very reasonable price to secure a more-or-less functional, six-figure salaried PhD with proven reproductive capacity.
I was quietly pleased with my witty rejoinder to a patently ridiculous suggestion (and kind of hoping that she might come through with the new car). But I didn’t get my smug on for long because if my mother in law is guilty of cherry picking her traditions then I am too. I’m signing up to an institution that, historically speaking, has officiated the transfer of middle and upper class females from father to husband with a cash incentive to the latter. (Working class men had to make do with sheets and towels sexed-up with the fancypants name ‘trousseau’). An institution that has valorised female virginity at point of transfer as a means of protecting male property rights. An institution that subjugated women to the authority of their husband (it’s ‘man and wife’, not ‘man and equally sovereign human of another gender’).
We’re hardly talking ancient history here either. Until the amendment of the Public Service Act in November 1966, women employed in the Australian Public Service were required to resign upon marriage. Married women were only eligible for temporary positions with no prospect of advancement and no entitlements. Australian married women wanting a passport were still required to secure their husbands’ permission as late as 1983! Feminine ‘obedience’ or ‘submission’ remains enshrined in some church-based ceremonies. The concept of marital rape is still contested on the grounds that a married couple are ‘one flesh, indivisible’ and therefore incapable, by definition, of raping itself.
I’ve written elsewhere about the reasons why I’m getting married. I think they’re good reasons, but the fact remains that marriage has been inimical to the notion of women as fully human. It’s disingenuous of me to pretend I’m doing other than shoehorning a patriarchal tradition into my own, reconstituted vision. Any feminist who gets married and thinks otherwise flunked history.
I’m hardly alone in re-inventing tradition to suit my own ends. Human beings have a remarkable ability to cherry pick from the old to serve the new. The early Christians knew this, which is why Christmas day aligns with a popular pagan holiday that celebrates the birth of the sun rather than any of the possibilities that could be Jesus’ actual birthday. The gay and lesbian community, rather than rejecting a tradition that has excluded and demonised them, is mobilising to transform it. Perhaps tradition itself is nothing more than the re-imagining of the past to synchronise with our present.
If so, where’s my bloody camels?
S.A. Jones is a writer and regulatory analyst. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia and is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking.