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In 2016, we have Hillary Clinton shattering glass ceilings, Sheryl Sandberg telling us to “lean in,” and Beyoncé singing anthems about how girls run the world. But when it comes to the marriage proposal, women are somehow fine taking a backseat. Why is it still so hard for women to ask, “Will you marry me?” To find out, we put seasoned writer Sarah Z. Wexler on the case. As a recently engaged (now married) bride, Wexler was in-tune with the inner-struggle many brides face upon getting engaged: They live with their partner, they’ve discussed marriage countless times, they may have even picked out a diamond engagement ring — and yet, they have no plans to propose to their man. Many, in fact, would never dream of popping the question.
The reasons for this — as Wexler discovered through interviews with historians, sociologists, and relationship experts — are many, and they’re caused by the permanence of deeply entrenched cultural traditions. (Think: years of male-dominated relationships and economic inequality.) But, in speaking to real brides who got engaged via female proposal, Wexler found that by upending the norm, you’re really just advocating for yourself and your relationship — and the benefits of doing so vastly outweigh any awkwardness or societal judgment when it comes to taking on a nontraditional role and asking a man those four little words.
In the weeks after Tony and I talked about getting engaged and picked out the ring, I spent all of my idle time brainstorming adorable ways he could propose to me. He could write “Will you marry me?” on a wall of our new house, which we spent every night painting; he could place the ring in a dresser drawer at one of the vintage furniture stores we visited on weekends; he could attach it to the leash of one of our dogs, Ginsberg and Sunny, and ask if I felt like going for a walk. When I rattled off my list to a friend, she said, “If you have so many great ideas, why don’t you just propose?”
Until that point, the thought had never crossed my mind. True, I was an empowered woman who wasn’t afraid to make the first move: After we had chatted online for only a few days, I was the one who asked Tony to meet. After he hadn’t spent a night at his own place for months, I was the one who suggested that we move in together. By the time we cosigned on a 30-year mortgage for a home in Portland, Oregon, I knew I was ready to marry Tony. But I worried that if I proposed, I might never know for sure if we’d gotten engaged before he was ready. Although I knew he would say yes if I asked, I didn’t want to make him feel rushed or pressured. There was something that made me want to be 100 percent sure that go-with-the-flow, people-pleasing Tony wouldn’t just be agreeing to something he was only 95 percent sure he wanted. (It’s more than coincidence that his name backward spells “y not.”)
I also worried what some of our friends and family might think. I could practically hear what people might whisper if I proposed — that at 34, maybe I was rushing into it because my fertility window was closing. I felt conflicted: I’m a feminist, I don’t live my life based on what other people think, and I knew he would say yes — yet still something was holding me back.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only progressive woman who is hesitant to propose. How many engagement ring selfies have you seen of a beaming woman holding up her blinged-out hand with the caption “I said yes!”? I’ve come across dozens in my Facebook feed from friends and maybe 50 not-really-friends from high school, but I’ve yet to encounter a “He said yes!” post. This social-media rite of passage (or bragging right, depending on how you look at it) has only reinforced our collective norms surrounding proposals.
In a 2014 Associated Press survey of married heterosexual couples, only 5 percent got hitched after the woman proposed. Even more surprising is that 23 percent of women still think it’s “unacceptable” to do so. “I’ve seen no evidence that the pattern of the man asking the woman has become less common,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian initiative at the University of Virginia that researches and analyzes marriage in America.
Why are we stuck in our ways? Maybe it’s because we’ve had centuries of men calling the relationship shots. Consider the origins of the proposal: The man would ask the bride’s father for permission to marry her because, historically, marriages were arranged without the woman’s consent and essentially transferred ownership and control of the woman from her father to her husband. “In Europe and early America, women were forced into marriages as a way to secure military alliances and business deals or to raise social status,” says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, and the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Marrying for love first came about in the late 18th century but was still based in inequality because, as Coontz points out, “the woman was dependent on her husband, and all the rituals of marriage and engagement underlined that. Of course, she couldn’t ask someone to take care of her and support her financially for the rest of her life, so she had to wait to be asked.”
But we now live in a world where 70 percent of women with children under age 18 work and more than 37 percent of women earn a higher income than their husbands, according to 2014 Bureau of Labor statistics. So why are we still waiting for economic equality to have some sway in creating proposal equality?
