Why I don’t plan on “giving my daughter away”

Photo by Mance on Flickr

“Who gives this woman?”

I never really thought about this question until recently. Until I had a daughter.

It’s taken for granted as a normal part of a “traditional” wedding. It was part of mine. And if you were married in a Christian church, chances are it was a part of yours, too.

But of course, no one asked who gave me away to be married. Only my wife.

Maybe for most people this question is an innocent affirmation of the special bond that often exists between dads and their daughters. (I certainly hope to have that kind of bond with Elizabeth for the rest of my life.)

But what does it say to the woman about to be married?

“Who gives this woman?” implies ownership.

It suggests that I own my daughter. That she’s my property. That she is mine to give.

The ceremonial response — traditionally, the father says, “I do” — implies that I’m the authorized spokesperson for my family. Sometimes it’s broadened to “her mother and I do.” But still it’s the father, the male, the paterfamilias, speaking on behalf of his family.

Am I reading too much into it? It’s worth noting that “who gives this woman?” didn’t find its way into our wedding ceremonies by accident. In a more patriarchal era, marriage involved a transfer of ownership. The bride went from being under her father’s authority to that of her new husband. She did not spend a moment outside the authority, control, or headship of a man.

And for some Christians, that’s still the case. You only have to read the stories of women who grew up around Christian patriarchy, fundamentalism, or the Quiverfull movement to realize this notion of marriage is alive and well in many corners of the church today. This kind of thinking has a cost: abuse, exploitation, loss of faith. All stemming from modern-day patriarchy.

OK, but thankfully not everyone accepts fundamentalism or patriarchy. In which case, is “who gives this woman?” a harmless vestige of a bygone era? I’m not so sure. Because words don’t just express a worldview; they help shape it.

If men continue to use language characterizing women as objects or possessions, is it any wonder that women are treated like objects or possessions? Is our failure to respect women as people made equally in God’s image really that big of a surprise?

All of which is why I’m not going to “give my daughter away,” assuming she decides to get married someday. Because the truth is, I don’t own her to begin with.

For this short season of life, my wife and I are entrusted with our daughter’s care, nurture, and protection. But she is her own person. She is not a possession. She is not and never will be the property of anyone else.

If she decides to get married, I will give whatever blessing she wants to her and the person she weds. I will pledge my love and support to both of them. I will beam with pride and give thanks for the bond we’ve enjoyed — and for the new one she is forging.

But she is not mine to give away. And I’m starting to think that coming to terms with this reality is one of the most important things I can do for her.

What do you think? How does the idea of “giving our daughters away” affect our view of women?

23 thoughts on “Why I don’t plan on “giving my daughter away”

  1. Ben, I understand your heart on this, and at the root mine is in agreement with yours. However, I think there are a few other things to consider. First, the dynamics of the relationship between a father and daughter are more important than those few words that could be spoken at a wedding. Obviously, just the fact that you’re giving thought to it is evidence that you will not be viewing your daughter as property to transfer ownership of. So your living examples will do more to shape worldview than the words spoken at her future wedding. Also, if your daughter gets married someday, then that wedding will be a blessed occasion that you’ll share with loved ones who are at least relatively close to the two of you. The people present should certainly already have a decent view into your lives, and will have been impacted by the visible aspects of your relationship with your daughter more powerfully than they would be by hearing some traditional words in the ceremony. Lastly, I think as fathers of daughters (mine will be born in mid-October!) we must remember that our daughters’ weddings should ultimately be what they want them to be. You never know, maybe your little girl will want her Daddy to give her away.

    • Great thoughts. (And congratulations on your soon-to-be-born daughter!)

      You’re right…at the end of the day, if my daughter chooses to get married, then it’ll be her day to make whatever she wants it to be. And like you said, our relationship is more important than whatever words are spoken at a ceremony. I still think the words we use can subtly shape and reinforce some notions that aren’t healthy…but all the more reason to be intentional about our commitment to gender equality for the sake of our daughters.

