How the Bridal Shower Was an Early Act of Feminist Rebellion

Liz Susong weighs in on the tradition of the bridal shower

Updated 07/13/17

In part seven of Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's new weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the tradition of the bridal shower. Liz investigates here.

There are two types of people in this world: those who love a good bridal shower game and those who hate them with the fire of a thousand burning suns. I’m both of these people...depending on whether or not I’m the bride.

When it comes to bridal showers, I have good news and bad news. So, first, the bad news: the bridal shower is an extension of the dowry. Because honestly, if your everlasting devotion doesn’t come with a couple of cows (ahem, Crate & Barrel serving platters) and a nice plot of land (cough, mint-green Kitchen Aid Mixer), who in their right mind would marry you?

But there’s good news, too. It seems that the shower as it’s practiced today with friends and family was once quite the little act of rebellion. Imagine you are living in a day when your old man is in charge and arranged marriages are the status quo. You, of course, fall in love with a forbidden pauper biker dude. Dad’s not having it, so he threatens to withhold your dowry. No serving platters for you! And no matching sets of towels either! As the story goes, when this happened to a young Dutch woman (minus the biker detail), according to wedding historian Susan Waggoner, “her friends marched on the house, each bringing a pot, a pan, a bowl, a blanket, and other items needed for housekeeping,” in order to help make up for the missing dowry. And her dad conceded because her aunts were loud and bossy...or something like that. Feminism, y’all.

So what kind of gal are you? Are you the type who revels in the domestic goods and can’t wait to be a wifey? The one who turns her “shower” into a barely concealed co-ed alcohol party? Or perhaps the one who happily unwraps the baking sheets knowing full well that her partner will be doing 90 percent of the cooking? Let’s hear from the peanut gallery, shall we?

Up first: the Debbie Downers, a.k.a. not the bride. These are the people who have been to one too many showers (or perhaps just one shower was too many). They have no relationship advice to give, nor are they interested in making small talk with your fiancé’s grandmother. They are likely pouring a disproportionate ratio of champagne into their mimosa while you open gifts. I know these women, I love these women—heck, I am this woman.

Cheryl of Pennsylvania says, “I have artfully dodged every single bridal shower invite over the last 35 years. May the good Lord continue to bless my BFF for honoring my wishes and NOT throwing one for me.” But why, Cheryl, do you argue so passionately against the innocent bridal shower? “Conceptually, the entire idea just reminds me of a gaggle of geese waddling about and squawking into the wind,” she answers. For the love of God, people, leave Cheryl in peace.

Pleasance of Washington, D.C., agrees wholeheartedly and assures us, “I AM NOT A FAN!” And why not, Pleasance? “I can't believe people put a bunch of stuff on lists, then spend HOURS opening the exact things they asked for, and people act surprised and interested,” she says. In summary: “They are SO BORING!” Erica, a North Carolina wedding planner, agrees, saying, “I find that generally, the events planned by older relatives of the bride are real snoozers.” Jillian puts it plainly after being a bridesmaid in nine weddings: “When I was 25, this was so much more fun. Now I’m 32, and it’s not.”

Some folks are clever and know just the way to liven up ye olde bridal shower: alcohol and boys. Caitlin of Chicago says the best shower she ever attended was a Derby-themed couples shower: “The environment was very relaxed; people were eating food, making drinks, watching race coverage, and playing games. There was no schedule, and no one was forced to do anything they weren't comfortable with, like make wedding dresses from toilet paper or watch the bride open lingerie from her grandma.”

Amber, a photographer in New York, agrees with Caitlin’s assessment: “We had a couples shower at our fave local bar and had tacos.” When asked why she went with tacos rather than tea and crumpets, she explains, “There was no way in hell I was going to sit through a girls-only shower. I find the concept of a women-only party, where I get gifts meant for both of us, to be saccharine and heteronormative to the point of insulting.” For couples whose relationship is built on egalitarian values, playing “wifey” for even a day just feels disingenuous. Erica, a wedding planner in North Carolina, agrees: “Traditionally speaking, the women would gather and give gifts to the bride, share their wisdom with her, and celebrate her becoming a wife. But these days that can feel a little sexist. Like, 'Let's gather up all the women to give the bride household goods so she can be a proper wife!' It rubs me the wrong way.”

While I get this—I really do—I’ll admit that I was dead set on having a women-only shower. If I may speak the truth for just a moment, who among us actually prefers spending time with our friend and her significant other rather than just our friend? Literally no one.

So, might I suggest that what’s missing from those ladies-only showers isn’t boys or booze—it’s a little creativity and intentionality! I personally requested no gifts at my shower, but my mom went behind my back and titled the shower “Wine, Words & Women,” asking guests to bring their favorite bottle of wine, book, or a donation to a nonprofit serving women. I spent the following years drinking wine and reading books that made me feel loved and connected to my family and friends, extending that warm glow of the wedding.

Laura also appreciates the value of a women-only space: “The majority of the bridal showers I have been to have been thrown by friends of the bride’s mother—women who have known the bride for their entire lives—and I think there can be something empowering about that.” Erika, an event planner in Phoenix, agrees: “I think they are a fun way for both sides of the family to be introduced to each other. Growing up in my family, it was always the women that carried families, so a bridal shower was beyond important for a strong connection.” And you know what makes a women-only bridal shower even better? Two brides.

If you love the idea of coming together with family before the wedding but you’re a little put off by the hassle of a shower, try having a low-key brunch or crafting day with locals. Erica says, “I didn't have a traditional shower, but I did throw myself a little brunch where we also worked on wedding crafts and I did my hair trial, which was so fun! It was like a spa day at my sister's house. We all tried on our outfits, made crafts, and drank mimosas.” Now that’s how you kill two birds with one stone, folks. Or you can have a party that isn’t gender-specific, a perfect option for two grooms and couples who feel eye-rolly about bridal anything.

Whether you’re having a couples shower, a co-ed shower, or a women-only shower, many seem to agree that bridal showers can feel like going through the motions unless the hosts choose to be more intentional and personal in the planning. My advice? Decenter the unwrapping of household items, and focus more on the connections and love that brought you all together in the first place. Maybe that means a few hours of unstructured quality time, or maybe you want to try your hand at a toilet-paper wedding gown. That’s up to you, sister!

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