The Sexist and Racist History of Marriage That No One Talks About

Note: Originally published in Teen Vogue.

It seems that, since it was announced yesterday, most of the Internet is swooning over Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle — and her bling. If it feels like you can’t open an app without seeing a photo of the couple, there’s likely a good reason for it: people love love, and if it’s famous, and conventionally attractive love, so much the better, right? Did we mention that this was going to be a royal wedding? No wonder people are excited — almost 23 million U.S. viewers tuned in for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Still, so much wall-to-wall coverage might make you think about where you stand on one day getting married yourself. If you want to get married — cool, that’s great, but don’t forget that your love doesn’t need a diamond to be legit. Whether you’re into the idea of marriage or not, here are a few things you may not have known about the institution of marriage, which is deeply rooted in sexist customs and laws. Love and fairytales are nice, but marriage is technically a contract, and it’s worth reading the fine-print before signing your name.

Historically, marriage was a business arrangement — made by and for men.

Today’s concept of marrying for love is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, unions were transactional and women had no say in the matter. In colonial America, for example, there was no dating; fathers arranged their daughters’ marriages with the goal of combining wealth and property. What’s more, once married, women were prohibited from owning property. They were merely their husband’s possession and lost all individual legal rights.

Marriage solidified women’s status as property.

Until the early 19th century, a woman’s legal rights in America were largely dependent uponher marital status. Single women could live where they wanted, buy and sell property, and could even support themselves. But once they were married, that all changed. Coverture, a legal concept, ensured that married women were exclusively dependent on their husbands, legally and financially.

Women are (still) expected to take their husband’s last name.

Women in the U.S. may get to choose whom they marry now, but there are certainly sexist holdovers from the days of yore. How else do you explain the patriarchal tradition of taking a man’s last name upon marriage? There are couples bucking that trend, with some men even taking their wife’s last name, but by and large, the bride is expected to shed her “maiden” identity in lieu of her husband’s.

Wedding ceremonies and receptions are still rife with sexist traditions.

Ah, traditions. They carry with them a sense of nostalgia and solidarity. And, in the case of some wedding rituals — a bride literally being handed over to her groom by her father (or other male figure), vowing to “love, honor, and obey,” male-dominated speeches — sexism.

Considered individually, these customs may seem innocuous. But taken collectively, they reflect the sexist roots of the institution of marriage, when women were voiceless and goods to be traded and acquired.

Marriage isn’t just sexist, it’s racist AF, too.

Marriage was largely a privilege reserved for white folks in the U.S. In 19th-century America, slaves were forbidden from marrying at all, while “free” African-Americans were prohibited from marrying across racial lines. In fact, interracial marriages were considered illegal well into the 20th century, thanks to anti-miscegenation laws.

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