The institution of marriage and the subordination it has imposed on women is a topic of interest to late 17th and early 18th century authors Margaret Cavendish and Mary Astell. It is also a present issue, however. Feminist movements have made such an important impact on the way we view women and gender equality. Nevertheless, the type of wedding ceremony that is still so highly valued today contains traces of the entrenched traditions that parallel the fears Cavendish and Astelle express about marriage.
Cavendish’s “The Convent of Pleasure” is a humorous account of Lady Happy’s decision to oppose the idea of marriage by living in a convent. A life tied to a man will not bring her happiness: “Men are the only troublers of women” (Broadview Anthology ,15). She understands the convent as a “place for freedom, not to vex the senses but to please them”, a place where she can “enjoy pleasure” (Broadview Anthology, 15). In this way she subverts the dominant hegemonic ideology that insists a woman gets married. In “Reflections Upon Marriage” Mary Astell cynically explains what a women’s expected marital role is, which disallows her any freedom at all, let alone pleasure. In fact, it should be “her very ambition to content [her husband]” (Broadview Anthology, 369) and provide him pleasure.
An escape from this oppressive narrative is essential, and Cavendish allows her heroine to experience freedom. She constructs an institution that functions in opposition to the institution of marriage, which Anne Finch compares to a prison in “The Unequal Fetters”: “Mariage does but slightly tye Men/Whil’st close Pris’ners we remain” (Broadview Anthology, 353). Neither men nor married women are allowed to breach the walls of the ‘pleasure convent’. Lady Happy is quite literally ‘happy’ in this space, separated from male characters such as ‘Monsieur Take-Pleasure’.
Astell’s piece demonstrates the necessity of Lady Happy’s decision, further commenting on the oppression women encounter in marriage. Women are not offered the chance to choose their husbands but are only able to accept or deny what is offered to them (Broadview Anthology, 367). I notice striking parallels between this observation and marriage proposals today. Women still feel pressure to find a man willing to get down on one knee and offer that proposal. I had a recent conversation with a friend of mine about marriage. She insists on having a traditional wedding, and wants her future husband to ask her father for her hand in marriage before he asks her. When I ask her why she only says “it’s just tradition”. With a sarcastic flare, Astell comments on how marriage can only ever be the ultimate goal for women: “What poor woman is ever taught the she should have a higher design than to get her a husband?” (Broadview Anthology, 172 ). My poor friend was certainly not taught to have higher designs. I think wedding ceremonies allow for an interesting comparison between the feelings Cavendish and Astell express and our ‘traditions’.
The structure of a traditional modern Christian wedding often still reflects tropes of capture and of male control This is not to suggest that gender equality does not exist in martial relationships today. I am hopeful that it does. I only suggest that certain wedding ‘traditions’ mimic and reproduce the anxieties that Cavendish and Astelle comment on. Women are often presented as an object of their own wedding. Some blogs have commented that the importance of a bride’s secrecy, that the groom cannot see her until their wedding ceremony, suggests her value is solely appearance based. Her father will walk her down the aisle and hand her over like a prize to her new husband. He will raise her veil and she will be revealed to him as something that he now possesses.
(Surprise! It’s me!)
Other’s comment on the inequality of the engagement ring, which only women are expected to wear to publicly symbolize their unavailability. The idea of a name change also reflects a type of male ownership in marriage. “It is my pleasure to introduce Mr. and Ms. Monsieur Take-Pleasure”, for example.
WHEN I READ THAT A MAN WAS ACCUSED OF FRAUD AFTER TAKING HIS WIFE’S LAST NAME
Astell notes that even the words uttered between a man and a woman at the altar represent this inequality. She says that “for better or for worse” a woman puts herself in man’s power and “leaves all that is dear to her” (Broadview Anthology, 370)
The idea of pleasure that Cavendish draws on is also interesting to analyze in the context of the sexual traditions that are ingrained in present wedding rituals. “You may now kiss your bride”, for example, is used to display male ownership. Is this kiss pleasurable for the woman? In “The Convent of Pleasure” does Cavendish mean to suggest that pleasure is attainable only by avoiding the patriarchal confines of marriage? Interestingly, Lady Happy used untraditional ways to achieve sexual pleasure.
The garter search, in which men are supposed to brave the unknown that exists under the wedding dress, is also symbolic of the sexual conquest. This short video clip is representative of male sexual domination as it manifests itself today (please note how the groom approaches her like a preying animal).
While this is evidently a pleasurable conquest for the man, is this a pleasurable experience for the woman? Lady Happy’s decision would imply there is more pleasure, sexual or otherwise, to be found elsewhere.
Will my friend have a wedding with these traditions, and will she recognize these existing patterns? Will she get pleasure out of this arrangement and by participating in theses rituals? Why do we repeat these patterns at a wedding ceremony when our ideas about gender equality in marriage have changed dramatically since the Early Modern Period?
Perhaps to Cavendish ‘pleasure’ means equality, in which case maybe many women are still struggling to find their own ‘pleasure convent’ that Cavendish visualizes. Perhaps there is a certain type of ‘pleasure’ in being told “you may now kiss each other as equal spouses in love”.
Astell, Mary. “Reflections Upon Marriage.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2012. 362-372. Print.
Cavendish, Margaret. “The Convent of Pleasure.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2012. 13-31. Print.
Finch, Anne. “The Unequal Fetters.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century”. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2012. 353. Print.
Karin. “Hegemonistic Oppression of the Wedding Ceremony.” WordPress Blog Post, October 4, 2007.
Keene, Meg. “Confronting Traditions: Weddings and Feminism.” Guidance and Planning Blog Post, May 29, 2012.