On December 3, 2017, I proposed to my boyfriend.
That’s right: I, being female, proposed to my boyfriend.
Whenever people ask me how Alex popped the question and a chipper “oh, I did!” erupts from me, they assume that either A.) I was too eager to get my married and couldn’t wait any longer or that B.) he didn’t get the hint and wasn’t quick enough to “put a ring on it.” I was amused at the amount of shocked women who turned to Alex after learning that I asked him to marry me and exclaimed “how come you didn’t do it fast enough!”
But in actuality, when Alex and I sat on his parent’s front steps overlooking the fall foliage at the park across the street and made the conscious decision to get married the following summer, I firmly told him I would be initiating the proposal. That it was important to me that I do it. Alex was initially hesitant as he had wanted to be the one to propose at first. Yet this is a stereotypical task of what a man is “supposed” to do. And one of the hundred reasons why I chose Alex is his love for unconformity. And he’s a damn good feminist at that!
There is this cultural assumption that men have the obligatory task of proposing to women. It’s ingrained in our societal expectations. It’s an unnecessary norm, just as having women change their names and their children taking a man’s name is. Sure, women can propose. Men can change their last names. Families can create new last names. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing it differently. There are several stories online I had read from women that proposed to their partners.
But it’s always taken as surprise. We expect the men to get down on one knee. We expect them to find the ring.
Why? Why has it always been done this way?
Women As Property
For the majority of history that marriage has been around, women were treated as property.
We. Were. Property.
We had no rights to our own children, we had no rights to our own earnings or bank accounts or ownership of property. Marriage was essentially a transaction. Families were to offer trades (a trade for cattle, land, etc) and marrying a woman off was part of that deal. If a family had to pay off a debit, we were the ones that silently endured. We had no power and no voice. Thus, why the tradition started of men assuming this role and seeking out marriage to begin with.
Finances = Power
It wasn’t until the late 1700s that people even questioned whether a woman should have any say in the individual whom she shares her life with. But women were still unlucky at this point, with men being known as the more “rational, level-headed” of the sexes and thus the tradition continued. People eventually changed, and these roles relaxed. But a man became the provider and the woman a nurturing caretaker of her husband and children. Men were working full-time jobs and women were waiting to get married and have babies. Because men were financially more powerful than women were at the time, the idea of a man proposing continued, as he was more financially able to provide for his wife.
To this day, women who propose still have this image of being aggressive and desperate. We are seen as the dominant, unusual ones. We are seen as unconventional. People still react in surprise, people still ask “why.” With women having more power and independence than ever before, why are we still questioning this? As Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said, “A man asking a woman to wed is a ritual that’s very powerful…having him ask for her hand in marriage is a way of signaling to her, and his friends and family, that’s he’s serious and ready for a future with her.”
We are far past the 1950s. Both men and women are actively working, equally sharing household responsibilities, and are independently in charge of their lives and futures. But there are several aspects that are still stuck frozen in the past. We are resistant to change about women proposing marriage to men. We are also still resistant to the idea of our children keeping our own last names. These are simply unconscious habits. These are emotional expectations that women are to be asked a question and experience this magical hand-to-mouth, gaping in awe, cue-the-tears, “yes!” moment. This is an unnecessary norm that people aren’t yet conscious of or are not deliberately thinking about. Shouldn’t we start asking these questions?
Obviously, we have come so far, ladies. If you’re a woman living today in the Western world, you are lucky beyond belief. We aren’t being traded for cattle anymore. We can choose who we want to carry out the remaining days of our existence with. But most importantly, we have a say.
What Should We Do Today?
Every relationship is different and everyone’s hopes for their future proposal is entirely personal. I know several women who dream of being asked for their hand in marriage. I know how important and special that moment is to them, and to those women, I applaud them for knowing what they want. But we do need to start talking about it. We should start chatting with our partners about such traditions going forward. We should question why we unconsciously follow these expectations and become more open-minded to both genders being equally on the same footing.
To some, this blog post may seem unnecessary. A proposal may seem like such a small issue amidst the grand scheme of issues that we have battled and are currently facing. But although it may be small, it is psychologically important. This is a small issue that is unconsciously setting trends and assigning roles for generations to come. We are giving men sole responsibility for such a task, and we are continuing to set expectations, however small, that preserve a woman’s disadvantage in marriage.
And I’m surprised we haven’t questioned it sooner.
If you’re curious about our proposal story, I proposed to my boyfriend with a custom-made compass locket on Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios. I requested the front seat of the car and asked that life-changing question right before we accelerated from 0 to 60mph. Ring box and all. To continue treating my fiance (I love to spoil!), I had Disney decorate our room with rose petals and splurged on an overpriced gift basket of wine, cheese, and chocolates. And because we eagerly chase equality in every aspect of our relationship, he got down on one knee (it was very important that he do this for me) and asked to marry me the following day at EPCOT.