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Asking for her hand - after asking permission

Robert Hunt, 25, dined with his fiancée's father, Dan Brennock (center), and prepared what he wanted to say before asking his permission to marry his daughter Stephanie (left). Robert Hunt, 25, dined with his fiancée's father, Dan Brennock (center), and prepared what he wanted to say before asking his permission to marry his daughter Stephanie (left). (EVAN RICHMAN/GLOBE STAFF)

Before Bob Hunt dropped to bended knee on the famed Cliff Walk in Newport, R.I., and asked his high school sweetheart to marry him, he’d taken her father to dinner at a Chili’s restaurant and sought his permission.

‘‘Because I have such a great relationship with her family,’’ Hunt says, ‘‘it makes it that much more important that I ask for permission.’’

Reviving a tradition that seemingly went the way of the flapper and Prohibition, young men like Hunt these days are talking to their intendeds’ parents before popping the question. While there are no numbers to track the trend, call a bridal store or wedding venue or otherwise inquire among the betrothed and the newlywed and their parents and it is easy to find examples. Jenna Bush’s fiancé, Henry Hager, reportedly had a private tête-à-tête with her father, the president, before he proposed one summer morning at sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine. What these young men embrace as a gesture of courtesy and respect has roots in an era when women had few rights and little opportunity.

‘‘It was a fairly common practice based on the notion of making alliances between families and passing the daughter who was legally the property of the father onto the husband,’’ says Temple University historian Beth Bailey. ‘‘What we’re seeing right now is an odd combination of young people with progressive sentiments and a real desire for conventional gender roles and arrangements’’

Hunt, a 25-year-old salesman from Attleboro, has long known that Stefanie Brennock, whose parents are divorced, expected that anyone who wanted to marry her would talk to them first. ‘‘It’s just the parents handing over the daughter to a new guy and taking care of me,’’ says Brennock, 24, an assistant manager at a bridal store.

The evening before he took Brennock to Newport, Hunt dined with her father. ‘‘It was an out-of-body experience. My soul was looking down at the table,’’ Hunt says. ‘‘I’d prepared what I wanted to say. But looking back I don’t remember saying it. It just started coming out.’’ Later that night, Hunt shared the news with Brennock’s mother.

‘‘I said, ‘Bobby, you didn’t have to ask, but I’m proud and glad you did,’ ’’ says Dan Brennock, 55, a retired Naval officer from Uxbridge. ‘‘I didn’t do it when I got married.’’

Matthew Fierman, 29, was less formal. Before he proposed to his wife, he telephoned her parents. First he told his future mother-in-law. Then he asked his future father-in-law for his blessing. ‘‘It’s just a sign of respect,’’ says Fierman, a teacher from Brighton. ‘‘Dad got the chance to give the official thumbs-up.’’

The Rev. Atu White of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain says he followed Southern custom when he sought permission from his wife’s father before asking Dr. Yolanda Lenzy-White to marry him. ‘‘No decent respectable guy would marry someone whose father disapproved,’’ says White, 27. ‘‘If she didn’t grow up with a dad, then speak to her mother or the closest guardian.’’

Jarrad Glennon, 27, wanted more than approval when he asked his girlfriend’s parents for their blessing over dinner. Almost four decades earlier, his future father-in-law, Robert Cohen, an attorney from Newton, solicited similar permission from his future father-in-law.

‘‘The main reason was being a little traditional and respectful,’’ says Glennon, who works for an investment firm. ‘‘I also wanted her mother’s opinions when it came to the ring and whatnot.’’

Cohen, 61, appreciated the gesture. ‘‘It’s nice to feel included,’’ he says.

So did Glennon’s fiancée, Joanna Cohen, 28. ‘‘I don’t think it’s necessary,’’ she says. ‘‘I know people think you shouldn’t do it. But it’s nice.’’

Historians trace the custom’s evolution in this country to colonists who brought traditions with them from England. In the mid-19th century, as love increasingly formed the basis of marriage, the practice gradually became a formality. Stephanie Coontz, author of ‘‘Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,’’ finds few references to it after the 1930s.

Coontz said she believes uneasiness contributes to what she calls ‘‘cherry picking’’ of traditions. ‘‘It has none of the old meaning,’’ she says. As late as 1967, she notes, two-thirds of college women surveyed, compared with 5 percent of

college men, would consider marrying someone they didn’t love if other factors, such as financial stability and agreeable personality, were in place.

‘‘Since 1967 it’s a rapid revolution where love really trumps everything else. There’s this sense that this is a little dangerous,’’ Coontz says. ‘‘Maybe I want to add a few traditional elements to my modern marriage just to protect us from it being a complete free-for-all.’’

Barbara Gottfried, of Boston University’s women’s studies department, declares herself ‘‘shocked’’ by the trend. ‘‘The fact that the parents are asked prior to the proposal seems to me to be more than politeness,’’ she says. ‘‘Underneath it all is an anxiety about the threat that independent women pose.’’

Not all grooms-to-be adopt the custom. Christopher Cole of Winthrop, leader of a wedding band called Kahootz, didn’t approach his fiancé’s parents before he proposed in a Vermont restaurant.

‘‘The biggest reason was that she’s an adult. It’s not respectful of your fiancé as an adult woman,’’ he says.

‘‘I’m very glad he didn’t,’’ says his fiancée, Nikki Wescott, 33, a hotel wedding coordinator.

Distance kept Robert Ayles, 39, a fundraiser, from approaching his fiancée’s parents, who live in Pittsburgh.

‘‘If they were closer geographically, I would have liked to have had that conversation with her dad,’’ he says. ‘‘It reinforces with parents the strength of your feeling and commitment to their daughter.’’

Irene Sege can be reached at sege@globe.com.

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