The modern women I spoke with who proposed to their now-husbands didn’t do so because they needed his paycheck or were worried about his commitment. “I hate when people assume I proposed because I was nervous that David wouldn’t do it or that I was sick of waiting,” says Maya Horowitz, 28, an editor at a tech startup in Palo Alto, California, who proposed to her evolutionary-biologist boyfriend, 34, this past Valentine’s Day. “We had discussed our relationship in depth and agreed we wanted to get engaged. I wanted to be the one to ask because I wanted to do something nice for David.” Horowitz surprised him by taking out an ad in the local newspaper that said, “You are the love of my life and my best friend. I can’t imagine my future without you. Will you marry me?” He said yes.
When Horowitz asked her new fiancé if he thought it was somehow emasculating if a woman proposed, “he said that men who get proposed to should feel even more secure in their masculinity that someone loves them enough to do that.”
Even so, traditional ideas about what is appropriately masculine and feminine remain predominant in our culture, explains Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in New York City who’s studied gender within the LGBT community. “And despite women’s many strides in achieving equality, most people are comfortable accepting certain stereotypes,” he says.
Some argue that women themselves don’t challenge the stereotypes because — whether they admit it or not — many of them still hope to be swept off their feet. “Although women have evolved in so many ways and don’t ‘need’ to get married, there still exists this deep-rooted cultural desire to have the white-knight dream-fulfilling proposal,” says Sherry Amatenstein, a licensed clinical social worker in New York and the author of The Complete Marriage Counselor. We’ve seen this play out in pop culture on a dozen seasons of The Bachelorette. Even though the woman holds the power in each episode, narrowing down her suitors, in the finale she chooses her guy and then waits for him to propose to make it official.
There is one group of women that bucks the status quo: Thanks to the 2015 Supreme Court marriage-equality decision, we see more women proposing — albeit to other women. Will hetero women follow their lead? “Gay marriage has upended certain norms, but I’m not sure it will ever have a major ripple effect on straight marriage proposals,” argues Drescher. “But it took a long time for us to have a female presidential nominee, so as more and more women take on ‘non-traditional’ gender roles, it may speed up social acceptance for women proposing.”
In the meantime, however, there are women like Horowitz who didn’t wait for society to catch up and are happier for it. In 1974, at age 23, Jean Oglethorpe of Fort Myers, Florida, proposed to Jim, now her husband of 42 years. “After living together for several years, I was rather matter-of-fact. I didn’t ask him to marry me per se, I just told him that it was time to get married and that he would need a suit for the occasion,” she says. You might think that a woman setting her wedding day in motion so directly would’ve made waves back then, but Oglethorpe thinks we’re actually more rigid with proposals now. In the free-love ’70s, “no one seemed to care very much about the traditional aspects of courtship and marriage,” she says. “I can’t remember any of my friends having a formal proposal like the ones you see today.”
For Carlyn Butcher, 31, of Alexandria, Virginia, it was more about spontaneity than formality. At 25, she popped the question out of the blue on a subway platform to Steve, then 26, less than two years into their relationship. Butcher saw her proposal as an act of love and a way for her voice to be equal to Steve’s in expressing what she wanted.
“I think it’s sad if a woman wants to get married but doesn’t propose because she feels like societal conventions are telling her that’s not okay, that she’ll emasculate her partner. Screw societal conventions!” says Butcher. “Now that Steve and I have a daughter, I’m even happier that I proposed because it will show her that she shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for what she wants.”
While many women fear that they’ll seem aggressive or overbearing by proposing, taking this approach may set the tone for a more progressive relationship. As Butcher puts it: “My proposal was just the first sign that we wouldn’t hold ourselves to old-fashioned roles. Steve is an incredibly involved, helpful partner and father. He does the dishes, makes dinner.”
The same goes for Ellie Casson, 31, of Oakland, California, who proposed to her husband, Jamie, on the beach in Mexico in 2012; she’s now the couple’s primary breadwinner, while Jamie does more of the child care. “Ellie is so strong and confident, I don’t think anyone was surprised that she proposed to me — except me!” Jamie says. “I was totally caught off-guard; I had to have her ask me twice. I’m not at all disappointed that I didn’t get to propose. I’m just glad I got to marry Ellie.”
In the end, I decided to go the traditional route and wait for Tony to get down on one knee — which he did, the month after we moved into our new house. While I wouldn’t change the way I chose to begin my marriage to Tony, I can’t help but hope that my future daughter — or my daughter’s daughter — if she’s so inclined, won’t hesitate to ask the man of her dreams for his hand in marriage.