The Rites of Women

My friend Emily is getting married soon, so last weekend I went over to her house and skulked in the bushes outside until her sister – beadily watching from an upstairs window – opened the door and summoned me in a stage whisper. We tiptoed into the living room, which was decked in balloons, L-plates, flowers and a shocking-pink banner reading ‘Caution: Hen Party’. Stifling giggles, three of Emily’s other friends were crouching behind the sofas, like lions ready to pounce. Emily, blissfully ignorant, was upstairs; she’d been warned not to go into the living room until she was called. She thought her parents were in there, hosting a meeting for locals who opposed the opening of a strip club on Surbiton high street.

When Emily arrived – escorted in by her sister, who’d told her the local MP wanted to hear a ‘youth voice’ – we dressed her up in a veil (gauze, attached to a plastic pink tiara), a T-shirt emblazoned with her face (we’d already donned ours) and a luminescent sash displaying the legend ‘Bride to Be’. Waiting outside her house – no expense spared – was an open-top Mini. Across Waterloo Bridge we flew, howling with laughter, and waving pink knickers at passers-by. Afternoon tea in a glamorous hotel was a raucous affair; we’d been issued with official hen party dare cards obtained from an online retailer appearing to be a niche offshoot of the sex-toy industry, which, her sister sternly informed us, should inspire us in forcing Emily to embarrass herself at regular intervals. Requesting a free drink from the impassive barman was a no-no, neither, he stonily informed her, were his boxers available for talismanic purposes. Asking a married couple for sex advice, however, proved highly instructive. Later, ensconced in a private room, the challenges were on us: we had two minutes to wrap Emily in toilet paper (specially brought for the purpose), an obscure parody of the bridal gown, while a strange perversion of the childhood game involved us pinning the penis on a portrait of a naked man. All residual ice broken, we turned to conversation, until the long night ended with the production of cucumbers and condoms, bizarre instruments for the performance of a collective, ritual blowjob.


Ritual, writes Kierkegaard, relies on repetition. ‘That which is repeated has been – otherwise it could not be repeated – but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new.’ Before the penis straws came out, Emily’s mother showed us photos of her own hen party, in the 1980s – confused, excited young women just like us were decked in paraphernalia less slick and commercialised, but similarly bizarre. There was a palpable sense throughout that we were, in a way, performing roles, acting as we wouldn’t normally to somehow sanctify the traditional occasion.

In his 1909 work Les rites du passage, Arnold van Gennep shows that rituals which dramatise an individual’s change in status display striking continuity across time and culture. From baptisms to weddings, initiation rites tend to involve three elements: separation, transition and incorporation. As I helped spin Emily around until she staggered woozily down the ‘aisle’ towards a menacing ‘priest’ holding a pitcher of Jagermeister, it began to seem to me that the hen party might be read as a modern female initiatory ritual – and contemplating this idea later, I was impressed to find a monograph on that very subject by an academic called Beth Montemurro, whose dedication to her chosen course of study took her and her notebook to over fifty hen parties (or their two-pronged American equivalent, bachelorette parties and bridal showers) in the name of qualitative research.

The Times first used the term ‘hen party’ in 1976; it was in a story about a male stripper who was fined by Leicester Crown Court for acting in ‘a lewd, obscene and disgusting manner’. The all-male, alcohol-fuelled, last-gasp bachelor party, Montemurro writes, dates back to Roman times, but it wasn’t until Women’s Liberation in the 1960s that women established a comparable ritual for themselves. Evidence for the primmer, more consumerist version – the bridal shower – dates back to sixteenth-century Holland: a certain woman, according to legend, was forbidden by her father to marry a poor miller, so sympathetic friends gathered gifts and money to enable the pair to wed. In the late nineteenth century, brides held sewing parties where their generous friends would help embroider monograms onto their new quilts; by 1954, the occasion had become popular enough for Germaine Haney to find a market for a book entitled Showers for All Occasions (subtitle: ‘A Handbook of Complete Information for All Types of Showers with Detailed Suggestions for Invitations, Menus, Entertainment, Decorations, Refreshments, Etc’):‘Why not have a kitchen gadget shower? … A pots and pans shower? … Don’t overlook the sewing shower … A gay and amusing shower is the Rag Mop Round-Up. Only cleaning aids are allowed.’

In Marriage Customs of the World, George P. Monger describes how in the 1970s, when the Marriage Bar prevented married women from employment in professions including teaching, the civil service, nursing and the BBC, offices and factories would shower brides-to-be with confetti, dress them up as a bridal parody and parade them home, to mark their last day of employment before they shift to their new status. The Spanish word for ‘bridal shower’ translates as ‘goodbye to singlehood’; the French means ‘death of a young girl’. The Greek word ‘nymph’ means both ‘goddess’ and ‘bride’, which allowed the Greeks to imagine that during the ancient wedding, the bride ritually became a goddess in that dramatic liminal moment between girlhood and womanhood. The ancients enjoyed this symbolism: one ritual of female initiation involved the worship of the apotheosised hero Hippolytus, who died before he could marry, so – never completing the ritual transition – stayed a god instead. Montemurro suggests that liminality, the state of being between states, is crucial to hen party ritual: the bride-to-be (existential uncertainty embedded in her title) must follow the community’s orders and submit to ‘ritualised teasing’ (those dares). That uncertainty is embedded etymologically, too. The word ‘liminal’ comes from the Latin limen, meaning threshold; a major part of the ancient wedding involved the procession of the bride (accompanied by her female friends) from her old home to her new – a dangerous time, as she had relinquished the protection of her old household gods but not yet come under that of new ones – and it was considered especially bad luck for a bride to stumble on the threshold, the physical marker of the divide between her past and future self. The very language van Gennep uses to denote initiatory rites is grounded in bridal customs.


