Summer wedding season is upon us — but outdated, gendered traditions don't have to be

Couples who follow stereotypical ideas about what a wife should do report the least satisfaction and the most conflict.
Illustration of father handing off a bride to a groom.
Hanna Barczyk / for NBC News
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By Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families

It’s July, which means wedding season, especially in America. And few events in modern life are wrapped in as much “tradition” as engagements and weddings — especially for heterosexual couples. Surprise proposals from men on bended knees; diamond rings; virginal white dresses with flowing trains; proud fathers walking glowing daughters down the aisle to waiting grooms.

Not all traditions match modern tastes, of course. Instead of a cake, for example, it was customary in the Middle Ages to serve a “bride pye” at wedding celebrations. The earliest recorded recipe for such a pie included lamb testicles, oysters, sweetbreads, fruit, butter, egg yolks and lemon.

While many of the rituals we embrace today — or have thrust on us by wedding planners — sound more palatable, they too can leave a bad aftertaste, especially when they reinforce the notion that marriage is the biggest day in a woman’s life and becoming a wife the most important identity she will ever acquire. You see, even when we “just play” at stereotypes, we absorb some of them — and they affect other people’s expectations of us. Studies show, for example, that when a woman is described to people as a wife, rather than, say, a friend or colleague, they expect her to take major responsibility for cleaning, even if they know she works full-time. They hold a “wife” to higher standards of cleanliness than a man or a single woman, even a cohabiting one, and judge her more harshly when she doesn’t meet those standards.

While many of the rituals we embrace today — or have thrust on us by wedding planners — sound more palatable, they too can leave a bad aftertaste,

Far be it for me to suggest that women give up white dresses, dispense with the father-daughter dance, or even challenge the convention that the man must surprise the woman with an elaborate proposal. Still, it’s worth updating some of these traditions or seeking out others that offer more realistic visions of the marital partnership most couples now hope to establish.

To craft a wedding that takes the best of different traditions and integrates those with the values of contemporary couples, it helps to reflect on where those traditions came from, when they came into being and what alternative traditions they pushed aside. Take the custom of the man asking the woman’s father for her hand in marriage, a tradition that wedding industry analysts claim has recently come back in style.

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For most of recorded history, this was not just a polite gesture. In ancient empires and in medieval Europe, a woman who accepted a marriage proposal without her father’s permission could be beaten and imprisoned until she changed her mind. In 16th-century Europe, governments could dissolve any match made without the consent of either partner’s father. Any child born before the marriage was invalidated was thereby rendered illegitimate — becoming a “filius nullius,” or child of no one, legally entitled to nothing. In 18th-century New England, a man who “insinuated” himself into a woman’s affections without permission from her father could be whipped.

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The tradition of the father “giving” the bride to the groom reflects the fact that until the middle of the 19th century, marriage permanently transferred legal authority of a woman from her father to her husband. An unmarried woman could escape her father’s control over her finances only once she turned 21. But in the 1950s and ’60s the majority of women married before turning 21, and for them the transfer from father to husband meant they never became fully adult in the eyes of the law. Until the mid-1970s, a wife still needed her husband’s permission to take out a loan, sign a lease, open a business or even apply for a credit card.

Some couples have modernized this ritual by asking both sets of parents to approve the match and get to know each other as in-laws. In one marriage I attended, the bride and groom, accompanied by their entire families, walked to meet each other, and then the couple proceeded together to face the officiant.

Such modifications actually draw on a very different, and even more ancient, marital tradition. Among the earliest hunting and gathering bands of the Paleolithic world, and still today among some of their descendants, marriage was a way of turning strangers into relatives. Weddings were about creating ever-widening relationships and mutual obligations among new in-laws and neighboring communities. At my son’s wedding, he and his bride “gave” both sets of parents away to each other, having us exchange leis to symbolize our commitment to the new network of relatives we had acquired.

Many of the most popular “traditional” wedding customs today actually come from a small sliver of history when women were bring pushed out of their central roles in economic and social life and offered idealization of their beauty and purity as (rather scant) compensation. The gasp of surprise, pretended or not, when presented with a ring; the emphasis on the size of the ring and the beauty of the bridal gown, the father walking the bride to the waiting groom, and later the groom lifting her over the threshold — all these rituals come from a time when women had to rely on men to take the initiative in all things and hope that their husbands would provide for them.

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That’s not how medieval and early modern Europeans regarded marriage. Everyone knew that a man could not run a farm or business on his own, and in colonial America it could be hard for a man to get a license to open an inn unless he had a wife to be his co-worker. Wives were sometimes called “yoke-mates.” The old German wedding custom of Baumstamm sägen nicely sums up the idea that marriage depends on the woman’s contributions as well as the man’s. There, the first thing a bride and groom do after the ceremony is to each take hold of one end of a cross-cut saw and vigorously saw the log in half to demonstrate they can work together.

The word “Mrs.” was originally derived from the female equivalent of the title “master.” It designated a “mistress” — a woman “who governs” — whether married or unmarried. Only in the 19th century, at the height of what historians call “the cult of female domesticity,” did “Mrs.” came to indicate a woman’s marital status rather than her socioeconomic status. And that marital status was considered far more important than any of her individual achievements. Women increasingly lost even their first names when they wed, becoming only “Mrs. John Smith.”

Women’s understanding that marriage required them to subordinate their personhood to the role of devoted wife helps explain why so many women began to think of their wedding day as their last occasion to shine.

A name was not all women lost. As the perceptive French writer Alexis de Tocqueville explained, 19th-century American women “irrevocably” surrendered their legal independence and access to public life once they entered the bonds of matrimony. When one man heard that his childhood friend was engaged, he confided to his diary that the “idea of her being married seems to me much the same as her being buried.” Many women recorded similar fears in their own diaries.

Women’s understanding that marriage required them to subordinate their personhood to the role of devoted wife helps explain why so many women began to think of their wedding day as their last occasion to shine. When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, her ornate white wedding dress with its long train created a sensation. Being a real queen, Victoria had to propose to Albert, a piece of pageantry that few women have adopted even now. But copying Victoria’s wedding dress — and later the three-tiered white wedding cakes that were introduced at her daughters’ weddings — was a different matter.

It’s often suggested that the white wedding dress caught on because it stood for purity, signaling that the bride had protected her maidenhood until the ceremony. But probably more important was its role as a uniquely female status symbol in a world where women could no longer become entrepreneurs or “mistresses” in their own right. Dresses with trains at least three yards long were what women wore when in attendance at the royal court, and white was the color debutantes wore when presented to the queen. The fact that white dresses were expensive to make and exceptionally difficult to keep clean in a world where rooms continually accumulated soot from fireplaces and most streets were unpaved only added to their cachet. As Bride’s Magazine put it in 1949, wearing such a dress could make a woman “queen of the day, surrounded by your ladies-in-waiting.”

Fifty years ago, wedding rituals that reinforced stereotypes of men as protectors and providers and women as delicate homebodies worked well for many couples. As late as the 1970s and ’80s, couples who followed stereotyped gender scripts after marriage reported higher relationship satisfaction than couples who experimented with nontraditional arrangements such as shared breadwinning, housework and childcare. But today, egalitarianism is an increasingly important predictor of marital satisfaction. The good news is that in marriages formed since the early 1990s, couples who share child care and housework equally report the highest relationship and sexual satisfaction. The bad news is that couples who follow traditional ideas about what a wife should do report the least satisfaction and the most conflict. So couples looking for happiness in the years after their wedding day might consider updating old ceremonies, or crafting new ones, that reinforce their commitment to equality from Day One.