      I was at an Episcopal wedding where the question was framed a little differently, as “Who presents this woman?” I kinda liked that…to me, “present” doesn’t have some of the connotations that “give” might carry…

      • We’re essentially in agreement. And without a doubt words are powerful. We just can’t forget that the examples of our lives, as we live them out daily, are even more powerful. You’re engaged in a level of thoughtfulness on this that a lot of folks would never even consider – so I’m sure that what will be most impactful in this regard on the world around you will be the ways your Love, thoughtfulness and desire for equality manifest themselves for others to see every day. Just as the most powerful thing we can do to share the Gospel is to live it out daily for others to see and feel.

        You’re right that we need to be intentional about fostering gender equality and impressing on our daughters that the world is open to them just as it is to boys. One point, though, that must be remembered is that some women choose to lead lives that could be considered more “traditional” roles – and that’s ok, too. My wife has a degree (I do not) – she is one of the most brilliant and capable people I know – she chooses to be a stay-at-home mom, and as we intend to homeschool, she will likely take the lead with that when it is time. Now, our relationship is one of being equal partners, but we do understand that we fill different (thought equally important) roles.

        I don’t mean to take the discussion too far in a different direction from your post, but I just wanted to mention that – because often lost in the push for equality is the fact that while women should be free to pursue successful roles in the world (and in the Church), that equality of value and life and opportunity will naturally lead some to the sort of roles that other women have struggled to break away from.

  2. When I got married over 8 years ago–in a fundamentalist setting, no less–I opted for the language, “Who presents this woman to be married to this man?” My parents were adamant about the fact that I would be no less their daughter after getting married–our family was enlarged, not reduced, by that ceremony. And both of them balked at the idea of treating me like property. We all sensed the problem with the traditional language that you’ve articulated here so well. Thank you!

  3. @Ben.  You say”I was at an Episcopal wedding where the question was framed a little differently, as “Who presents this woman?” ”

    Yes, indeed, there is a much different frame to Episcopal wedding words. My widowed bride’s son made the presentment. He then leaned over and whispered, “Dig in Lee”. He certainly did not have possession of the woman who diapered him and stood by him during his successful journey to sobriety. 

    He was transferring primary responsibly for his mother’s care taking to me. It was an act of standing down, to be able to focus more on his wife and an adopted daughter. My bride and I had reasonable discretion over the words to be used, and that is key to dealing with objectionable connotations.

  4. You know, I haven’t thought about it much, but when I have I’ve always envisioned it more as an issue of protection – up until now I, her father, have been responsible for keeping this woman safe, now I pass this responsibility on to you. I know some feminists would still scream at that idea, because it does mean treating women differently – but in a positive way, not a negative way. “This person is especially deserving of protection” is something you say about VIPs, not common men.

  5. I hope more and more christians will come to the realization you’ve reached here. I’m an atheist myself, but ultimately I think it matters more what we do, and what kind of world we create than what we believe. As such, we’re allies you and I on this issue.

    There’s several problematic parts in the traditional marriage-script. “giving away” your daughter is one, and you’ve done a good job of explaining why that is problematic.

    For roughly similar reasons, I also think “You may now kiss the bride” is problematic. surely she herself decides who gets to kiss her and when.

    • Thanks, agrajag. I hadn’t even thought about the implications of “you may now kiss the bride,” but you’re right. We need wedding ceremonies that treat both participants as fully equal.

      • You can of course choose to make the implications *visible* to people by having the priest say: “You may now kiss the groom!” — a friend of mine did that when she married, and it was pretty funny. Most priests would be entirely fine with that I imagine. (and seriously, if you find one which ISNT fine with that, but is fine with the reverse, then it’d be time to find a better priest)

    • I disagree on the point of “you may now kiss…”

      Surely, the fact that a woman has exchanged vows in a wedding ceremony implies she has already chosen her groom as one she is willing to kiss (especially willing in that beautiful moment). If the groom isn’t her choice then there’s a bigger issue at hand than just a traditional phrase.

