By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Last week my partner got down on one knee, said amazingly romantic words, pulled out a beautiful oval sparkly ring and put it on my finger in front of his house where we first met.
I was over the moon excited! During our first date it was apparent that we had a unique connection. We’ve since dubbed it “The Long Brunch.” Breakfast turned into more than eight hours of talking, laughing. It’s a conversation we haven’t stopped since. Over the past several months, we’ve had countless discussions about wanting to commit to each other and build a life together. Now that we are officially affianced, I can shout from the rooftops that I’m madly in love and I’m going to marry the heck out of this man.
We announced our engagement and the response has been wonderful, yet I feel some trepidation that’s been swirling around because of my complicated feelings around marriage and its institutional history. The ubiquitous heteronormative scripts and gender roles, the power dynamics, and the prolonged erasure that happens when a queer ciswomen partners with a man. I’ve been mostly hush about my romantic life publicly because so often we see women’s identities through a lens of who we’re connected to romantically, rather than our professional accomplishments and actions.
“Who I am is not who I’m with” has been a mantra of mine for awhile now in part because of the constant coming out I’ve had to do, and because I don’t want to be known for who I’m with, I want to be known for what I do. Someone asked recently why it matters if I make my queerness known when I’m partnered with a man. The answer is because visibility and representation matter, and I would have loved to see more examples of what queer looked like when I was younger.
Back to being betrothed. I’ve seen lots of my friends navigate the path to marriage, being authentic to themselves while entering into this institution that holds so much weight and symbolism in our culture. My views on marriage are shaped by my memories of marrying my Barbies thousands of times over as a kid, variations of “happily ever after” in Disney movies and rom-coms, and the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Studying sociology, women’s history and philosophy in school taught me to see things through a specific lens. I’m now hyper aware that it’s my turn to tango with tradition. I remember the visceral reaction I had when I learned about the origin of wives taking their husband’s names. Back in the day, a single woman was a “fem sole.” In marriage a woman became “fem covert;” her rights and identity subsumed by her husband; she was no longer legally an individual person. This isn’t what happens now when women take their husbands’ names, but this is an example of how many of the marital traditions we engage in were based in sexist-as-hell customs.
There are utilitarian reasons for getting hitched, like legal protections and health insurance, but I do want more pomp and circumstance than just heading to the courthouse and signing some papers. I’m excited for Mike and I to declare our love for each other in front of family and friends. We are a culture that REALLY values weddings, but we’re writing the script for ours together; changing, adding and throwing out what doesn’t make sense to us. We will write our own vows so the ceremony is really ours. I can’t wait to verbalize what Mike means to me. I will wear a white dress because I want to rock a fierce bridal look, not because I’m innocent and pure (I’m 32, the jig is up, and virginity is a myth anyways). I’m devastated that my dad won’t be able to attend my wedding; he has advanced Alzheimer’s and is confined to a senior home. If he were to attend, there would be no “giving away of the bride” because I can’t not think about the history of dowries and fathers passing ownership of women to husbands. I don’t want to replicate that, even if it doesn’t include the same strings now. Our wedding, whatever it ends up looking like, will be a reflection of our relationship and who we are as people.
The history and symbolism of engagement rings is problematic; a woman’s engagement ring is a symbol of ownership and signals to other men that she is taken and off the market. It’s also a symbol of status and financial prowess. This never had anything to do with love. It was a very successful marketing campaign by the jewelry industry. The diamond trade continues to wreak havoc on many communities. How can I negotiate this tradition in an ethical and feminist way that works for me?
This isn’t the first time I’ve worn a ring on my left hand, or given lots of thought to wedding rings. When I was in college I worked in a jewelry department at the mall, and I noticed something interesting about young women who would drop by. Folks would try on different rings, admire them, and say something about how they couldn’t wait until they were engaged so they’d have one of these rings. I wrote about this more than ten years ago in my blog:
“After witnessing this so many times, I began to wonder why we do this. Why do some women think they need to wait to be engaged or in love to wear something beautiful, as if a gorgeous diamond ring is something we must earn from someone else?… This notion led me to buying myself my own diamond ring. It wasn’t anything fancy; a simple ¼ ct white gold anniversary ring. I wore it on my “wedding” finger and when people asked, I explained that it was my anniversary ring to myself to celebrate 19 years of me loving me.”
I wore that ring for a long time, and it meant so much to me as a young woman on her own. I’m looking down at the current ring on my finger; it’s beautiful and reflects my values. A moissanite stone surrounded by conflict-free diamonds, on a band of recycled white gold, designed and created by a woman-owned business.
When we got engaged to be engaged, Mike and I chose my ring together and each paid for half, taking an old tradition and making it work for us as a couple. There will be lots of weird and intricate decisions to make as we move forward with wedding planning, but I feel total ease when I look down at this sparkly ring on my finger. It symbolizes my agency and clear eyed decision to intertwine my life with my chosen person, as we forge a path forward bucking traditions and making them our own.