In the week leading up to the wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, one question suddenly threw royal observers into a wobble. Would the titular head of Meghan’s American family—Thomas Markle—walk her down the aisle of St George’s Chapel in Windsor into the British Royal Family, or not?
On Thursday, Kensington Palace released a statement from Meghan, saying that her father would not be attending the wedding and that she hoped he could “be given the space he needs to focus on his health.” There was a sense in the media that Thomas Markle had shown a dereliction of patriarchal duty by abandoning a long-held tradition. The tabloids feverishly speculated about who would perform the role. Doria Ragland, Meghan’s mother, was suggested, or a close female friend.
The Palace ended the speculation Friday, saying Meghan had asked Prince Charles, her future father-in-law and a person she barely knows, to be the man to walk her down the aisle.
Underlying the flurry and froth of full-time royal watchers, all-round pundits, and every media platform, lurks a more profound issue at the heart of every traditional wedding in Western Christianity and other old religions: The wedding ceremony is predicated on the fact that a father ‘gives away’ his daughter to another man. He walks her down the aisle and hands her over.
Feminism has come so far, and yet this tradition remains. I am appalled that any woman can still contemplate being walked down the aisle by a man to be “given away”—a piece of property to be handed from one man to another. Women must stop and consider what they are doing.
We need to consider what this phrase, “give her away,” actually means. It has been used for as long as marriage has existed. It pre-dates by several centuries the U.K.’s Marriage Act of 1753, which codified the Anglican Church’s rules on marriage.
Nowadays we have forgotten what this phrase once meant—that every young woman was, until the day of her marriage, owned by and under control of her father, and was “given away” at the altar to the control and ownership of another man, her new husband. Often, she had never had any kind of independence.
“Giving away” is loaded with meaning and harks back to the time when women had almost no agency in their lives. Their husbands were chosen for them in what was often a contract—the woman passed from a sheltered childhood to becoming a chattel of her husband, a possession, like his riding boots and bottles of port. Before 1857, divorce in the U.K. was difficult, expensive and rarely granted to wives (only six women were granted a divorce between 1660 and 1857), who each had to have an Act of Parliament passed to escape dreadful and dangerous marriages. A husband anxious to rid himself of an awkward wife would pursue a “criminal conversation” suit against their wife’s lover. This an antique term for adultery meant that another man had had “conversation” –sex – with the woman, and committed a crime by trespassing on another man’s property, his wife’s body. Substantial damages could be claimed from the interloper for the husband’s loss of “domestic harmony,” or sex.
This unsatisfactory state of affairs lasted until 1857 when the Matrimonial Causes (Divorce) Act started to make the granting of a divorce a civil and not a religious matter. Once the Act came into effect, hundreds of women petitioned to get away from ghastly marriages they had been forced to endure for decades. Feminists campaigned hard for the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870, 1882 and 1893, for women to no longer be regarded as their husband’s chattels, and to retain their property and earnings after marriage.
Britain’s suffragettes, who fought a daring and dangerous campaign for the vote more than a hundred years ago, believed the vote was the key to unlock the door to women’s freedom and redress the many inequalities in all areas of women’s lives. Una Dugdale, a leading activist who served time in London’s Holloway prison for her protests, proudly announced to the press that she would not say “obey” when she married Victor Duval at the Savoy Chapel in 1912. The Archbishop of Canterbury waded in and said the marriage would not be legal but that held little sway with Una and Victor. Theirs was a suffragette wedding in every way: the chapel was filled with purple and white flowers and the guests wore the suffragettes’ colours of purple, white and green.
A father walking the bride down the aisle to give his daughter away is surely now redundant. It is time women took responsibility and turned their backs on these appalling traditions that are part of female servitude. Already the multi-million dollar wedding industry turns women into victims of history, whether it’s through ludicrously expensive white dresses or taking their husband’s name.
It is profoundly dispiriting that young women who call themselves feminists are buying into this nonsense without stopping to consider the significance of what they do. It is time to grow up.
My advice to Meghan Markle would be to walk down the aisle on her own, and not pass from one “owner” to another. This statement would be the most feminist act she could perform, and an inspiration to women everywhere.