Central to initiation rites is an idea of obliterating the past self, in a ritual death, before rebirth into a new life. In ancient marriage ritual, the bride’s prenuptial bath – a grown-up version of baptism – symbolises the purging of her former identity in exchange for the new. All over ancient Greece, communities had their own versions of the same symbolism: in Cyrene, girls would spend the night before their marriage in the temple of Artemis, an act of propitiation to the virgin goddess; a more extreme Spartan custom involved the woman, hair shorn, being dressed in men’s clothes and abandoned in a dark room, where she would await her groom (according to Plutarch, couples might live contentedly together in this manner for some time, and Spartan men ‘sometimes had children by their wives before ever they saw their faces by daylight’). Religious initiations, a major rite of passage in ancient Greek life, followed a similar pattern: mysterious cults revolved around sinister, secretive rituals, many involving transvestitism, intoxication and simulated divine possession, to dramatise a blurring of identity, the physical transformation conceived to mirror the spiritual one.

For women, marriage remains associated with the blurring of identity in a problematic way. Montemurro suggests the contradictions inherent in the idea of hen parties – in some ways subversive and liberating, in others a sugary reinforcement of stereotypical gender norms – derive from contemporary woman’s ambivalent position ‘somewhere between independence and dependence, between femininity and masculinity, between virgin and vixen’. Much discussion at Emily’s hen party centred on what would happen to her, to all of us, after marriage: whether she would keep working, metamorphose into a mother, take on a new name – notwithstanding the potential confusion and career setback incumbent in this. It’s a debate, too, at the centre of contemporary feminist fiction. Lila, a heroine of Elena Ferrante’s spellbinding Neapolitan Novels, marries the local greengrocer at 16. Her friend Elena, the narrator, comes to Lila’s childhood home – which she is about to leave for her husband’s house – to ‘help her wash, do her hair, dress’:  the traditional prenuptial rituals, shared by female friends since antiquity. Gazing at her friend as she strips for the bath, her wedding dress lying on the chair ‘like a dead woman’, Elena finds herself struck by the profundity of Lila’s transitional moment: ‘I had a confusion of feelings and thoughts: embrace her, weep with her, kiss her, pull her hair, laugh, pretend to sexual experience and instruct her in a learned voice, distancing her with words just at the moment of greatest closeness.’ On her return from a disastrous honeymoon, Lila speaks bitterly of the erasure of her prior identity into a new one as a mere cipher of her husband: ‘Raffaella Cerullo, overpowered, had lost her shape and had dissolved inside the outlines of Stefano, becoming a subsidiary emanation of him: Signora Carracci.’

Ferrante’s novels are all set in a poor Neapolitan neighbourhood, where women’s struggle to define themselves, to escape the cycles of oppression that have formed an integral part of the status quo for generations, is a recurring theme. In Ferrante’s debut novel, Troubling Love, Delia thinks of her mother’s lover as ‘the man with whom she would make love, who would cover her with his name, who would annihilate her with his alphabet’. Delia identifies with her malleable mother – she sees her mother’s face in photographs of herself; she hears echoes of her mother’s voice in her own language – and her own crisis of identity becomes a microcosm of a much wider one, affecting all married women. Leda, the narrator of Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter, leaves her husband and daughters to pursue another relationship, as does Elena in the Neapolitan Novels: without the shackles of domestic duty, Leda, an academic, is relieved to find the vestiges of her old self, her interests and preoccupations, returning, after years as if in another’s body. ‘Sometimes’, she says,‘you have to escape in order not to die.’

In her fiction and in her autobiographical writing, Rachel Cusk interrogates this very question: what is a woman, if she does not define herself primarily as a wife or a mother? In Aftermath, the memoir she wrote around her 2009 divorce, Cusk suggests that as a married mother, she felt ‘inhabited by a second self’, that ‘to act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character’. In the theatre of gender performance, women have always taken the lead roles; throughout Cusk’s work, as Ferrante’s, runs the idea of the ‘compartmentalised woman’, torn between her sense of self – as a writer, often, or an artist – and her new sense of the roles of wife and mother, which she knows to perform, yet never comfortably inhabits. In her 2014 novel Outline, the recently divorced narrator – whose name, Faye, is only revealed once, towards the end of the novel – tells another character that she ‘wasn’t sure it was possible, in marriage, to know what you actually were, or indeed to separate what you were from what you had become through the other person. I thought the whole idea of a “real” self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self within you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.’ Another character, Anne, finds herself, after her divorce, unable to recall who she was before she became a part of her husband, of whom she thinks as her creator: ‘She lacked what might be called a vocabulary, a native language of self.’ A similar sentiment is expressed by the narrator of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. ‘My plan was to never get married’, she announces: ‘I was going to be an art monster instead.’  But when she becomes a mother, the plan goes awry, and she finds herself less like Nabokov, who ‘didn’t even fold his own umbrella’, than Vera, who ‘licked his stamps for him.’ Later, she reminds her husband of her ‘old art monster plan. “Road not taken”, my husband says.’ When they separate, the woman, previously so assured of her own identity, finds herself lost like Anne in Outline, her narration turning from the first to the third person as her mental state deteriorates: ‘if the wife becomes unwived, what should she be called? Will the story have to be rewritten?’

