There’s a rise in women proposing to men – is this the last marriage tradition that’s finally getting a modern makeover?
Wellington lawyer Sally*, 36, proposed marriage to now-husband Steve* five years ago. “I proposed partially because I watched that awful Leap Year movie!” That’s a romcom in which Anna (Amy Adams) plans to propose to her boyfriend on February 29, because, according to Irish tradition, a man proposed to on a ‘leap day’ must say yes.
“I didn’t actually want to do a leap-day proposal,” Sally says, with a laugh. “I mainly wanted to propose because my partner is really good at romantic stuff and I’m generally not, so this seemed like something I could do and a rare win for me! He was delighted!”
They’d discussed engagement before. “Turns out he’d been planning on proposing on an upcoming trip. He had a ring planned – he’s a jeweller – but it wasn’t made yet or anything.” How surprised was he? “Very! He didn’t say the actual word ‘yes’ because I proposed [with a message] inside a fortune cookie – he was confused and said ‘my chocolate just proposed to me?’. And when I said it was me, not the cookie, that was proposing, he grinned and asked if he could tell his mum we were engaged.”
Sally wasn’t prepared for some of her friends’ and acquaintances’ reactions. “Some of their responses were pretty shocking. Someone actually told me it was emasculating!” As far as Sally knows, Steve didn’t get any negative reactions to his news of the role reversal. “I think he found the responses I got pretty funny.”
A man’s job?
When you think of a marriage proposal, you might think ‘that’s a man’s job’. But could that attitude be changing?
Rita Ora proposed to Taika Waititi. Sarah Snook of Succession fame proposed to Dave Lawson. Jodie Turner-Smith proposed to Joshua Jackson. Pink proposed to Carey Hart. There are plenty of others.
Is this something that only celebrities are doing? Or is it happening more widely and we just don’t know about it? And is anyone doing it in New Zealand?
Well, canvassing people on my social media (which obviously isn’t scientific at all), I found that 10 women DID propose themselves – for reasons including wanting to do something romantic for a change, getting impatient with waiting to be asked, wanting certainty about where the relationship was going, their boyfriend having difficulty expressing emotion in words, and seeing it as a feminist power move (in some cases, it was for two or three of these reasons).
Isla*, a 32-year-old Aucklander, proposed to her fiancé in May. “I’ve never been one to envisage a fairytale proposal, but I did want to get married. And I thought he might never get around to asking, because he procrastinates about most things! Whereas I’m an accountant and I’m practical, efficient and always on time.” He said yes, and seemed comfortable with the reversal of traditional roles. “Unless he was uncomfortable and just didn’t tell me, but I don’t think that was the case.”
Some people congratulated her warmly. “Some looked a bit shocked and said ‘really?’. A colleague said ‘isn’t that a man’s job?’. And I said ‘I’m a feminist and I’ll propose if I want to!”
The vast majority of women I canvassed said they wouldn’t want to propose. The most common reasons: that the man proposing is a tradition, that they like the idea of their partner declaring his love publicly, that they don’t want to ‘emasculate’ their partner, that they want to be pursued, and that people might pity them for ‘having to do it themselves’.
I get it. I’m married, I would never have wanted to be the one proposing, and I identify with some of the reasons just mentioned. However, as a staunch feminist, I’m asking myself: why wouldn’t I have been comfortable with proposing? When, for instance, I never considered changing my name.
As Angela Saini, author of The Patriarchs, told me, when (some) women change their names upon getting married, it’s not necessarily because they’re not feminists; it’s because it’s tradition. However modern we feel, tradition is a powerful force.
A story in The Atlantic called ‘He Said Yes!’ has the subtitle: ‘Despite changing norms, it’s still exceedingly rare for women to propose in heterosexual couples’. However, the story says women “often took an active role in planning out the moment in less visible, behind-the-scenes ways’ with proposals being ‘surprise-ish’”.
But if women are involved enough to know it’s coming (and maybe even when and where), why not do it themselves in the first place?
American sociology professor Ellen Lamont, author of The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date, told The Atlantic that, while doing interviews for her book, she found that, in heterosexual relationships, women disliked the idea of being the one to propose more than men disliked the thought of being proposed to by a woman.
“Some of the women talked to me about how because they were so assertive in life, they wanted the opportunity to feel like they were wanted or chosen, the opportunity to ‘play the girl’ [in the proposal].”
Lamont also found that women worried about being pitied if they were the ones who “had to” propose to their male partners. “[They worried] that people would think their partner didn’t really love them, and that they wouldn’t have the right story to tell their friends,” Lamont said. “That their friends would be like, ‘Oh, that’s too bad’.”
Those attitudes didn’t worry Christchurch social worker Katie* when she proposed to her second and current husband. “It was actually terrifying! But I was determined to do it, because the first time I got engaged, I put so much pressure on things being done traditionally – and this time around I wanted to own how I felt. Plus he and I had talked about it previously, and he’d said the same thing about the pressure and weight of traditions in his first marriage.” His first wife had kept dropping hints about wanting him to propose.
“For me,” Katie says, “it felt way more honest to be upfront about what I wanted this time around, rather than wait around passive aggressively. Honestly, it baffles me now when women are quietly pining for their boyfriend to ask. Like, just ask yourself! Having done it both ways, I think the power dynamic created when only men can ask is stupid. I wish it was something we could make equal!”