Men have traditionally held all the cards in heterosexual relationships when it comes to marriage. Nejron Photo/Shutterstock.com
When it comes to getting engaged, men ultimately decide the timeline, pick the ring, and pop the question. Proposing marriage, therefore, remains of the most prevalent examples of antiquated gender roles in our society today. But with same-sex marriage now legal in all 50 U.S. states, clearly, there are going to be some ladies proposing… to other ladies. Can these women, and same-sex couples in general, influence the way heterosexual couples go about getting engaged?
In July, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren marked her 35th marriage anniversary with a Facebook post in which she revealed that she proposed to her husband, Bruce. Called a “feminist fairy tale” by New York Magazine and “the definition of #FeministGoals” by Mic.com, her story, which mentioned the fact that she was the one who popped the question, not Bruce, rather offhandedly, inspired more than 225,000 likes and nearly 9,000 shares at the time of writing.
Yet, marriage proposals like Warren’s remain anomalies today, even as we scrutinize other areas of society in which women don’t enjoy equal rights or the opportunities that men do. The time-honored tradition of a man dropping down on one knee and proposing marriage to a woman, almost never the other way around, endures as the pinnacle of romantic gestures—despite the fact that this highly one-sided ask initiates a life-changing decision for both parties.
Praise for Warren’s gesture aside, a dynamic of men taking the relationship reigns, while women wait passively (or coyly drop hints) is not just accepted, it’s revered. According to CBS News, young adults are more likely than older generations to consider women-driven proposals “unacceptable,” and more than one-third of people under the age of 30 disapprove of this role-reversal. A survey conducted at the uber-liberal University of California, Santa Cruz, found that most heterosexual student respondents “definitely” desire a male-led proposal and not one man or woman surveyed expressed interest in bucking tradition.
Certainly, many, if not most, people would agree with psychotherapist Kristen Martinez, that, “women have just as much right as men to understand where their relationship is going, to show that they are fully invested in it and can make sound decisions for that relationship.”
However, Martinez, who specializes in women and LGBTQIA issues, notes that even though we might logically believe women and men should be equally active in making the decision about marriage, much of what we consider “tradition” is sculpted from patriarchy and misogyny—and most straight couples don’t even question the passive woman proposal model because it’s just the way things are.
“Feminine socialization, to a large part, hinges on the dream of the perfect wedding day and the ‘knight in shining armor’ Disney fairy tale coming true; that’s just what we’re taught to care about as girls,” she explains. “The man is a go-getter, he asserts his power, he’s the one who can make decisions; the woman waits around, hoping and daydreaming that he will ask but hesitant to ever use her voice to assert that for herself. That’s the script that we have to go off of, and it’s imperfect at best and harmful at worst.”
Licensed clinical psychologist Traci Lowenthal, who also works closely with the LGBTQIA community, adds that, “while women often send signals that they want a proposal to happen, it’s still generally accepted that the man takes the lead and is therefore ultimately the one that controls when and if the marriage happens.”
In this way, proposing marriage remains one of the most prevalent and widely embraced examples of antiquated gender roles in our society today, setting a tone of imbalance in relationships and society as a whole. This disparity is a final frontier, if you will, to overcome before true egalitarianism is possible, Elizabeth Kiefer argues in Marie Claire.
“When ‘will you?’ is something anyone can ask, we’ll actually be on our way to equal footing in everything that comes after ‘I do,’” she writes.
But, despite the fact that most people seem to accept the status quo of male-led proposal, the permission for women to pop the question may be on the horizon. Not because there is a mainstream feminist coalition calling for change, or because women themselves would rather take matters into their own hands. (There isn’t and they don’t, according to statistics.)
Change may come from an unexpected place: In June, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, marking a momentous win for same-sex (and human) rights. And while same-sex couples and their families will certainly feel the most significant impact of this ruling, one can’t help but wonder what progressive changes marriage equality will inspire among all couples.
Especially given that same-sex weddings and proposals will be rising exponentially. According to Wedding Market Expo, as many as 91,000 same-sex weddings are now expected per year, a dramatic increase from the just over 70,000 same-sex marriages the Pew Research Center estimated took place between 2004 and 2013.