      I’ve always understood that language to be an expression of the officiant (and whatever power they represent) now condoning the contact since the two have been wed. Maybe stemming from an antiquated or ultra-conservative idea of no kissing before marriage, but not necessarily expressing any control over the bride.

      • Given the patriarchal origins of “who gives this woman,” I think it’s likely the phrase “you may now kiss the bride” had a similar basis to begin with. If it were simply a matter of condoning contact between the now married couple, why not just say, “You may now kiss this woman”? In fact, I think some contemporary wedding liturgies use this form. It would certainly remove the patriarchal overtones from this part of the wedding ceremony…

      • So after just a bit of research, here are the two most offered explanations…

        First, dating to ancient Rome (and speaking simply to the idea of the ceremony ending with a kiss), apparently contracts were sealed between parties with a kiss – thus, the kiss at the end of a wedding to make it official.

        Second, from the Elizabethan era (regarding the “kiss the bride” in particular), apparently it was customary for the priest to kiss the groom, and then invite the groom to kiss the bride – effectively passing on the priest’s blessing for the marriage.

      • Interesting. Thanks for sharing your research! My guess (though I’m not certain) is that the Elizabethan practice was consistent with the patriarchal norms of that society, in which the hierarchy would have been priest (always a man back then) –> husband –> wife. But that’s just a guess.

      • That may well be the case, however it’s interesting that the aim was not one of control – but instead one of conveying a blessing. And truly, if the priest was to kiss anyone, it feels somehow more appropriate (less risque?) that it be the groom (in my opinion).

        Our daughter is just three weeks old now, and I want the world to be as open for her as it will be for our son. That being said, an open world should also be a world in which she can choose things for herself – not a world in which I should feel a duty to tear down every tradition that may or may not be secretly at work to subvert her status.

        I have faith that through love and with the example of my wife (educated, strong, motivated, yet “traditional”) we can rear her in a way that she can know her value, strength and equality in our eyes and the eyes of God – despite whatever face the world offers her.

        Not every second nature tradition born of a patriarchal history is threatening to our daughters. The women who are offended by them can easily reject and avoid most instances – but I think even more powerful is a hope as a parent to instill such a sense of strength and worth and holiness in our daughters that these traditions could never even faze them anyway.

      • The issue isn’t whether she consents or not. You’re right that a woman who has just agreed to marry a man, is very unlikely to have a problem with being kissed.

        The issue is the fact that it’s always the MAN who is told that he may now kiss the bride, never the reverse. If it was equally common with “You may now kiss the groom!” there’d have been less of a problem.

        Why not simply: “You (as in the plural) may kiss now !”

        The phrasing also implies that you where not allowed to do this prior to marriage, and I think that’s also antiquidated, I know there’s a tiny minority of christians who opt to stay celibate until marriage, but I’ve never met anyone who even attempts to stay un-kissed until marriage.

      • I’ve only ever known one young woman who chose to remain unkissed until marriage – very conservative Christian.

        I don’t disagree with you – why not “kiss the groom,” or “you may now kiss”? I guess I just don’t see the kiss statement as a problem at all in the first place, nor do I see a problem with those substitutes. I’ve never known a woman to have no say in the language of her wedding ceremony – in fact, typically quite the opposite; I’ve known more women to have called the shots on their ceremonies than men.

        There’s nothing that says that statement is mandatory for any kind of wedding I’ve ever known about.

      • Each tiny thing by itself isn’t hugely problematic, but add them up, and you get a whole which strongly indicates that women are less than autonomous adults, and that men “own” women, and that a womans sexuality is her primary value.

        A man may “ask” the parents of his girlfriend for her hand in marriage — the reverse is exceedingly rare.

        A woman is led to the altar – traditionally by her father – and “given away”.

        The husband is given permission, by the priest, to kiss the bride.

        The marriage is “consummated” by intercourse, as if *this* the act of intercourse is the crucial part, and not the fact that the two agreed to marry. This is doubly silly since the general rule today is that essentially all couples (including catholic ones) have sex before marriage. (I know some conservatives don’t approve of that, but that doesn’t change reality)

        These things are *added* to a culture where women already are disadvantaged, perhaps in a church where women are not allowed to be priests, for example.

