When I proposed to my partner, Greg, I couldn’t get down on one knee because I was floating.
My proposal had all the other hallmarks of a grand gesture: Thrilling surprise, romance, ring. We were on a zero-gravity flight, hurtling through the sky, our bodies suspended in air. Taking aim, I floated a small blue box over to Greg. He made a heroic dive, the kind of move you’d see in a Netflix rom-com, and caught it.
When he opened it, the ring levitated upward. I asked him to marry me, and he said “Absolutely, yes!” It was the perfect proposal for us, combining our passion for science with our love of adventure.
Because gender stereotypes paint men as less willing to commit, they are traditionally the ones to drive heterosexual relationships forward — and that includes popping the question. Some people in our lives wondered why I, the woman, had proposed to him.
I proposed to Greg because, contrary to those gendered stereotypes, he was ready for lifelong commitment years before I was. We had decided that, when I was ready, I would propose to him. When I was planning my proposal, I had only a few examples of women popping the question: Britney Spears, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Why isn’t it more common?
“Even though we’ve seen a lot of gender role change in society, the marriage proposal has remained pretty static compared to all these other domains,” says Rachael Robnett, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
We tend to think of proposals as romantic and special occasions, but the history behind them is much more legalistic and formal, says Katherine Parkin, a professor of history at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Men get down on one knee to demonstrate the chivalry of their intentions and provide a diamond ring as proof that they can care for their partner financially. Because men have historically made more money than women, it tracked that they would be the ones to propose.
Tell that to Pat Summersall. She popped the question to her now-husband more than 30 years ago. The 63-year-old copy shop co-owner in Harrogate, Britain, says they had only been dating for six months, but she knew what she wanted in a husband and her boyfriend was it. Still, “it was more difficult for women of my age (to propose),” she says, “because we didn’t have job equality growing up, we didn’t have financial equality.”
I have income at my disposal, so I can afford to buy my partner a ring. Yet many of my girlfriends make decent livings, and they haven’t proposed. So what’s stopping today’s financially stable women from popping the question?
In two words: Benevolent sexism, or attitudes toward women that seem well-intentioned but perpetuate inequality. Common examples of this include men opening doors for women and pulling out their chairs at the dinner table. Benevolent sexism often resembles chivalry, Robnett says. But it also comes at the cost of a woman’s agency and power. “There are some things that are really easy to call out as sexist,” she adds. “We don’t see that happening at all with the marriage proposal because it’s really closely linked with romance, love and kindness.”
And we tend to believe that love and kindness justifies the default: Men propose; women say yes. It’s considered the correct, most romantic way to go. “In my research, when we asked (participants) why they wanted the man to propose, they said that’s the way they have it in TV shows, it’s more romantic,” Robnett says. “It’s really embedded in our cultural narrative that this is the way (a proposal) is supposed to look.”
For example, on “The Bachelorette,” the popular dating reality show where the woman is ostensibly “in charge” — she decides which men go and which stay, and when. But after she chooses her finalist, he’s always the one to do the proposing.
Despite the myriad romantic comedies and celebrity proposals that adhere to tradition, Robnett suggests that LGBTQ proposals have made it easier for heterosexual couples to switch things up. “I think having access to alternate scripts can make people more flexible about how they approach commonplace traditions,” she says.
Kirsten Palladino agrees. As the author of “Equally Wed: The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your LGBTQ+ Wedding,” she’s seen the rise of feminism and the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality influence heterosexual couples, allowing them to rethink which “gender-specific traditions they want to hold onto,” she says.
Nell Triplett, 38, proposed to Morten Jacobsen at Dulles International Airport 10 years ago — and she even got the Transportation Security Administration in on it. Triplett and Jacobsen’s relationship was an international courtship. She went to his home country, Denmark, for an internship. And his work took him to the United States. But their time together on this side of the pond was drawing to a close. He was heading back across the Atlantic again.
“It was a little bit heartbreaking bringing him to the airport to say goodbye, but I did have a plan,” says Triplett, now a corporate affairs manager in Northern California. She had spoken to a TSA employee to get them to pull him out of line, saying there was a problem with his ticket. Then she proposed.
“Why should it be the male that proposes? I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family where traditions weren’t just taken for granted,” Triplett adds. “I think that’s so important to stop and ask why.”
Triplett gets me. Greg and I have never done things just because of tradition. Even our rings aren’t the norm. Being science nerds, we designed rings made with dinosaur bone — symbolizing that our love, like those fossils, will persist no matter what — and they’re what I used during the proposal.
I take every opportunity I can to smash the patriarchy — and my proposal felt like the perfect opportunity. After two years of careful planning, I booked the zero-gravity flights and made plans to keep the whole thing a surprise.
While Greg was ready to commit before I was, Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says men tend to be the less committed member of heterosexual relationship, so it’s crucial for them to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the proposal. “There may be couples where she’s asking and he’s acceding to her request, but he’s not all-in and that’s a recipe for a disaster,” he says. When a man proposes, “you have to put the Game Boy down, you’ve got to make some money, buy a ring, put together a plan, show some initiative and demonstrate your commitment to a person.”
Of course, every relationship is different. When I proposed to Greg, we had been together for seven years and cohabiting for more than five. We’ve traveled the world together and dealt with some tough stuff. He’s just as committed to this partnership as I am.
In my mind, if I want something, I go get it. True, Greg asked me out on our first date. But I kissed him first, and I was the one who suggested moving in together.
That’s not the norm. We socialize girls and women not to come on too strong, and we socialize boys and men to push things forward. There’s this trope of the man who’s afraid of commitment and the woman who’s desperate for a partner, and Robnett says people tend to internalize those stereotypes.
Even Summersall says people would probably describe her as “assertive” and “saucy” when she talks about her engagement, as if it’s something not quite acceptable for a woman. “I remember when we got married and went to the wedding breakfast, I got in the car to drive. My mother’s friend said, ‘She’s taking control already.’ “
Such perceptions rob women of the opportunity to ask a man to get married. And it robs men of the pleasure of being proposed to. Everyone is disempowered in this situation.
In Sarah Shearer’s family, it’s a tradition for the woman to propose. Shearer, 29, an ear, nose and throat resident doctor at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, says her mother proposed to her father, her eldest sister proposed to her husband, and rumor has it that her maternal grandmother even proposed to her grandfather. In August, Shearer joined the club, proposing to her boyfriend, Jared, during a hike in Yosemite National Park.
Based on sharing our experience, Greg and I have already heard of other women who want to propose to their boyfriends. And given Greg’s reaction, I believe plenty of other men would think it’d be pretty awesome if they did.