The Sexist Origins Of Six Time-Honoured Wedding Traditions


by Anna Brech |
Published on

We love a good wedding as much as the next diehard romantic, but 21st Century feminism has opened our eyes to the inherent sexism tied up in tying the knot.

As far as heterosexual couples are concerned, many rituals and traditions still come loaded with gender expectation. And the weight of this always seems to fall squarely on the bride.

This in a time when we're still fighting for the right for mother's names and professions to appear on wedding certificates.

We take a closer look at the sexist historical context of six nuptial rites...

Having an expensive engagement ring


Forget romance; an engagement ring evolved as something that was all about control. A man gave his betrothed first a gold and then an iron ring in ancient Roman times, as an act that demonstrated her legal agreement to his ownership of her.

While the tradition has (thankfully) lost this draconian edge in modern times, more and more brides are eschewing the concept of expensive, flashy sparklers.

There are plenty of alternative designs around these days; and of course, more women are doing the proposing themselves, too.

Asking for permission


The tired old belief that a man must ask the bride's father for her hand in marriage dates back to Biblical scripture, where a price was demanded for the daughter of a gentleman.

Up until the 11th Century, the consent of a couple involved in a marriage wasn't even considered an issue. Women, in particular, were expected to defer without question to whatever agreement had been made on their behalf.

The fact that women historically had no voice in this "transaction" still leaves a sour note for many people now, even when the act of asking for permission is more symbolic than anything else.

A 1948 edition of Vogue's Book of Etiquette had it right when it wrote that, “the custom today is that the two principals make up their minds first, and the bride tells her parents about the engagement afterward.”

Wearing a veil


At various points throughout history, a veil has been associated with the need for the bride to be chaste, pure and modest.

During pagan times, veils were thought to ward off evil spirits. But as weddings evolved into religious ceremonies, they came to represent the reverence and obedience of the bride.

The unappetising question of authority also came into play here; a father would lower the veil to pass on ownership of his daughter to the groom, who claimed control by lifting it at the point of marriage.

Veils were also heavy and cumbersome enough back in the day to physically stop a bride from running away, in the context of an arranged marriage.

In today's world, veils are more of a fashion statement. And that's something we can all get behind.

Walking the bride down the aisle


Again, this is a throwback to Anglo-Saxon times and the transactional nature of arranged marriages in the West. Historically, unmarried daughters were seen as the property of their fathers, and weddings often represented a trade agreement over money or property

Marriages were more of a political or economic alliance, rather than anything to do with love.

Even the word "wed" has its origins in "pledge"; partly because of the vows exchanged between husband and wife, and also in a nod to the agreement brokered between father and groom.

In modern times, walking the bride down the aisle is viewed as an affectionate gesture, and it's open to interpretation. Some couples now walk the aisle together, while others choose their mums and their dads - or someone else completely - to accompany them.

Confetti and cakes


The throwing of rice or grain, which later morphed into throwing of confetti, is a tradition that dates back to the 1870s.

Rice was seen as a symbol of fertility, as were the bread crumbs that guests used to shower over the bride's head (and that later gave rise to the custom of wedding cakes). They were used to encourage the couple, and the woman especially, in baby-making ways.

This directly plays into the idea, revered through history, that procreation is the primary reason for marriage.

While some newlyweds may indeed plan on having kids (or already have them), it took right up until the early 20th Century for marriage to be separated from the idea of procreation in the public consciousness.

This happened around about the same time that rudimentary birth control started to be used to limit family sizes and allow women more freedom.

The best man


Many people speculate that the tradition of having a best man originated in medieval times, amid the Germanic Goths. When women were in short supply, men would go scoping for a potential bride in neighbouring communities. If they didn't have the family's permission to marry her, they would forcefully take her away to get wed - a mission that required the back-up support of a so-called "best" man.

During the ceremony, the best man would be expected to stand by the groom's side, armed with a sword, club or spear. He was forever alert to any attempt from the bride's family to steal her back.

For similar reasons, even today the bride tends to stand to the left of her groom - so, historically, he had his sword hand free.

What part the bride herself played in this can only be guessed at. Amid all the machismo, her point of view seems to have been written out from history altogether.

Luckily, today's best men aren't expected to be armed - or even be men.

Hurrah for that.

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