Women Who Propose: The Real Story

Woman Proposing
Woman Proposing

Photos in collage: Alamy

Katie and Sam’s engagement story is a lot like most couples. There was a bended knee, a ring pulled from a pocket, an impromptu celebration with friends—but with one key difference: Katie was the one doing the asking.

“We had been together almost two years and I was confident in our relationship and in doing it,” says Katie, 26, who proposed to Sam at a friend’s party. “We had discussed marriage before, and the time just felt right. He was surprised, but very happy and said yes.”

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According to recent surveys, December is still the most popular time for couples to get engaged. And, with Christmas and New Year’s right around the corner, chances are you’re going to start seeing a lot more diamond rings popping up on your Facebook feed.

But even in 2014—the year of feminist pop albums, non-traditional weddings, and not one but two rumored female Presidential bids—Katie’s story is still highly unusual. According to a survey conducted by the Associated Press-WE this May, only 5% of married or engaged couples say it was the woman who popped the question.

“I just felt like I should ask him,” explains Yasmin Reshamwala, 34, who proposed to her boyfriend spur-of-the-moment on the dance floor after the two had just taken shots of Hennessy. “It wasn’t planned at all, it just kind of happened,” she says. After saying yes, her boyfriend, Mike, got down on one knee. The two married this August.

“It was definitely not a traditional proposal,” laughs Reshamwala. And for some alpha brides, that’s part of the appeal.

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“It was one of those things that happened weirdly, organically,” says New York-based artist Louise Ingalls Sturges, 34, who popped the question to her boyfriend on their one month anniversary while lying in bed. “I just turned to him and was like, ‘this is great, will you marry me?’” The pair have now been married two years and recently bought a house in Brooklyn.

“I think it’s a great way to start a life together, to know that the woman is capable of making a major life decision,” says Sturges, who had known her husband for decades before they became romantic. “To me, it was like, why wait? I didn’t feel like it had to be his job to ask me.”

Sturges certainly wasn’t clinging to any sort of princess fantasy. But, despite the fact that women now outnumber men in the workforce and in college, that they’re earning more than ever, and enjoying an unprecedented amount of sexual and creative freedom, most women today still seem to be waiting for their knight-in-shining-armor—at least when it comes to getting engaged.

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Indeed, according to Jamie Miles, editor of wedding resource and destination TheKnot.com, “Tradition is still very much alive when it comes to proposals.” The Knot’s 2013 Engagement & Jewelry Study found that a whopping 98% of couples had a traditional proposal; 81% of grooms-to-be said the words “will you marry me”; 94% proposed with a ring in hand; 81% get down on one knee; and 74% asked for the father’s permission before proposing. In other words, when it comes to proposals, we’re pretty much stuck in the 1950’s. Apparently, not much has really changed since the 1850’s.

According to Katherine Parkin, an associate professor of history at Monmouth University, efforts to move away from these traditions have largely “fallen victim to social media storytelling.”

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“Instead of the quiet of the car or the intimacy of the bed, where these kinds of decisions often emerged, couples generally know they are going to marry and both participate in a ritualized demonstration of his love through attempts to publicly declare his intention,” explains Parkin. Just scan the internet for moments like this flash mob proposal, this live lip dub one, or this one.

Parkin remains unconvinced that more women will work up the nerve to actually propose. There’s just too much historical and cultural pressure working against her. Even if she is wealthy, independent and attractive, a woman still risks being labeled as too desperate or aggressive if she initiates marriage. “For a woman to ask a man’s hand in marriage disrupts all the ways in which the tradition has established her as worthy,” says Parkin. “A man decided she was worthy of marriage.”

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Scott Milnes, a relationship expert who offers pre-engagement coaching (in which couples tackle the big issues and conversations in their relationship before putting a ring on it) views it a little bit differently. ”Even as we roll into 2015, I still see a huge population of women that crave that kind of chivalry,” he says. “It’s a monumental moment for both man and woman, and I think it’s important to honor it with something special.”

As the numbers show, most women agree with Milnes. And it should be noted that doesn’t mean that most women aren’t empowered, when it comes to their relationships. As journalist Lauren Sherman, 32, explains, “My husband proposed and I definitely wanted it to be that way. For me, it was a lot about seeing him step up. I make a lot of the decisions in our relationship, and I wanted to him to communicate that he was as committed to our partnership as I was.” In a similar fashion, Sherman has taken his last name privately, but still goes by her maiden name professionally.

And, Sherman adds, the proposal wasn’t exactly a surprise. “A few months before we got engaged, we had a serious talk about marriage: we had discussed before, but this time I asked for a timeline,” she says. “I picked out a ring, and although he tried to keep it secret that he bought it, I figured it out pretty easily.”

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Whether you see it as romantic or sexist, the reality is that the bended knee proposal is, today, largely just symbolic. “The majority of brides nowadays know that a proposal is coming and the majority are even going shopping for the ring with their significant other,” says Miles, “It’s very much a joint decision, even if the proposal remains more traditional and in the groom’s hands.”

So maybe the question isn’t about why more women don’t propose, but why we’re even bothering with proposals at all? As cohabitation before marriage increasingly becomes the norm, it seems silly to expect not only the betrothed couple but also their entire circle of friends and family to act surprised by a proposal. And since most couples make the decision to marry together (usually after lengthy discussions and deliberations) wouldn’t it make more sense for them to announce it together, as a couple?

Milnes, for one, hopes that doesn’t become the standard. “I hope it never devolves into just a conversation, like a business transaction,” he says. “I think it would really cheapen what is supposed to be a once in a lifetime event.”