I got engaged on my 30th birthday. My then-boyfriend, now husband, and I discussed getting married before then, so the proposal was a surprise, but not totally out of left field. That discussion only involved the two of us because, as fully grown adults, it directly affected only us. Some of you reading may think that asking a woman’s father for permission to marry her before proposing – no matter her age – only happens in other parts of the world where women don’t have as many rights. But it’s also frequently practiced in the United States, particularly in the south, where I currently live. If you’re from this region, that’s no shock at all, and you may have even had the experience yourself. Is this a sweet tradition from days gone by, or is it damaging to a marriage, especially for wives-to-be? Do men still need to ask a father to marry his daughter?
Whose idea was this anyway?
Before we get into the debate, let’s talk about where the custom comes from. Marriage used to be about an exchange of property, not love. Men would ask a woman’s father for permission to marry her because the man would either be getting a dowry (to go WAY back in history) or because the man would presumably be taking over her care. Back then women were a commodity, first of their father’s and then of their husband’s. It made sense to get Dad’s permission.
Today, we don’t have that. Most women live on their own, have jobs, and make their own choices before marriage. Many of them (myself included) live with their boyfriends before marriage. Asking her father for permission seems unnecessary at best and sexist at worst. However, there are women who say that getting permission is extremely important to them. I know a woman who, when her proposal happened, the first thing she said wasn’t “yes”, but “did you ask my dad first?”
So why do we still do it?
Many men say that they ask a father to marry his daughter out of respect. But that makes it sound as though the respect of the woman’s father is more important than a man’s respect for his future fiancé. After all, SHE is the one to whom he is pledging his life, not her dad. And what about women who don’t have a great relationship with their father? In my case, my relationship with my Dad was wonderful, but I still didn’t want my husband to ask for permission to marry me. We made the choice together.
Some men say that they don’t really ask for permission, but rather for the father’s blessing. That seems more palatable, but there is still the question of why he would ask for ONLY the father’s blessing. Some men decide to approach both parents, which makes more sense to me, but still feels a bit demeaning for adults. I would also love to hear from married gay/non-heterosexual couples about this. Did one partner ask the other’s father for permission? Probably some have done so, but I’m betting most of them didn’t, since “traditional” gender roles often don’t apply to those relationships.
Is tradition always bad?
I admit that though my husband and I didn’t follow that particular tradition, my wedding wasn’t devoid of stereotype. My Dad still walked me down the aisle. It’s one of my favorite memories of the two of us, particularly now that he has passed away. It wasn’t about being my Dad’s “property”, but about having that special moment with him. (I nixed several other wedding traditions because I felt they were sexist.)
If you decide that getting a father’s permission before the proposal is important to you, that’s your call to make. I would encourage you to involve the mother as well, assuming everyone is on good terms. And, for those of you proposing, make sure you have talked about the subject of marriage at length with your bride-to-be LONG before involving her parents. That’s a non-negotiable in my opinion. You both need to be on the same page about several matters before saying “I do.” A man needing to ask a father to marry his daughter may not be necessary, but strong communication between the couple absolutely is.