Meghan Markle’s decision to omit the words “to obey” from her wedding vows to Prince Harry was widely chalked up to a feminist victory. It was an example of a modern woman insisting on an egalitarian marriage and of a modern man agreeing to it.
It was also seen as a nod to the newly minted Duchess of Sussex’s mother-in-law. The first time “obey” was omitted from royal wedding vows was in 1981 when Princess Diana married Prince Charles.
At the time, the archbishop of Canterbury supported the decision to remove “obey” from Charles’ and Diana’s vows, reportedly joking: “It’s a bad thing to start your marriage off with a downright lie.”
But is it a lie? For Diana? For Meghan? For any woman married to a man?
It’s one thing to drop a word from a wedding ceremony, it’s quite another to undo 2000 years of cultural conditioning.
So many of our rituals and cultural values, whether we like it or not, are shaped from religious teaching, like this little gem from the bible:
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”
You need only look at how fiercely people defend the practice of a groom asking his bride’s father for permission to marry her, or fathers walking daughters down the aisle and handing her over to another man, to see just how strong the symbolism women’s subordination remains in marriage.
People justify these rituals on grounds of romance, pretending that it’s harmless and bears no relevance to the actual power dynamics within modern relationships.
But for most heterosexual marriages, the notion of equality is just as much a fairytale as pumpkin carriages and happily ever afters.
We might be fooled by research and anecdotes that show that women do most of the decision making in families. Women manage family budgets, social calendars, decide how to raise children, what to cook for dinner, when the kids get haircuts, and what brand of vacuum cleaner to buy.
Partly this is women taking the initiative, and partly it’s because men often absent themselves from the details of family life. Women make these decisions because someone has to and her husband isn’t going to any time soon.
But what’s often overlooked in these “who’s the boss?” conversations is the power of veto.
My friend summed up the actual power dynamic in marriage beautifully when she said: “I don’t obey my husband. I pretty much do what I want, my husband rarely puts his foot down.”
And there it is: the reason why many wives do actually obey their husbands, whether they said it in their marriage vows or not. The husband still has the right to “put his foot down”.
In short, many women are free to make their own decisions — until it impacts on their husband. But this doesn’t mean that women are actually in charge. It simply means they have the freedom to make decisions about all the things that men don’t feel strongly about.
Take the family budget, for example. This is often seen as an area which women control. But the family “budget” is not the same as controlling the family “income”. Women can only control the money they have access to, and in many marriages, that is only a fraction of the family income. And from my experience, that applies to women across the class spectrum, from ladies who lunch and the women who serve them.
Quite simply if you don’t have access to money you don’t have access to power.
Even when wives earn most of the money in the family, husbands still maintain their dominance. Research by Veronica Tichenor published in the academic journal Sex Roles shows that: “[Female breadwinners] reproduce men’s dominance in decision-making, as men assert the right to make certain decisions, and women often defer in order to prove that they are not trying to dominate their husbands and are therefore ‘good’ wives.”
I’m sure that many men would be horrified at that suggestion that they expect their wives to obey them. But the reality is that these men are not raised in a vacuum. They often absorb models of masculinity-as-dominant through the media, schools, workplaces, and their own family dynamic.
In our culture, masculinity is inseparable from dominance and control. If a man is not dominant in his home and in his marriage, it is an affront to his identity as a man. Men police each other’s dominance with accusations of being “pussy whipped”, or as my husband has been accused of by men who think I have a few too many opinions for a woman, a “giant mangina”.
It is an extremely enlightened, secure and self-aware man who is content to omit “obey” from marriage vows — and then to abide by that decision long after the wedding reception.