It’s not a sign of respect. It’s a deeply sexist practice.
It’s the final days of August, which means summer wedding season is finally winding down, and we’ll have a few months of respite before the holiday engagement season – and the attendant ring-on-hand selfies that flood your Facebook feed — kicks in. In the months before they propose to their partners, men across America will be popping a different question – to their future fiancé’s father, asking for his blessing to marry his daughter.
According to a 2015 survey from TheKnot.com of what appear to be overwhelmingly heterosexual couples, more than three-quarters of men ask for permission from their partner’s father or parents before they propose. By contrast, only 58 percent of brides say they knew a proposal was coming, but just weren’t sure when – for 40 percent, it was a complete surprise. In other words, more men talk to their girlfriend’s father about a plan to marry than talk about marriage, in serious and relatively immediate terms, to the woman they actually want to marry.
Challenging conventional wedding traditions may be low on the list of feminist priorities, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to take a hard look at the rituals and norms we hold dear, or participate in without much thought. Gender equality isn’t just about getting laws on the books; it’s about changing a culture that situates men as dominant and women as subordinate. And some of the most stubborn and more literal incarnations of a sexist culture come along with weddings – which is why, uncomfortable though it may be, those of us who want a more egalitarian society must take a hard look at how wedding rituals undermine that goal. There’s a lot about American marriage traditions that are sexist, and a lot of sexism that gets rewritten as romance. But perhaps second only to women overwhelmingly folding their names and identities into their husbandswhen they marry is men asking their girlfriend’s father for permission to marry her. Which is why those of us in feminist relationships should reject that norm – or at least understand that by partaking in it, we’re reinforcing a deeply sexist practice.
The most popular arguments in favor of ask-dad-first seem to be tradition and respect. So let’s tackle each. It is indeed traditional to ask a woman’s father if you can marry her, because traditionally, marriage was a property transfer – with you, the bride, as the property. The legal landscape of marriage has blessedly changed, and no longer does marriage mean that “husband and wife are one, [and] the one is the husband,” as it was under the law of coverture, when women gave up nearly all of their individual rights upon marriage. In those bad old days, a married woman (or married girl, as the case often was) couldn’t own property or refuse sex, or have any separate legal existence from her husband; women were barred from voting in part because the husband was a wife’s legal representative. Happy that the laws around marriage and women have been overhauled so you can be a married woman and an individual with a full set of rights? Thank a feminist. But why romanticize the asking-permission tradition that came out of such backward laws?
“Respect,” the answer goes. But respect for whom – and at who’s expense? In a marriage, you should respect your partner first and foremost. And respecting a woman means not treating her like property, a stereotype instead of an individual, or an appendage to yourself – which means not expecting she take your name, not expecting she’ll do more of the at-home work because she’s the woman, and not asking her father if it’s OK to marry her. There are few things that demonstrate less respect for an adult woman than asking her dad if she’s allowed to make one of the biggest decisions of her life. In an attempt to “respect” a woman’s father, you’re disrespecting her.
Of course, a lot of heterosexual couples do a kind of hybrid between tradition and modernity – they have a series of conversations about marriage and make the mutual decision to wed, and then the future groom has a conversation with his future wife’s father. This is obviously less egregious than a man talking to his partner’s father before ever seriously discussing marriage plans with her, and then springing a surprise proposal on her (please, every woman reading this, if your boyfriend does this, run away as fast as you can – major life decisions are not best made by surprise, and being forced to utter a split second yes/no to marriage is not romantic; it’s a sign you’re too immature to get married).
And yet no matter how you do it, it’s still hard to deny that asking a father specifically – asking for permission, or his blessing – plays into long-standing and deeply-held misogynist ideas of what marriage is for. Women don’t typically ask their boyfriends’ mothers for permission to wed, because for women, marriage isn’t seen as the taking-in of someone else; instead, you’re the one whose identity is being erased, and it’s you who’s being taken. And while I suspect most couples today would say that they see marriage as a partnership of equals, that claim is undermined when couples also embrace the bizarre and outdated ideals that persist in the language and rituals of this union. (See also the ubiquity of “Future Mrs. Whatever” marital paraphernalia that adorns bachelorette parties and wedding-day getting-ready robes to “you may kiss the bride.”)
Criticizing couples’ choices, especially around what is supposed to be a joyous and celebratory event, is fraught territory. So to be clear, no one is drawing a feminist line in the sand, with every woman whose husband asked her father for his blessing on the “Bad Feminist” side. Feminists have to hold these two ideas simultaneously: That all of us partake in sexist cultural norms to some degree or another, and also that it’s imperative for feminists to unflinchingly critique sexist cultural norms. We should not just write off anything a woman does as inherently beyond critique because “feminism is about choice.” Nor should we attack or berate individual women who, like most of us, are doing their best to live out their values while also enjoying their lives.
In other words, no one loses their feminist card for playing into some of these tropes, or just deciding they would rather avoid a fight than take a feminist stance. Believe me, I know – this is personal for me, because I’m getting married in a few months. Navigating the landscape of American marital norms – and trying to do so in a way that feels like an authentic reflection of my own values, my partner’s values, and the relationship we are building – is a tiptoe around landmines, and feminism is just one. Part of the reason human beings rely on tradition is because it’s a shortcut to traversing complex and important life events in a way that makes everyone comfortable and won’t hurt any feelings. And of course participating in some of the less-than-feminist aspects of engagement and marriage isn’t always a sacrifice – lots of women, myself included, have found a lot of fun in the frivolity of sparkly jewelry or a magical white dress. Our lives don’t, and can’t, always line up perfectly with our politics. This is especially true when we’re making a decision to enter into an institution that is, judging by its entire history, a sexist one.
Still, there are other ways to honor the rituals of marriage and the joining-together of two people, and two families, than asking dad’s permission. First and foremost, “Will you marry me?” should never be a real question – that is, one you don’t know the answer to and haven’t discussed extensively. A proposal should be a ritual and formality, a sweet moment that comes after in-depth discussions about why you want to get married, what marriage means, what it will look like, and when you want to do it. Depending on how close you are to your respective families, part of that ongoing conversation may very well include them, but it’s possible to involve all of your parents in a conversation about your impending marriage in a respectful way, without playing into misogynist ideas about what marriage means. This is what my partner and I did – after months of conversation, we decided to get married, and then we both talked with all our parents about our decision (they were thrilled, and no one was put off by not being consulted for their permission).
As marriage has gotten more egalitarian, it’s also gotten better. And it remains, for many people who enter into it, a significant turning point in their adult lives. If your relationship is a pairing of equals, and you want your marriage to be about two equal partners, why not treat the deciding-to-get-married process the same way?
Bucking tradition is never easy. But neither, I hear, is marriage.