Engagement season: It’s that time of year between Christmas and Valentine’s Day when everyone you know — your uni bestie, your second cousin, that girl from school you hated but for some reason still follow on every social media site — is getting engaged.
Your Facebook and Instagram timelines will be filled with photos of men getting down on one knee and romantically proposing in a snowy park (or surrounded by rose petals on a rooftop or on a yacht in the Aegean sea). You’ll see everything from over-the-top flashmob proposals to low-key at-home-in-PJs ones.
What you probably won’t see, however, is a woman pulling out a ring and popping the question to her male partner.
But one thing we’re apparently not ready to let go of is the tradition of who pops the big question.
According to Ellen Lamont — an assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University who's writing a book about gender norms and relationships — there's not much of an incentive for women to flip this tradition.
"There are incentives to change in those other areas," Lamont told Refinery29 in an interview. "There are economic incentives for women to have their own careers. Most women I spoke with saw this tradition as an inconsequential preference that had no effect on how empowered they would be in other aspects of their lives."
Changing attitudes aren't changing reality
Essence magazine tweeted out an article titled "3 ways to propose to your man this holiday season" — and the responses demonstrate exactly how many feel about the idea of a woman asking a man for his hand in marriage.
"There's only one way to propose to a man: Never," one woman bluntly replied.
"The rules of courtship are much more flexible these days, but we still find that the tradition lives on," Stacey Tasman Stahl, founder of HowHeAsked, a website that showcases proposals, told Refinery29 in an interview.
Of the 15,000 proposal stories on the website, Stahl says she can only remember two that were done by women. But that doesn't mean women are totally excluded from the process.
In fact, a HowHeAsked study found that 97% of those surveyed did or will discuss marriage before the actual proposal.
"Yes, men are still sticking with the tradition of proposing to their girlfriend but now, women are part of the conversation a lot more," Stahl said.
Lamont reinforced that sentiment, telling Refinery29 that the women she spoke to for her study were very much involved "behind the scenes" of the proposal. "They were very active in the timing of the proposal, but that couldn't be public," she said.
Women-led proposals are often about practicality — and met with criticism
For some young women, proposing to their significant others wasn't about thumbing their nose at tradition, but about what made sense for their relationship and finances at the time.
Alyssa Donovan, now 27, proposed to her partner of eight years because she was turning 26 and losing her parents' health insurance.
"I thought of how I was going to get down on one knee, say he made me a better person and how we have grown together and then the door opened. He walked in with our roommate at the time and thus I didn't do my whole plan," Donovan told Refinery29. "Our roommate went into his room and I went up to Jack and whispered 'Can I marry you for your insurance?'"
Donovan says she initially thought her partner would feel like she "stole his thunder" because he had been thinking about proposing but says he was excited. Their families, however, didn't think much of her proposal because there was no ring involved. "It was silly to let my parents and maybe just the cultural stigma make me doubt that I had actually proposed!" she added.
Halie*, who recently proposed to her now-fiancé, told Refinery29 that when she told female friends she was considering popping the question, "they were slightly horrified in a 'why would you do that?', 'that's so weird' kind of way."
"After that I was extremely careful with mentioning it to anyone at all, although I asked a few select people for advice right before I did it. I didn't get any negative responses from male friends," she said.
Rachel Gersten told Refinery29 that she proposed to her now-husband while they were getting ready for a night out and he was in the shower. "We talked about his daughter, and what role we envisioned me playing in her life, and overall what we want to do, see, and be throughout the rest of our lives."
According to Gersten, the casualness of their engagement seemed like sort of a letdown to some people. "Almost everyone reacted with some type of surprise (and maybe disappointment?) that there wasn't a better story. To this day people still look like they're waiting for my fairytale proposal and always seem a little sad that I can't give them more," she said.
Millennials may not be as tradition-averse as people think
Although millennials are constantly accused of "killing" entire industries (shopping malls and soap bars, for example), the wedding industry doesn't seem like it has taken a hit. Wedding costs are at an all-time high, and that's not to mention the booming business of planned proposals, which often involve a man spending hundreds of pounds to surprise his partner.
Michele Velasquez, co-owner of The Heart Bandits, an LA-based event planning company, says that people simply like the tradition of a man getting down on one knee.
"In about 3,000 proposals and eight years we have been in business, we have had two women propose to a man," Velasquez told Refinery29. "I believe that this is just a tradition in our culture that both genders are accepting of and enjoy. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, many women still like being courted and ultimately proposed to."
Velasquez said that from her own research, she found that many men would feel "emasculated" if their girlfriend proposed to them. "Others feel that it is a sign of pressure, that his beloved isn't willing to wait until he is ready," she added.
"To be chosen meant to be considered worthy of love and a lifelong commitment," Lamont wrote in a paper titled Negotiating Courtship. "Rather than view a female-initiated proposal as an expression of valid desire and unwillingness to remain passive, women viewed it as embarrassing reflection of their partner’s lack of love or their own desperation."
Social media, Velasquez believes, also contributes to the staying power of a traditional proposal.
"Social media has had a major impact on how people propose. Years ago, if you proposed your girlfriend told your closest friends. Now they post on social media for millions to see," she told Refinery29.
To Lamont, the tradition is not the "biggest issue in the world" but she does believe it plays a role in perpetuating certain stereotypes we have about gender and relationships.
"It's part of a system of practices that reinforce a set of beliefs about the differences between men and women," she said. "And that bleeds over into other aspects of life, like family, who puts their career on hold, and who's seen as more valuable in the workplace."
But for many, there's nothing wrong with keeping tradition and just enjoying the moment.
"The wedding is the woman's big day, the proposal is the man's, and they seem to enjoy it that way!" Velasquez said.