Phrasing within wedding ceremonies is being brought into question as heterosexual marriages become more egalitarian and as same-sex marriages continue to build momentum. Traditional wedding ceremonies were constructed on the premise that women and men had specific and separate duties within the household. Times are changing. Yet some ceremonies being performed today have remnants of the older ways. Language, after all, is a bridge between the present and the past. There are 4 ways in particular to tell if your wedding ceremony is sexist.
#1: Are your vows unequal?
Take the groom’s vows and the bride’s vows and put them side-by-side.Are they the same? I’ve found, time after time, that brides end up agreeing to more responsibilities than the grooms do. The original version of our vows (which the church supplied) had me agreeing to 5 responsibilities and my husband to 2. That changed.
Sometimes the responsibilities are equal in number, but not in type. Grooms agree to be breadwinners, leaders, fathers, protectors, and so on. Brides, on the other hand, agree to be nurturing, motherly, obedient, and, well, you can imagine the rest. And yes, there are still American women today that agree to be obedient simply by saying “yes” to vows they didn’t bother to read over before the ceremony.
Fixing this injustice is important because these are the responsibilities you are agreeing to for the rest of your life—make sure that you want them! It’s an easy fix too. Write down the promises and responsibilities that the bride and groom both want. There, you have the vows for one of them. Copy, paste, and now you have the vows for the other one. Easy.
#2: Does your ceremony include, “You may now kiss the bride?”
The sentence “you may now kiss the bride” is so engrained in our heads from the movies and every other wedding we’ve been to, that it’s hard to see it for its true sexism. Yes, this sentence is sexist as well. I’m not sure about in your marriage, but in my marriage, we kiss each other. I don’t sit around and wait for my husband to kiss me. Our kisses are mutual. If the bride doesn’t want to kiss the groom back, then something is wrong with their marriage already.
I know of three simple options for correcting this bit of sexism. “You may now kiss” is simple and to the point. “You” refers to both the groom and the bride thus symbolizing their union as one being. Since most people expect “the bride” afterwards, this phrase may sound unintentionally cut off, thus some prefer “you may now kiss each other.” The last one brings more attention to the fact this phrase is rewritten and is a bit more poetic: “you may now seal this bliss with a kiss.”
#3: Does your officiant say, “I now pronounce you man & wife?”
Before a wedding ceremony, a man is a man and a woman is a woman. According to the phrase “I now pronounce you man and wife,” a ceremony makes a man a man, and a woman a wife. Why has the woman’s identity changed but not the man’s? This inequality relates to a time period where it was the woman’s identity changing and not the man’s. This phrase reflects older values that are, for the most part, not in play today. It’s about time we get a phrase that reflects modern values.
Furthermore, “man” is an identity for a singular person. You can be a “man” without being in a relationship with anyone. “Wife” is an identity that is dependent upon someone else. You have to be in a relationship with someone to be a “wife.” The dependency of a “wife” on a “man” reflects those same older values. Women used to be unable to own land, for example, so their wealth and status were almost completely dependent on their men. Today women’s identities are just as dependent on their husbands’ as their husband’s identities are dependent on theirs.
Another easy fix. Say, instead, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Of course, for same sex couples you can say “husband and husband,” “husbands,” “wife and wife,” or “wives.” One more idea is to go with your particular definition of what it means to be married. For instance, you can have the officiant say, “I now pronounce you partners in life.” This phrase is also an opportunity to bring your themed wedding home. For instance, a Star Trek wedding would say, “I now pronounce you number 1 and counselor.” (Having one person as “captain” would be sexist because “captain” is above in rank. “Captain” would be the officiant who has the power to join the two together in marriage.)
#4: Does someone announce, “Introducing Mr. & Mrs. John Smith?”
So like me, you may have lost the battle in regards to keeping your last name or having your last names hyphenated. Some traditions are just hard to shake. Growing up with a different last name than that of my household members, I know how impractical and tiring it can be to have a different last name. Last names unify a family.
I may have taken my husband’s last name, but I did not take his first. I must admit I shutter every time I hear someone announce a couple as Mr. and Mrs. Husband’s First Name Husband’s Last Name. Was the wife’s identity so overwhelmed by her husband’s that she now merely represents three letters (Mrs.) out of that entire address? I hope not!
Try, instead saying something like, “Ladies and gentleman, I’m please to introduce Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” This address is simply more accurate. You can also say “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.” At our wedding, the priest said, “Sable and James Schwab.” We took out “Mr. & Ms.” because as much as I love “Ms.,” it is sometimes harder to say. Keeping both of our first names in the equation showed that we still kept our individual identities. Also, having “Sable” before “James” was more of a personal shout out to my late grandma who challenged the idea of listing a man’s name first.
Sometimes we simply have to bend to the traditions of our churches or families. Even I (the woman who customizes weddings ceremonies to reflect the values of brides and grooms) had to let some things go. Our priest said, “you may now kiss the bride” and I had to force my clenched teeth to relax so my husband and I could kiss. Amending traditions is difficult.
Notice how I didn’t saying “fighting traditions.” Traditions naturally evolve along with our cultural values and views of the world. Language takes slightly longer because, again, it’s the connection between our present and past. However, language can propel us into the future as well.
If you want to quicken social change, then language is an effective tool. Seeing language as a tool for social change is not some new fad. Our founding fathers encouraged Americans to develop their own dialect to separate us from the Red Coats and to develop our own national identity. Is it really so bad to implement new wording within wedding ceremonies so that we can truly recognize what marriage means today? Society changes. Language changes. Marriage changes.