“He’s going to ask my daddy for permission the next time we see him,” the girls behind me on the subway giggled. The one speaking, in a clearly Southern accent, was thrilled. She was going to get married. She knew it. She had approved it. And yet, for some reason, she still needed her father’s permission. It was so archaic, I shuddered.
It seems so incredibly old fashioned to ask a father’s permission for a daughter’s hand in marriage that I thought it had become a relic of the past. Something we look back on fondly and think, “Oh how quaint we were back then.” In fact, for many women (and men), it is a very serious thing, a tradition they refuse to relinquish no matter what.
“I can’t imagine my husband not having asked my father first,” one friend told me in confidence. She is a smart, well-adjusted woman who lives in the city. She got married at 29, which is older than the average age of 27 in the U.S. and I am pretty sure she would define herself as a feminist. And yet, there we were.
I got engaged 12 years ago now. I was 24 and so in love with my soon-to-be-fiancé that we couldn’t stop talking about all the fun we would have once we were permanently together. When we got engaged, it was beautiful. He led me through a scavenger hunt, got down on one knee and proposed with much fanfare. We went out to celebrate. We were young and in love. And yes, we were a bit old fashioned, too. But my father didn’t factor into any of it.
Later, we told him we were engaged together. I laugh imagining my dad, a typical baby boomer whose hippie youth gave way to a more conservative adulthood, entertaining a potential suitor with a proposal.
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” I imagined him saying. After all, whose decision is it really? His or mine? Who is the person who will spend every night in bed with her fiancé? My father or me?
Tim Minchin has a beautiful Christmas song called “White Wine in the Sun” in which he says, “I don’t believe just because ideas are tenacious it means that they’re worthy.” Well, exactly. In this case, we have a tradition based in the roots of women being property traded back and forth between men. We don’t leave our father’s house on a mission to find a man and settle down anymore. Now we make our own destinies and decisions. So why can’t this “tradition” get kicked to the curb like those debunked myths about women’s capabilities?
The bottom line is that a decision this big isn’t up to a woman’s father or mother. It’s not up to her sister or brother or boss or Aunt Hilda. It is up to her. She decides what her future should be. As the mother of two daughters and a son, I sometimes think about my two girls and what we might do if some man came by asking for their hand.
I am pretty sure the first thing my husband would say is this: “Ask her first.” And then, after he was gone, I imagine my husband might turn to me and ask whether that was even the right boy for her at all. After all, a boy who doesn’t respect our daughter’s independent spirit isn’t likely to respect her boundaries in the long term of her life.
Marriage is a huge decision. Arguably, it is the biggest decision we will ever make. So it shouldn’t be up to anyone besides the bride and groom. Sure, it’s just a formality in today’s day and age and plenty of men and women get married without the father’s “blessing” even when he was asked first. But it’s still such an expectation. When will that end? When will we be able to look back, laugh and say: “I can’t believe people used to do that?”
What do you think of this tradition?