My daughter Mae got married this weekend. That gave me a special status as father of the bride. But exactly what that means is not so clear.
The 1991 comedy “Father of the Bride” starring Steve Martin, and its predecessor from 1950 starring Spencer Tracy, portrayed these men as foolish protectors of their adult daughters, only slowly reconciled to losing them to their future sons-in-law. That wasn’t an attractive model for me, but it was based on widely accepted ideas.
For centuries fathers have given away their daughters to new husbands. That ritual reflected the idea that women were not independent beings, but for their whole lives dependent upon men. Marriage represented a moment of transition, when a father handed over responsibility for his daughter to her husband.
This transfer of responsibility for a woman was also symbolized by changing her name from her father’s to her husband’s. The question of whether women should change their names at marriage became controversial in the 1970s, when many women influenced by the feminist movement decided to keep their names.
It’s hard to find out how frequently women have kept their names since then: you can read quite different percentages from different studies. An academic paper says around one in five over the past couple of decades, with a slight decrease since 2000, while a Facebook study estimates about one third. When women talk about making that decision, they often describe the social pressure to change their names. The phrase we use to label a women’s birth name reveals the ancient thinking behind this tradition: the words “maiden name” imply women’s virginal state before marriage.
Mae is 30 years old, and didn’t need or want anyone to give her away. She and Ben had developed pretty definite ideas about how their wedding should be celebrated. They wanted to get married in the woods of northern Wisconsin, to eat homemade foods, to have wedding pies instead of a cake, to dance to a musical playlist they put together. They wanted every element of the ceremony to display the equality of their relationship. They wanted fun rather than formality.
The weekend was a family event. Not only did third cousins and third cousins of third cousins come from all over to celebrate their wedding, but they also baked and cooked and set up and cleaned up. Their friends created silly games to play outdoors on the wedding afternoon. In fact, weddings are two-family events, when groups of people, who may have never met, find themselves joined together by matrimony. Members of both families pitched in, inspired by this do-it-yourself approach and joyous for their opportunities to participate.
My role as father of the bride, of course in tandem with my wife, was to facilitate those plans: arrange the food they wanted to eat; rent the tents they wanted so guests could eat outside; buy paper plates and plastic spoons and vinyl tablecloths; procure a generator to run lights and sound system on the lake shore; and write a few checks.
Of course, that’s not enough. The father of the bride is expected to address the wedding party and the guests with words of love and wisdom. There are countless websites offering advice to fathers on how to give a wedding speech. They are strong on well-phrased platitudes, and thus not very useful, except to display the many themes that a father could express.
Generic phrases were not able to express my feelings about this wonderful milestone in Mae’s and Ben’s life. Ultimately, my status as father of the bride depended for its meaning on my daughter. For her, as for me, following traditions is less important than making her own decisions about the role she wanted me to play. Being father of the bride is nothing more than continuing to be a father. That role doesn’t end with a wedding. Nobody is lost or given away. Strong women don’t need protection. I was delighted to support her thoughtful choices, to welcome a new set of relatives, to carry on being a father, a man’s most joyous role.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 12, 2014