This blog post was supposed to go up on Friday, but I got a medium-bad migraine that day and couldn’t sit and type in front of a computer screen. 😦 But anyway, this week on one of the shows I watch (which is fairly progressive), a character asked his girlfriend to marry him, and when they announced their engagement to their friends and family, the girlfriend’s father (who’s a fairly progressive character) got really salty that the boyfriend hadn’t asked his “permission” first. I was rather annoyed by this, and I talked about it with a close friend. I would totally have been in favor of the boyfriend asking the father’s “blessing,” but I’m not okay with the word permission being tossed around like that, and I’m not okay with the writers making the father upset that he didn’t get asked. To my surprise, my friend basically said “Meh, permission and blessing are essentially the same thing.” To me, they are extremely different, and here’s why.
In many world cultures for many thousands of years, women were treated as property by men (and of course, this practice continues today in some places). Fathers controlled their daughters’ lives — their education, their opportunities, their money, and more — until those daughters got married, at which point their husbands began controlling their lives. Often, marriage was literally a business contract between father and future spouse: a man might refuse to marry a woman if he didn’t get enough money, land, livestock, or other possessions as part of the bargain. In any case, these sexist beliefs completely discounted a woman’s desires and her ability to make her own choices about how the rest of her life was going to go.
Even after dowries fell out of favor, the idea that young adult women were subject to their fathers’ decisions until they married and became subject to their husbands’ decisions continued for decades…and still exists today. I can’t tell you how many times at my old job I asked a woman, “Would you like to open a Kohl’s charge today?” and was answered with, “I can’t. My husband won’t let me get one.” (Now I totally understand that when you get married, whether or not you choose to combine your finances, you and your partner have to make a lot of financial decisions together. Therefore, I totally understand if a woman and her husband look at their situation together and decide they can’t open a new credit card right now. But the “my man controls my money” scenario is not okay with me.) Women who are legally old enough to get married are perfectly capable of making their own choices about their lives, their romantic partners, and their finances.
There are certain sets of words in the English language that are interchangeable in some contexts and not in others. It doesn’t generally make much of a difference if you describe a puppy as “small” or as “little.” But if you’re talking about the size of a shirt, “small” is probably a technical term indicating a particular set of dimensions (as opposed to, say, “medium” or “extra large”), whereas “little” is still just a word indicating general (and subjective) relevance.
This is where permission and blessing come in. When a man asks his girlfriend’s father (or her mother, even) for permission to propose marriage to the daughter, he’s stripping away his girlfriend’s autonomy. He’s indicating that he believes his girlfriend is subject to her father’s wishes, and I would assume that he then will expect her to let him be the final authority on decisions about her life once they’re married. To me, that’s very different from asking his for girlfriend’s parents’ blessing. (If both parents are in the picture, whether or not they’re still together, he needs to ask for a blessing from both parties if he chooses to ask at all.) Asking for a blessing says, “Hey, I like you and respect you and acknowledge that you are a very important person in my girlfriend’s life. She’s an adult who’s ultimately going to make her own choice about marrying me, but it would mean a lot if you would tell me you’re happy about the idea of us getting married and me becoming a permanent part of your life.”
In the context of marriage proposals, “permission” and “blessing” are soooooooo different from each other! They’re not synonyms at all. “Permission” indicates a transfer of ownership. “Blessing” indicates autonomy with an acknowledgment of respect. (Personally, I don’t consider asking for the parents’ blessing to be a requirement, but it is a nice touch.) That’s why I was super salty with the writers of the show I was watching — I know they were looking for a way to inject some conflict into the scene, but it was out of character for the father to make a big deal about the situation at all, and even more so for him to use the word “permission.”