October 12, 2007
Father, may I?

From the Things I Don't Quite Understand Department: Asking Daddy's permission to marry his daughter.

Before Bob Hunt dropped to bended knee on the famed Cliff Walk in Newport, R.I., and asked his high school sweetheart to marry him, he'd taken her father to dinner at a Chili's restaurant and sought his permission.

''Because I have such a great relationship with her family,'' Hunt says, ''it makes it that much more important that I ask for permission.''

Reviving a tradition that seemingly went the way of the flapper and Prohibition, young men like Hunt these days are talking to their intendeds' parents before popping the question. While there are no numbers to track the trend, call a bridal store or wedding venue or otherwise inquire among the betrothed and the newlywed and their parents and it is easy to find examples. Jenna Bush's fiancé, Henry Hager, reportedly had a private tête-à-tête with her father, the president, before he proposed one summer morning at sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine. What these young men embrace as a gesture of courtesy and respect has roots in an era when women had few rights and little opportunity.

''It was a fairly common practice based on the notion of making alliances between families and passing the daughter who was legally the property of the father onto the husband,'' says Temple University historian Beth Bailey. ''What we're seeing right now is an odd combination of young people with progressive sentiments and a real desire for conventional gender roles and arrangements''

It never occurred to me to ask permission of Tiffany's dad before we decided to get married. For that matter, I never really asked Tiffany to marry me, either - as she puts it, we had a protracted negotiation. I've had a good relationship with my in-laws from the beginning - our second date was a double date with them to a 50s-style sock hop party - and I consider this a blessing. If Tiffany had told me it was important to talk to her parents before we made any announcements, I'd have done so out of respect for her. But the decision to get married was ours and ours alone.

Likewise, it would never occur to me to expect that a future son-in-law would seek my "permission" before proposing to Olivia or Audrey. Should that ever happen, I'll have two questions for him: Why aren't you asking her, and what would you do if my answer was "No, you may not marry her, I absolutely forbid it"? I understand the desire to ask for a blessing, and if it's couched in those terms (and if both Tiffany and I are approached together), then I won't give him a hard time. But my daughters are not my property. They are their own people, and they will make their own decisions. Maybe some people think this tradition is respectful to the father. Speaking as a father, I think it's disrespectful to the daughter. Link via Feministing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 12, 2007 to Society and cultcha

Has nothing to do with considering your child property, but more in becoming a member of an extended family. One does not have to agree but certainly one does not have to belittle traditions that one does not agree with. As a wise Viking once said "Opinions are like ass holes every one is entitled to one."

Posted by: Manuel Barrera on October 12, 2007 8:16 AM

Everything you said about this makes perfect sense...and I will still ask my girlfriend's parents before I propose to her. I find it endearing and I don't necessarily think you have to connect it to its former justification--asking the father to transfer property. If her father asks me your question--what I would do if he said no--I would tell him that I would want to know why but would also tell him that I was going to do it anyways. I think it speaks to the idea of becomming one family, a concept that I believe has been replaced by the idea of an economic partnership, the terms of which are sometimes spelled out in a contract.
I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think it is by any means required , but I also don't think it's disrespectful to the daughter. To me it serves as a gesture to your future inlaws that you want to be part of a larger family and that their opinion is important. It could also be simply that I am one of those "young people with progressive sentiments and a real desire for conventional gender roles." I think I am and I don't think there's anything wrong with that as long as I don't try and legislate or mandate my ideal family model on others.

Posted by: dukakis_in_a_tank on October 12, 2007 8:54 AM

I hate to break it to you, dukakis_in_a_tank (and to the author of the piece in question), but it is impossible to have both "progressive sentiments" and also desire "conventional gender roles". The two are mutually exclusive. You cannot call yourself a progressive if you do not believe in gender equality. Well...I suppose you could call yourself one...but if I call myself a toaster that doesn't make me one.

Posted by: DarthVelma on October 12, 2007 11:10 AM

I agree with you 100%. I did not ask my wife's father (and he and I had a great relationship).
I would also consider it disrespectful to my daughter if I was asked, and I think she would also.
She is my daughter, not my property.

Posted by: jobsanger on October 12, 2007 11:45 AM

Maybe Bob Hunt's in laws are strict Episcopalians? Maybe his references to his relationship with the family have more to do with the family's traditions than with his own.

Posted by: Katie on October 12, 2007 5:40 PM

There's something that was not mentioned in the article or in the comments that may be relevant: It was customary for the father of the bride to pay for the wedding, thus, the tradition of asking for permission from him to marry his daughter.

Of course in these modern times, this is irrelevant. I'm looking at saving an amount that is more than a year in college for a planned 2009 wedding, and I'm the groom. My mother will be contributing more to the wedding than the father of the bride, so I won't be asking permission from him to marry his daughter.

Posted by: William Hughes on October 12, 2007 9:00 PM

I hate to break it to YOU Darth Velma, but you don't get to decide what defines a progressive. I think part of being a progressive is realizing that your own personal ideas about family are in fact personal and not to be pushed on anyone else. My girlfriend is a law student, just like me, and will work full time as an attorney, just like me. I don't think she should be pregnant and barefoot and stay at home and cook. But even if that is what I wanted form a spouse, if I was open and honest about it it wouldn't make me any less of a progressive. My progressive political ideology concerns my government, what functions it performs, how it performs those functions, how it prioritizes those functions, and how it pays for it.
Darth, you are akin to the Republicans who say you're not an American if you don't support the war or that you don't support family values if you support gay marriage. You don't get to define me. I have spent many sleepless nights working for progressive public officials and many Saturdays walking in the Texas heat trying to get more elected. I am a progressive and proud of it.

Posted by: Dukakis_in_a_Tank on October 13, 2007 2:58 PM

Props to William for pointing out that the bride's family, by tradition, paid for the wedding. In that light, speaking with the parents beforehand about one's intentions could be seen more as a polite heads-up to cash out some investments, sell one's second home, call in all favors, etc. (as even modest weddings can be surprisingly expensive). It's a courtesy to your future family, not a backroom deal to enslave their daughter to perpetual paternalistic subjugation (unless you exclude the mom from the conversation, in which case yeah, shame on you). My brother-in-law did it; I would have done it too if the right opportunity for my own engagement hadn't presented itself so quickly.

Posted by: Ken Ray on October 16, 2007 5:28 AM

I'm sorry dukakis_in_a_tank but you are still wrong - being openly sexist (i.e. wanting a spouse to be "barefoot and pregnant") WOULD make a person less of a progressive. If you can define progressive to include being a sexist (or racist or homophobe or believer in a flat earth or whatever) then words no longer have any meaning.

Posted by: Darth Velma on October 16, 2007 10:37 AM