that’s just the way it is: the gendered traditions that are holding us back
Feminism is a word I run into daily, whether it’s on Facebook, an Instagram post or care of a trending topic brought to light by a celebrity. Thanks to modern feminism and its promotion of basic women’s rights and gender equality, and the questioning of daily cultural biases, I have found myself reconsidering everyday behaviours and wondering whether certain actions are my choosing or the result of societal constructs imposed on my gender. Am I sitting with my legs together because that is what’s most comfortable or have I simply grown accustomed to the idea that this is what is deemed appropriate for a female? Do I dress up because I want to, or have I accepted that the way I’m treated is more often than not a direct result of how I look that day? Is it enough to simply acknowledge the idea that my self-worth is attached to my appearance? Identifying the reasons behind simple conventions may be difficult, but breaking down these conducts is a much bigger obstacle.
Recently, while I was travelling on the bus, I overheard a young woman complaining about her boyfriend. She told her travelling companion that she and her boyfriend had been together for five years, living together for one, and now that she had turned 30, she had begun to worry about their unmarried status and when she would be able to start having children. Apparently the couple had previously agreed that they would like to be married soon and yet, there had been no change to their relationship status. I sat and listened as the two women began brainstorming ways they could start dropping hints in order to urge him to propose.
At no point was the idea of the woman proposing to her boyfriend even considered. It became clear that while she was unhappy with the pace of their relationship, she would much rather endure it until he proposed than pop the question herself. I couldn’t help but wonder why. Had this option not occurred to her? Or was she against the idea because it goes against what our traditions dictate is “the norm” when it comes to relationships?
We are programmed to approach relationships with the same old traditions and in turn continue to teach this to younger generations. A “respectable man” will pay for the first date, a “gentleman” will hold the door open, a man will decide when to propose, as the case above reminds us, the father will walk the bride down the aisle, the wife will take the husband’s last name – all conventions that enforce the idea that, in heterosexual relationships, the male has the control.
The resilience of these patriarchal customs does not only extend to courtship. Antiquated symbolism is carried through during the traditional structure of a wedding ceremony. The practice of the father giving away his daughter has its roots in the days of arranged marriages when she was considered her father’s property. It was the father’s right to give his child to the groom, usually for a price. Nowadays, it has been argued that this routine is removed from its original meaning and considered nothing more than a symbol of his blessing of the marriage. It should be noted that this is a blessing that does not seem to place any importance on the mother’s role or wishes. If the wedding ceremony is not considered to undermine the idea of the spouses’ equality there is always the expectation of the name change to consider.
When it comes to name changes after marriage the tradition called coverture was used as a means to legally enslave women under her husband’s authority. Nowadays, the laws differ internationally. In France and Greece, for example, a woman cannot legally change her name after marriage, which isn’t the case in places like Thailand, China, Germany and the Netherlands, to name just a few. And to my surprise, the 2014 ‘Cost of Love’ survey found that a whopping 82% of women in Australia and 71% of women in the US take their husband’s last name. The survey also found that only 3% of children are given their mother’s surname. There’s no one law in the western English-speaking world that would stop a man from taking his wife’s name, yet it’s something we rarely see. The expectation is that the woman will give up her name and surrender her identity without any question as to why there is no such pressure on the man to do the same. Not to mention, she is then expected to change her title from ‘Miss’ to ‘Mrs’, thus highlighting the importance of her marital status in comparison to her husband’s.
These examples may appear trivial to some, but by nodding to these customs we are only reinforcing the historic tradition of women’s oppression by the patriarchy and enforcing the idea that there are certain gender dynamics that women are encouraged not to challenge. The subtle sacrifice of the feminine identity must be acknowledged in order to alter the pressure of these societal norms.