In Aftermath, Cusk contrasts her own situation with that of her mother, who had always ‘aspired to marriage and motherhood, to being desired and possessed by a man in a way that would legitimise her’. Ferrante’s novels take place across the twentieth century, and Lila’s and Elena’s stories are bound up in the burgeoning political and social change in Italy and Europe; desperate to shake off the influences of their own mothers (Elena’s characterised by a symbolic limp), their own tech-savvy, internationally minded daughters represent the future, while they are liminal women caught between the old and new worlds. Women, in Cusk’s and Ferrante’s work, are ‘works in progress’, their identities fluid and vulnerable to outside attack: yet even in marriage, the old identity is never quite lost, but remains, ghost-like, behind the veneer of the new one. It’s striking to note that Cusk’s description of this marital loss of selfhood is couched in the language of ancient religious initiation. ‘This cult, motherhood’, she writes in Aftermath, ‘was not a place where I could actually live… like any cult, it demanded a complete surrender of identity to belong to it. So for a while I didn’t belong anywhere’.


If women’s identity is at risk of submersion in marriage, fairy tales are an example of how a patriarchal canon has submerged an entire female tradition, one rooted, in part, in female initiation rituals. In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner explains that the now-canonical version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was written for her teenage pupils by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-80), who left an unhappy marriage in France to work as a London governess. She knew the tale from earlier versions, told in women-only salons by female storytellers (conteuses) in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France to younger women about to enter marriages, often arranged ones, which they didn’t have the means to escape: don’t worry, the tale suggests, he might seem like a beast at first, but Beauty overcame that; women have done it before, and you can too, good luck to you.

In The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes suggests that Charles Perrault’s now-canonical story has its ancestors in an oral tradition derived from female initiatory rites related to needlework: ‘almost all the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood show a remarkable unity in plot and structure that represent a socio-ethnic initiation ritual practiced by women in the southeastern region of France and northern Italy.’ These rites are long-lost, this female tradition obliterated by the story’s metamorphosis into a parable about rape: Perrault, Zipes suggests, ‘transformed a hopeful oral tale about the initiation of a young girl into a tragic one of violence in which the girl is blamed for her own violation.’ Before Perrault’s version – in which the girl and her grandmother are saved from death by a strong hunter, the closest thing in the woods to a handsome prince – was an oral tale, dating back to the seventeenth century, in which the girl, on her way to her grandmother’s house, is asked by the wolf which path she is taking, ‘the path of pins or the path of needles?’ This riddle, Yvonne Verdier has shown, was related to needlework apprenticeships that pubescent peasant girls underwent in certain regions of seventeenth-century France. The wolf, who takes the path of pins, reaches the house first, where he eats the grandmother and leaves out a pound of her flesh and a vial of her blood for the girl to eat – symbolising, suggests Zipes, the girl’s replacement of her grandmother, whose death ‘signifies the continuity and reinvigoration of custom, which was important for the preservation of society.’ The moment of initiation occurs when the girl hears her customary death sentence (that figurative initiatory death before symbolic rebirth): she doesn’t wait for the prince, but outwits the wolf with her own cunning, returning triumphant to her community having completed her ritual transition into womanhood. She needs, she tells him, to go outside to use the toilet. Out she goes, and away she runs.


The morning after Emily’s hen party, I found myself listening to Start the Week with Nick Groom, author of The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year. Nick is a man who dresses in 18kg of chain mail every 23rd April to act as St George in a village pageant. He is interested in English national identity as performed through the rituals traditionally associated with the seasons: the man adorned with straw sheaves who cavorts through Cambridgeshire villages on the first Tuesday after Twelfth Night; the ribbon-garlanded hobby horse whose parade marks May Day in Padstow. On the radio, Groom was describing his passion for May Day, a festival with as much phallic symbolism as an average hen party. ‘It’s about the relationship we have with our heritage, with our communities, and how we form our identities… about thinking about what our relationships are with our friends and our neighbours.’ ‘Is there room’, mused Tom Sutcliffe, ‘for starting off a tradition? What about a Blackpool hen party’, he asked, ‘is that not a folk tradition in the making?’ ‘You might want to think about whether that’s something you really do wish to preserve’, said Groom, to much laughter. But I think Sutcliffe was thinking along interesting lines. There’s much that’s horrible about hen parties, but within them are the vestiges of women doing it for themselves, and that’s something to celebrate.