Today, in the United States, we conceive of marriage as being a legal, social and moral contract entered into by two equal partners. But much of the ceremony and language around marriage is still cloaked in historical terms.
In most ceremonies the bride is given away by, usually a paternal figure: her father, older brother, uncle, etc. While this is steeped in tradition, it is from a time when brides were literally given to their husbands. Sometimes that “gift” was to form political or financial alliances or to settle peace agreements. Other times it was just for the bride price paid by the groom’s family. Some of this is based on the fact that historically the family was the economic unit – children providing farm labor, working for the family business and contributing to the general family welfare. The “loss” of a daughter’s labor was often compensated for with some kind of gift to the daughter’s family.
A woman getting married was leaving the care and protection of her father and being given into the care and protection of her husband. As such she was placed under his authority, much in the same way she had been under her father’s authority prior to the wedding.
Another element inherent in the giving of a bride is that while she may not be actual property it wasn’t until very recently that she would have been able to enter into a legal contract, because women were legally considered to be on par with children. It was not until 1900 that most states in the US allowed women to own property, retain control of property after marriage or to inherit property. It was not until the 1960s that a woman in America was not required to assume her husband’s surname, and was not required to follow her husband to his choice of domicile. It was also in the sixties that American women gained the right to dispose of their own property without their husband’s consent.
Brides are “given” in marriage. Grooms, on the other hand, are assumed to be adult people who are not presented as a gift, nor given into the care of the wife. It seems like an unduly high level of responsibility has been placed on his shoulders.
Historically those responsibilities included handing any monies she earned, disposing of any of the wife’s property, paying any of her debts including those incurred before the wedding. Because married women could not enter into contracts, he would have to do that for her. This included a contract with a bank for an account or credit card. It also included a contract with an auto dealership for a vehicle. So while we allowed women to drive - a right still not available for women in Saudi Arabia – they couldn’t until fifty years ago actually own a car.
While these rights and obligations have become commonly accepted in most of the Western world there is no reason to assume that things will continue like this indefinitely.
So while there may be considerable romance invested in being “walked down the aisle” and “given away” that might be an element of the ceremony women who seem themselves as feminists, or just fully enfranchised adults might want to re-think.