Christmas is peak engagement time, which means that, over the coming weeks, men will be nervously getting in touch with their beloved’s father to ask for her hand in marriage. Here stylist.co.uk editor, Kayleigh Dray, argues why they shouldn’t.
There’s no point beating around the bush: I’m a romantic idealist, through and through. I’m word-perfect on every single Disney song, very likely to swoon over any happy ending/soaring musical number/festive advert/fireworks display (“they’re just so beautiful, you guys!”) and basically guaranteed to cry at your wedding (I have been a bridesmaid no less than seven times, and I embarrassed myself on each occasion by blubbing – very noisily – during the important ‘I do’ part of the ceremony).
Why? Because I can’t help but fall in love with any celebration of love itself – and a wedding, despite all of my gripes about expensive hen dos, unflattering dresses and bridezilla demands, is pretty much the ultimate example of this. Not only do you get to watch two people celebrate the intensity of their feelings for one another with a series of meaningful promises, but you also get to see their family and friends come together to support them on this journey. Plus, you know, there’s champagne and cake on tap – always a bonus.
But, as a feminist, there are plenty of wedding traditions that grate on me – particularly that seemingly time-honoured one which demands the groom seek permission from the bride’s father before he ‘pops the question’.
It’s an archaic practice, and one that dates back to a time when women did not marry for love. Instead, they were expected to secure a proposal strictly for financial and social reasons, and the vast majority of marriages among aristocratic, wealthy, and middle-class families were arranged by parents. Which meant the prospective bride had almost zero say in her own future: if her father could trade her body for a military alliance with France (here’s looking at you, Henry VIII), then so be it.
If a woman did manage to forge a relationship with someone who wanted to marry her for love, and love alone (no small feat at a time when women were considered to be under the control of men), that someone still had to seek permission from her dear old dad before he was allowed to “put a ring on it”. And the bride-to-be would still, under the law of coverture, give up almost all of her individual rights upon marriage – including the right to refuse sex. In fact, rape within marriage only became illegal in the UK in 1991 – less than 30 years ago.
So it’s somewhat surprising to learn that, according to a recent survey of 12,000 brides and 1,200 grooms from TheKnot.com, more than three-quarters of modern men still seek out permission from their partner’s father or parents before they propose, primarily for reasons of social obligation and etiquette. By contrast, only 58% of brides say they knew a proposal was coming, but just weren’t sure when – which makes sense, as plenty of couples at least have a chat about their future plans before anyone gets down on one knee. For 40%, though, it was a complete surprise: these bewildered brides-to-be genuinely had no idea that a Saturday night at the local Italian would end with a barbershop quartet warbling their way through Bruno Mars’ Marry You, a glittering ring and a lot of pointed stares from their fellow diners. Which means that, yes, an overwhelming number of grooms felt more able to sit down and talk seriously about their marriage plans with their partner’s dad than, you know, their actual partner themselves.
At best, this practice is hideously outdated. At worst, it’s sexist patriarchal bulls**t – and, despite being a self-confessed Pollyanna, I’m more than inclined to think the worst in this case.
The year is 2017 and yet women are still fighting for control over their lives across the world. We’re constantly scrutinised over our appearance, we’re criticised over our reproductive choices, we’re fighting for autonomy at home and in the workplace, and we still earn significantly less than our male counterparts. Even worse, this rampant misogyny is becoming more and more prevalent: earlier this year, “pussy-grabbing” Donald Trump was elected President – and one of his first acts was to officially ban US-funded groups around the world from even talking about (let alone providing) safe abortions. Saudi Arabia may have finally lifted the ban on women driving, but the rules that govern guardianship of women – including dressing how they wish, opening a bank account or getting divorced – continue to restrict many aspects of day-to-day life for the female population. And, perhaps most shockingly of all, an estimated 15 million girls are married off before their 18th birthday every single year, which works out at approximately one girl every two seconds.
The Human Rights Act 1998, which outlines the fundamental freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to, makes it clear we should, at the very least, be granted autonomy over our bodies and our lives. And, while the tradition of men asking for paternal approval to marry a woman may not be as dramatic as these other issues, it’s still connected to that same twisted logic that women are not qualified to make their own decisions. That we are nothing more than property or possessions. That we have unlawfully annexed our bodies from the opposite sex – and that they want them back, by any means possible.
My dad and I get along just fine – and I have been known to phone him for advice on occasion – but I manage to make any number of key decisions without checking in with him first, or asking for his permission. Signing the lease on my flat, for example, or accepting my job here at Stylist. And guess what? Neither my landlord nor my new manager felt the need to contact my dad to ask him what he thought about it, either: they figured I was grown up enough to make these choices on my own. So why on earth would I expect my partner to place a long-distance call to Russia and ask my dad for my hand?
I can only imagine the conversation would go a little something like this…
Partner: Hi, Kayleigh’s dad – it’s me, Kayleigh’s partner.
Dad: What’s wrong? Has something happened? Why are you calling me?
Partner: No… god, no. Sorry, nothing’s wrong, I promise. How are you?
Dad: I’m currently building yet another model airplane, which I intend to speak about in great detail because I find it awkward speaking on the telephone and still feel more than a tad bewildered that you’ve rung me up out of the blue. Is there something I can help you with?
Partner: Well, Kayleigh’s dad, I was just calling to request your permission to marry your daughter.
Dad: *pause* Don’t you live with her already?
Partner: I do, yes.
Dad: Haven’t you done so for a few years now?
Partner: I have, yes.
Dad: Right. I think you should probably ask her yourself then, shouldn’t you? Пока́!
I hope that’s how dad would respond, anyway: knowing my luck, he’d ponder the pros and cons of marrying me off at length, before begrudgingly striking up a deal for my hand (“ship me out two suitcases of Marmite, and she’s yours!”). Thankfully, though, my partner is a staunch feminist and, if we ever did decide that marriage was the right choice for us (because it isn’t for everyone), then he would be as unlikely to grovel for my dad’s consent as he is to insist I do all the household chores. Which means we need never learn how many jars of that love/hate vegetable spread I’m really worth to my father.
Of course, the decision is an entirely personal one – and I can understand the sentiments behind seeking a father’s permission. There’s a desire to maintain family ties, to create a sense of community, and to show ‘respect’ to those who raised you. It’s important for many to feel they have the support of their loved ones going forward – and it seems the same is true of same-sex couples. Out of almost 1,000 respondents, 42% of men and 46% of women reported requesting permission from their partner’s family before they asked for the ultimate commitment.
So what’s the solution? Well, it’s at this point that semantics come into play. Rather than seeking permission, many modern couples – Prince Harry and Meghan Markle included – seek the blessing of their parents or guardians.
In doing so, the couple makes it clear the decision to wed is entirely their own: they are the ones who decide if and when they are ready to take such a big step. More importantly, by chatting with both mum and dad (if that’s the make up of the family), the couple shifts the focus of the conversation from “bride as chattel” to “joining the team” (to paraphrase Prince Harry himself) – and isn’t that what modern love is truly all about? Becoming a team that works towards constantly uplifting, supporting, and respecting each other?
Exactly. It’s 2017, guys – it’s time we started acting like it.
Images: Rex Features, iStock