The provocateur: ‘Say I don’t to a man who asks your dad first’
Asking for your father’s approval before proposing isn’t a quaint tradition, it’s an insidiously sexist practice that needs to stop, argues
Last year, my life changed forever. The man I love got down on one knee, the night before my 30th birthday, and asked me to marry him. I say ‘asked me’, because I think it’s incredibly important that the decision about our future lives is one that we as a couple reach together. He did not, as tradition dictates, ask for my father’s permission first.
We didn’t ask for my dad’s permission to fall in love or buy a house. And I haven’t asked his permission for anything in almost 20 years (even then, it was mostly about which pets he’d tolerate), so the idea of my boyfriend asking for his approval for us to marry is laughable. And it’s even worse when you consider that the tradition stems from feudal times when women were essentially the property of their father, and effectively sold with a dowry for land or powerful connections.
Which is why I was so surprised when I discovered, at a dinner party, that my fiancé and I were in a minority among our married friends. While only a handful of our female friends loved the tradition of the would-be groom asking their father for permission, there were a couple who would have been actively bothered if he hadn’t. Because it turns out that even among my most passionately feminist friends, many worried, above their own feelings, about hurting those of their father. Most were quick to disown the idea of ‘permission’, saying their boyfriends were looking for blessings or advice before proposing, but it all seems to amount to one thing – not wanting to upset uppity, traditional dads.
It never even crossed my mind to worry whether my dad would feel left out, because his upset would have paled in comparison to mine if I’d been proposed to via a third party. I would have been enormously hurt to find my future had been discussed and turned over by two men without my being there. What’s more, I would seriously question marrying a man who’d assume that was what I wanted.
Feminism is about understanding why traditions exist (that proposals were a female cattle market for buying/selling among the patriarchy), and either calling bullshit on them, or deciding they’ll make you happy regardless. And I know
that, when it comes to weddings, you only need to scratch the surface to find uncomfortable symbols of male power. But while I am willing to accept being walked down the aisle (I’m labelling it ‘quality time with dad’ rather than ‘dad transfers his girl-burden to generous young man’) and wearing white (makes my skin look good rather than to prove my purity), the idea of being my dad’s possession to sign over really sticks in my feminist craw.
I haven’t lived with Dad since I was 14, and my fiancé and I will have been a couple for eight years when we marry, having lived together for seven. We jointly own a house – our names forever tangled up in credit ratings whatever happens in our marriage. If ever there was a time for my dad to voice concerns about my romantic match, it was before we signed up for our eye-watering mortgage. And that’s really the difference between now and a time when ‘permission’ was more about whether marriage was mutually beneficial to father and groom. It’s not my dad’s home being handed over to my fiancé – my name’s on the paperwork and my pay cheques are going towards half of every brick, pipe and damp patch of our shared home.
The fact that my dad is happy with my choice of life partner is, frankly, a bonus. I’ve made my own decision and I’m willing to live with the consequences even if he didn’t approve. Besides which, there was something truly special about being able to share the news myself. I was able to call my dad on my 30th birthday to shout, ‘I’m engaged!’ and hear his surprised and joyful reaction first-hand. I would have been so sad to have missed that, or for him to have already seen my ring before I could visit with it firmly on my finger. Not wanting his ‘permission’ doesn’t mean I don’t want him involved in the joy of the occasion.
When I started writing this, it suddenly occurred to me I hadn’t actually asked my dad whether he was upset not to have been asked. Nervously, I emailed – would he open up about his secret unhappiness? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the man who helped raise a woman who gets paid to rant about her opinions would have been rather bemused to have to ‘give permission’.
In a way, it’s a compliment to my dad that he wasn’t asked. It means that he (and Mum) raised an independent woman who knows her own mind and takes ownership of her decisions. If I was still deferring to my dad for major choices in my thirties, he might wonder where he had gone wrong.