“Clearly, in same-sex female relationships, a woman will be proposing and, due to the recent SCOTUS ruling, the number of women proposing will increase,” Lowenthal says. “I think the idea will begin to create space for more acceptance of a female proposing; marketing will likely begin to shift toward women too—and the ‘traditional proposal’ will likely evolve and change.”
According to experts, same-sex couples tend to follow a more flexible model for proposing that isn’t restricted to gender roles the way heterosexual proposals are. Of course, this is due to the obvious: Both members of the couple are of the same sex and, therefore, the “rules” of heterosexual relationships don’t apply.
But another part of this, notes wedding planner Jason Mitchell, author of Getting Groomed, a wedding planning guide for same-sex couples, is due to the fact that there aren’t years of tradition or a prescribed social script to follow. New York-based jewelry designer Rony Tennenbaum, who works with same-sex couples and has been in a relationship with his partner for 22 years, agrees, explaining that since there had long been no precedent for how to go about engagement in the same-sex community, many simply skipped over it—until now.
“It is only in the past couple years that I started seeing a trend of more same-sex couples considering the ‘engagement’ process,” he explains. “There is no traditional background that a young lesbian can turn to and see how it was done previously, certainly not how her dad proposed to her mom, so the tradition of who proposes to who is still being written.”
This lack of structure means that the ways same-sex partners get engaged can vary from couple to couple.
“Same-sex couples have a lot more freedom when it comes to who will propose to the other and who will wear an engagement ring as a symbol of commitment,” says wedding planner Aviva Samuels of Kiss the Planner. “Rather the following the common rules set forth in a heterosexual world, it may be one person that proposes to the other, it may be a dual proposal planned individually by both parties, or instead it may be planned together. This is extremely dependent upon the couple themselves with much less of a focus on the rules that surround gender in a heterosexual engagement.”
Samuels, who frequently works with same-sex couples, adds that it is down to the personalities of the individuals and the dynamics of who the two as a couple, as well as factors such as age, status, dominance, and finances that might come into play.
It is this flexibility that provides all couples with an alternative model to the “man asks, female answers” binary that heterosexual couples have embraced, and been restricted by, for so long.
Of course, change will not happen overnight. “Heteronormative values and male-dominated societal expectations will continue for the foreseeable future,” Lowenthal says. “The fear is that a woman proposing to a man is emasculating will continue to reign, at least for a few more years.”
And, certainly, homophobia is still present across the country, meaning that there may even be a backlash against more flexible gender roles—some people could cling tighter to the tradition of a male-led proposal. “I think many may choose the hyper-traditional demonstration of a proposal as a way to differentiate their marriage from those of same-sex couples,” she says.
Yet, as Mitchell argues, these people are now the growing minority—57 percent of Americans, and 73 percent of millennials, now support same-sex marriage. And even though younger people tend to be less enthused by female-led proposals, one can hope that they might be open-minded enough to challenge other social values that were once considered the norm.
Ultimately, Lowenthal is optimistic about the egalitarian direction relationships may take in the wake of the SCOTUS ruling. “I think for younger individuals—children, teens and young adults—resulting visibility of same-sex couples will create an entirely different reality with regard to marriage proposal and gender roles,” she says. “Our children will begin to be exposed to all sorts of relationships and therefore, all different types of gender roles, not to mention gender expression and identity. Through this exposure, I believe the traditional values will begin to soften a bit more.”
In the near future, or at least when these younger generations come of age, the hope is that exposure to same-sex relationships—and those that include transgendered individuals—will allow all people to feel less confined to the prescribed traditional general roles society has long reinforced, when it comes to marriage proposals and other long-accepted rituals.
“The more visibility of non-heterosexual relationships in general, the better off we will all be,” Martinez says. “In terms of equality and acceptance of other sexual orientations and gender expressions, in terms of flexibility in co-creating positive and healthy egalitarian relationships, and in terms of breaking down harmful and limiting stereotypes of ‘traditional’ femininity and masculinity.”