Over the last two days, a bizarre saga has unfolded involving Meghan Markle‘s father and the question of whether or not he will walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding to Prince Harry on Saturday.
We’ve read conflicting TMZ reports and vague statements from Kensington Palace, but ultimately, three days out from the royal wedding, it appears 73-year-old Thomas Markle will not be giving his 36-year-old daughter away this weekend in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Palace.
The question on everyone’s lips now, of course, is: If Thomas Markle isn’t walking Meghan down the aisle, then who will?
Traditionally in British royal weddings, brides have been walked down the aisle by their fathers. In April 2011, Kate Middleton’s father Michael gave her away, in 1981, the Earl of Spencer walked his daughter Princess Diana down the aisle, and in 1947, the Queen’s father King George VI walked beside her during her wedding to Prince Philip.
The custom has its roots in a time when daughters were treated as their father’s property, and were literally ‘given away’ in exchange for a dowry. Historically, women were legally transferred from their father to their husband, a tradition still referenced when an officiant asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” and a father responds, “I do.”
In Meghan Markle’s case, there’s precedent for her mother Doria Ragland to step into her father’s role. Queen Victoria walked her daughters Princess Helena and Princess Beatrice down the aisle, in 1866 and 1885 respectively, after the death of Prince Albert. At present, the public has Ragland as the most likely to give Markle away, followed by Prince Charles, and Prince William.
But in this moment, Markle – a passionate advocate for gender equality – has a rare and radical opportunity: to walk herself down the aisle.
What would it say if one of the most-watched weddings in history broke this rule? If a woman already challenging so many expectations about what it means to be a royal could publicly signify her own autonomy?
If when the officiant asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” Markle could respond, “I do.”
It’s not an entirely outlandish possibility.
Married couples in Sweden have long rejected the tradition of a father giving away their daughter, and instead, custom dictates that the bride and groom walk down the aisle together – even in the case of royal weddings.
In 2010, when Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria expressed her desire for her father to walk her down the aisle, it was publicly denounced as a step backwards for gender equality.
At the time, the head of the Swedish church, Archbishop Anders Wejryd said he usually advises against the Anglo-Saxon practice, "as our marriage ceremony is so clear on the subject of the spouses' equality".
Swedish priest Annika Borg shared her disappointment with the decision, explaining, "The idea of the couple entering the church together symbolises that the man and the woman are entering the marriage of their own free will."
Regardless of time and place, wedding traditions evolve as roles change and brides and grooms try to reconcile their modern lives with the historical contract of marriage.
In 2011, Kate Middleton vowed to "love, comfort, honour and keep," but not "obey," Prince William - a choice made for the first time in the royal family by Princess Diana during her wedding to Prince Charles. While Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew still used the term in their 1986 wedding, as did Sophie Rhys-Jones and Prince Edward in 1999, Middleton's choice of words demonstrated how change can happen slowly, and doesn't always follow a straightforward trajectory.
What's important is that these traditions - especially when they're broadcast globally - continue to be interrogated. What does it mean for a bride to wear white? For a woman to promise to 'obey' a man? For a father to 'give away' his daughter?
Of course, the meanings of these acts, too, can change. For many women, having their father (or parents) walk them down the aisle doesn't signify ownership, but is a way of involving the people who raised them in an important event in their lives.
But in the past two days, and in the days to come, Markle has the unique opportunity to challenge an expectation that's often taken for granted in Anglo-Saxon weddings.
And to perhaps make her moment of history one we remember for its boldness.