When the best man is a woman

Until recently I was under the impression that marriage was just a disgracefully patriarchal cattle market. But then my friend Dave asked me to be best man at his wedding.

I readily accepted, thinking this a progressive idea and thinking of all those silly soap opera weddings where the best man loses the ring at the altar. Even when a friend pointed out that the best man is also obliged to make a speech, I was not deterred.

But the first inkling that this might be a bit of a feather-ruffling situation came when, on arriving at Manchester town hall, the eyes of the registrar flickered nervously for a few seconds as he was introduced to me.

“Oh,” he asked, somewhat perplexed, “a … lady best man?’’

It is undeniable that there are problems inherent in the idea of a female best man:

  • The best man’s speech traditionally revolves around ladsy jokes and vomit gags.

  • Women are supposed to be suspicious of other women so why would a bride want another female up at the altar alongside her fella?

  • Best men are supposed to get off with the bridesmaids and, well, you might not always fancy the bridesmaids.

    Marriage might not be going out of fashion as often supposed, yet people are increasingly tailoring tradition to suit their modern tastes. After all, guests hardly blink an eye these days at weddings between divorcees, at church weddings where the happy couple doesn’t believe in God or at weddings where the bride is heavily pregnant.

    Why not really push the boat out and get a woman in to be a man? And if you can throw in some added gender politics lite, so much the better.

    Still, not everyone is thrown by the idea that the best man for a job is a woman. Kate McCoy (35) was best man at the wedding of her old friend (and former teenage sweetheart) Matt. “People weren’t as shocked as I thought they’d be.”

    McCoy referred to herself as “best man” throughout the ceremony. “None of that ‘best person’ nonsense. ‘Best man’ is a job title, it’s not about sexuality.’‘

    But for Celia Warbrick the experience wasn’t so smooth when she acted as best man at her old friend Ian’s wedding last year. “He said that because I had been there for him through the hard times of his divorce he wanted me to share in the fulfilment of something good happening to him.”

    Yet she describes the experience as “terrifying”, because “I wasn’t prepared for the fact that people in the main were totally thrown by me being a best man. When I told my friends, a lot of them said, ‘Oh, is it a gay wedding, then?’ As if taking an active role would be all right at a gay wedding but not at a straight one.”

    She admits there were pitfalls. She felt it caused some confusion when she was up at the altar. “At one point I felt as if I was getting married to Ian. It was very strange.”

    This was a feeling I too experienced for a few seconds at the altar with Dave … but that soon passed when I could see how much in love the bride and groom were — how it was about them and not me.

    For me, the main worry was the speech and the outfit — need you wear trousers to wield the power and authority of a man? The answer, I think, is no.

    There is a prevalent belief that the ability to give a speech at a wedding — like the ability to down 15 beers in one hour — is strictly a masculine domain.

    A couple of guys came up immediately after the wedding ceremony and — not to put pressure on me or anything — informed me how the best man’s speech is a measure of how good a wedding is and how one of their friends had “crumbled” when he’d had to do his best man turn.

    Luckily I didn’t crumble. The hardest bit was conjuring up a picture of the groom for the assorted guests — a classic mix of old ladies and gentlemen relatives and various party mates from around the world — without making glaring references to the many druggy rave situations that had helped us bond. It did not cross my mind that I should mention any of those nudge-nudge, wink-wink jokes that wedding books suggest you tell — because that is not the kind of humour that Dave and I shared.

    I was touched when two of the female guests came up to me and confided that they were to be “best men’’ later this year.

    When I asked Dave why he had wanted me to be his best man, he shrugged and said it was because he didn’t want one of his bloke mates to do “one of those idiot speeches about the patter of little feet”.

    Although the speech went well, I have to admit that I wimped out on the stag weekend. It was a football match in Austria.

    Choosing a woman to be your best man is apparently a growing trend. I now keep meeting people who tell me that they were at a wedding where there was a female best man — and they announce the fact with great pride, as if they were telling me they’ve found a cool builder or someone who can get them cut-price tickets to Paris.

    For McCoy ruffling feathers is old hat. At her own wedding four years ago she asked Matt, the man who asked her to be his best man, to be her chief bridesmaid. “Yes,” she reflects with a smile, “it was rather an unconventional wedding. He was a bridesmaid in a suit who gave a speech with flowers and jewels in his hair.” — Â