        Again, it’s not each tiny thing by itself. It’s the sum total.

        I think the sum total should be about two sovereign adults who choose to marry each other. That’s not what the currently dominant marriage-script symbolises. As such, I think it should change. (and for quite a few couples, it already has, and I applaud that)

      • PS – agrajag, I would argue that Hollywood, mainstream pop and hip hop, and the entertainment industry in general have done (are doing) far more than any church or liturgical tradition ever have to suggest to young women that their primary value is found in their sexuality.

      • I hear you, agrajag, but I guess I just see more room here for a bit of “to each their own.”

        My faith tradition’s liturgy (I’m a United Methodist – we allow women to be pastors) doesn’t “give away” the bride, but it does still ask “who presents” her. My father-in-law walked my wife down the aisle, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way. When asked “who presents” her, his response was “her Mother and I do.” Then he joined my father (they’re both Methodist pastors) in officiating the rest of the ceremony, and in the end he invited me to kiss his daughter. It was a beautiful ceremony in a park beneath a massive, ancient tree – and my wife and I were both in agreement on all the language used.

        I guess ultimately my point is that people are free to choose whatever language they’d like to use in their wedding ceremonies (choice is great!), and as you noted there are plenty of couples who choose to opt out of certain traditional sayings (and that’s cool, too!). Some people will be offended by the words; some people will cherish them as tradition – and the use of those words is a choice.

        So, while I can easily understand why some people aren’t comfortable with parts of traditional wedding liturgies, I don’t think it’s right to judge those who happen not to be offended and choose to use traditional language. And I don’t think it’s right to judge the entire Church, as many denominations have already become more progressive on this (and other issues).

        Interestingly enough as a side note, the official Catholic wedding rite (of all ceremonies, hahha) does actually call for the bride and groom to enter and walk down the aisle together.

      • My own preference is to to “redeem” these elements of the wedding liturgy — that is, disentangle them from their patriarchal origins without losing what’s beautiful and good about the these ceremonies. Still, I think you raise some fair points. Being part of a denomination that values gender equality is still a fairly new experience for me, so some of what I was reacting to in this post was a more overt (and unapologetic) form of patriarchalism still found in some Christian traditions, including those I used to be part of.

        Certainly not everyone who follows a more “traditional” wedding liturgy is promoting patriarchy. I agree w/you that it’s unfair to judge them or the whole church on this. But I still think it’s helpful to ask why we say what we say and what assumptions or ideas we might be reinforcing without even realizing it. Surely there is a balance that has to be found.

      • I agree with you, Ben. It’s always helpful (and besides that it’s just plain interesting) to explore the whys behind what we do and say. Understanding the why is part of making an informed choice. Some might take an honest look at the history and still side with tradition, and some might not even have to know the history to be offended by the language – and in either case a blessed union can be forged.

        Truly (although I’ve defended the choice for tradition here) I would rather see a couple take a sensitive look at their wedding ceremony together and choose to break tradition, than see a couple blindly go with an unexamined traditional liturgy.

  6. The liturgy in the United Methodist Hymnal and Book of Worship does not include that question. There is an opportunity for family and then all of the gathered community to offer their blessing. Even asking “who presents…” for the woman when the man requires no similar presenting is, IMHO, an attempt to soften a still patriarchal, and non-scriptural, tradition. As a pastor I have been asked twice in 23 years of ministry to insert that question into the ceremony for traditions sake. Otherwise no one has missed it any more than they miss the absent, “If anyone knows any reason why this woman cannot be legally married…”

  7. I love this! I’m a woman in my late 20’s, but I’ve always known that if I get married, I would walk down the aisle by myself because I didn’t like the symbolism of being given away by someone as though I were property. I would rather walk down the aisle with my fiance as a symbol of the two of us starting this new stage of our life together, as equals and partners.

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