Despite changing gender roles, one tradition remains
It’s hard to keep a secret that involves a dancing flash mob—especially when the group is rehearsing a marriage proposal. But Patrick Quiring was determined to give his girlfriend a world-class experience, and this required telling a few white lies.
“I spent four months rehearsing with 40 other people,” says Quiring, a human resources coordinator from Fresno, Calif. “Every Thursday I had to make up an excuse to explain where I was going,”
When the big night arrived, he escorted his girlfriend to a Star Wars pub-crawl. While en route with a group of Jedi and Sith-clad friends, Quiring cued the music and took formation with the dancers. At the end of the song he got down on bended knee. “I’m not a traditional guy, so it wasn’t a traditional marriage proposal,” he says.
Despite his unconventional approach, Quiring did honor at least one time-honored tradition—that the man does the proposing. “It’s not that I would have said no if she had proposed, but it would have been an odd role reversal,” says Quiring, who is now considering the use of zombie valets at the wedding.
A recent survey out of UC Santa Cruz confirms that gender roles are largely static when it comes to engagement proposals. “There are all kinds of colorful variations, but marriage proposals are rituals that people hold near and dear to their heart,” says UCSC researcher Rachael Robnett, whose findings were published in the Journal of Adolescent Research in January.
Two thirds of the 277 undergraduates surveyed said they would definitely want the man to propose, and even those who felt comfortable violating other gender norms voiced the same strong preference for a man popping the question. Only a few study participants said it doesn’t matter who proposes, so long as both people are in love. None of the survey participants said they would definitely want the woman to propose.
Santa Cruz-based wedding officiant Gail Swain says the findings come as no surprise. She has married grooms who proposed with graffiti art, unicycle performances, and one-man rock concerts, but “even with very unique proposals, there is usually a man on bended knee with a ring,” she says.
Event planner Brian Borgia has coordinated more than 300 marriage proposals in Monterey, Calif. “I have only seen one woman propose to a man,” says Borgia. “Her boyfriend asked her to marry him every year for seven years, but she kept saying no. We were contacted because [our client] finally decided to say yes. She wanted to surprise her boyfriend with a beach proposal.”
As to why women shy away from popping the question, Borgia says untraditional proposals might spark scrutiny when the couple retells their story. “More than ‘where was the honeymoon,’ or ‘where did you get married,’ people want to know how you proposed,” says Borgia, “it’s a story that will be told for years and years.”
Research from Iowa State University supports this theory. After interviewing 20 recently engaged couples from the Midwest, sociologist David Schweingruber found that men who propose are performing for two audiences—the woman and the couple’s friends and families. Couples don’t choose customary proposals because of their symbolic meanings, argues Schweingruber. Rather, men and women fear that excluding standard conventions will confuse their secondary audience.
Historians offer more critical analysis, and attribute traditional proposals to sexist gender roles. Women were long thought too emotional to select a good mate. As men purportedly had more to lose than gain in marriage, they were thought to be the better decision makers. “Women's supposed desperation to marry made Americans believe that men were more rational,” says Katherine Parkin, a history professor at Monmouth University in West Long Branch New Jersey.
Leap Year offered the only exception. The tradition dates back to the 1780s, when it was acceptable for women to propose on Leap Year Day and sometimes during the prior months, as well. Newspapers and letters from Leap Years depict girls promenading boys around the dance floor and proposing on bended knee. This may have empowered some women, but Leap Year proposals were harshly ridiculed, says Parkin, who published a paper on the topic in the Journal of Family History.
Leap Year postcards from the early 1900s feature men fleeing from women by jumping out windows, swimming to sea, or hiding in a tree. Magazines portray aggressive women with guns and lassos, as if Leap Year were a manhunt. In some cartoons, burglars are scared off with threats of marriage. The female proposer is often portrayed as ugly and unfeminine. Artist Clare Victor Dwiggins went so far as to give women who proposed elongated, witch-like noses. (One of Dwiggins’ cartoons appears on page 6.)
According to Parkin, our current traditions echo these images. “In spite of the tremendous gender changes that have taken place, Americans continue to hold a romantic proposal from a man as a critical part of the marriage ritual … this one final vestige of men's power remains. Expecting men to propose to women is a seemingly intractable custom holding fast against the rapidly changing culture,” she says.
Of course, modern proposals happen in a very different context. Today’s women are more likely than ever to bring home the bacon in a relationship and are less in need of a husband to help with finances. Women also have more sexual freedom, and many couples live together for years before tying the knot. The proposal is now somewhat of a misnomer as the question of marriage is often discussed and mutually agreed upon well in advance. “A traditional proposal doesn’t necessarily reflect traditional gender roles within the relationship,” says Swain.
According to Robnett’s findings, those who prefer traditional proposals are also more likely to favor the woman changing her last name. “But this doesn’t reflect people’s true flexibility,” she says. “Just because someone adheres to tradition doesn’t necessarily mean they are driven by traditional ideologies.”
Next on the agenda for Robnett is a follow-up study about untraditional proposals. Robnett is surveying undergraduate students about violations of proposal customs. Preliminary data suggest people are willing to break tradition so long as both partners in the relationship are happy. Most believe family and friends will remain supportive so long as the couple is committed.
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