Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Feminist Proposals

When I tell people I'm engaged, and they say congratulations, I know I should just say, "thank you." But because congratulations feels awkward, I usually joke around and say one of the following instead, "Thanks - I finally bagged me a man!" or "Thanks - I'm not gonna die alone!" (Although with Mark being 2 years older than me and women's life expectancy being 2 years longer, it is highly likely that I will.)
I don't know why I do this, except that is what congratulations sounds like to me. It sounds like:
It sounds like, "Hey, now we know you're not gay" or "you are so lucky that anyone is willing to marry you." I know it's my own insecurities, and that they are just congratulating me on...well, what, exactly, are you congratulating the woman on?
You congratulate the man on finally manning up and making an honest woman out of the girl, of finally getting over his fear of commitment, on dropping a large amount of money on a rock, on finally capitulating to the woman's harpish desire to get married, you congratulate him on getting sex for the rest of his life, even when he's bald and in his sixties. Ultimately, you are congratulating him on choosing to get married.
Because of the sexist nature of the proposal, women don't really choose to get married. Yes, they have that moment where they say yes or no - but usually men string the process out for so long that they are sure she will say yes. (I know I'm generalizing. But every guy I know has done this. Okay, except one.) Often couples have talked about it beforehand - but equitable decisionmaking has no place in the "real" proposal! (My ideal proposal was to go out to dinner on New Year's Eve and resolve to spend the rest of our lives together. I thought it was the perfect way to make proposing romantic, special, and mutual. Didn't happen.)
So when you congratulate the girl, you are congratulating her on getting "picked". It's like being drafted into the team of marriage. Suddenly she is special - all because somebody asked her. She had no power or autonomy in being asked (and if she tried to have any, man was she a nagging ring-hungry b*tch.)
I realize that most people think that they are congratulating people on deciding to get married, on growing up, on committing to each other for the rest of their lives, but they're not. The reason that I know they're not is because....well, because of what happened to me when I tried to propose. I came up with a plan and I really wanted to ask Mark, because well, I love him and I want to spend the rest of my life with him.
What did people tell me? I got one response: You can't do that.
The most horrifying reason? "The guy gets so little in relationships - you have to just give him this." "This is the one decision that the guy gets to make."
Excuse me? Maybe you have so little power in your relationship that you felt like you had to seize it by holding out on your girlfriend and torturing her with the promise of a proposal around every corner (I had friends who deliberately tried to throw their girlfriends "off the scent" by "faking them out.") I like to believe that we have a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding, and that neither of us have more power than the other. I don't run Mark's life, I don't prevent him from going out with his friends and having fun, and I certainly don't think that I have all of the power. When it comes to wedding planning, I am willing to go with the place he likes instead of the place that I like - because at the end of the day, we get to be married to each other and if he is a little happier than I am about where we did it, who cares? He is going to get to pick his own clothes and his own groomsmen and the music and I am going to pick my own clothes and my bridesmaids and every other decision we will make together. (I have terrible taste in music. I'm uncomfortable making those decisions for our guests.)
Anyway, ultimately I let him propose, for a number of reasons - but I still couldn't handle the congratulations, and I know that people mean well. I congratulate people on getting engaged. And I'm not sure if I mean, "congratulations on making a decision to marry and spend your lives together" or "congratulations on landing the white whale of relationships."
Does anybody else experience the problem of not knowing how to thank people for their well wishes?


  1. Don't know how this may or may not complicate the issue, but traditional (and obviously hetero-normative) etiquette says that one should say "Congratulations" to the groom-to-be and "Best Wishes" to the bride-to-be.

    I'm with you on the intense frustration of being a feminist and feeling like you're being forced to sit around, sans agency, waiting for a proposal.

  2. I mostly agree with what you said. Because unfortunately, we still live in a very male dominant society, but we fortunately not every person living within our society is sexist. So, for example, when I said "congratulations!" I meant congrats on deciding to make a contract with each other to live together and love one another for the rest of your lives. And if you had proposed I would have congratulated you all the same. Either way, one person asks or brings it up and one person accepts or rejects. There's not a lot you can do to even that out any more.

  3. Thank you for writing this post!!! I totally share your feelings. We got engaged recently as well - and for a while, I was happy that people were happy for us, and that was all I took "Congratulations" to mean. But once I started thinking about it, I became really uncomfortable with the whole notion. I talked about it with my fiance for a while, but I think all we can do is say thanks and appreciate the sentiment...

  4. I agree very much with most of your post. However, you are under a selection bias, women do say no to proposals. Yes, even today, it happens all the time. They also cancel engagements and back out of weddings. So yes, the woman most certainly gets to choose.

    I share your frustration with the seeming epidemic of relationships in which it has been articulated that the woman wants to get married and she ends up waiting for months or years for a proposal. Frankly, I get frustrated at the women (it's more or less natural for human beings to take advantage, though I do judge men for their lack of concern for the person they love). To me, I wouldn't answer the question until it was asked. That's cheating! The first person that reveals that they want to get married is in a vulnerable position, it is supposed to elicit a response, yes or no. (Also annoying, women mostly know that a 'no' to a proposal has a big risk of killing the relationship while men don't worry about it). So if a woman decides she want to marry him and thinks he might say yes she should ask. Of course, if the two people are in a different place regarding their commitment, that's a difficult but slightly different situation.

    If the couple has agreed they want to spend their lives together and want to marry - they are engaged (in my opinion). I'm permanently confused by people who have agreed to marry but refuse to be engaged, it smacks of lies (even though the people are clearly being genuine and honest).

    However, I do see one argument for why there might be value in having the guy propose. Guys are generally brought up to be not as expressive
    of their emotions in relationships. This can make it hard for a woman to be completely sure that he really wants to marry her. Even when you are sure that the other person loves you, you can still crave an occasional gesture/words/something. Having him propose (is not guarantee of anything) is a gesture of commitment and love and it's showy, which a lot of guys (and gals) aren't.

    Wow, this comment is illegally long, sorry.


  5. Victoria - ultimately, that is why I decided not to ask - I felt like I had waited long enough, and I wanted him to ask me, and I wanted the gesture, the words, anything that made me feel sure that it was his choice, not my nagging, to ask. Which btw, is why, when he asked, I replied with, "why?"
    It is true that women say no, although I don't know any. It is probably more common for women to break off engagements - Kamy Wicoff writes about this phenomenon, because women feel like they should be so grateful to be asked; or that they spend so long obsessing over being worthy enough to be proposed to that they never really consider whether the marriage is something that they do want, rather than something that they should want.
    I agree with you that once you agree to get married, you're engaged. However, I was told that this was not the case by about 50000 people who told me that as long as there wasn't a ring on my finger I should "speak in hypotheticals". (I am honestly not sure why I am still friends with any of these people.)

  6. Wow, I am very sorry that people are so insane and were both mean and idiotic at you. Kudos to you for maintaining the friendships, I'm sure they are more to be pitied than blamed.

    I think you're right about some women being so pleased by a proposal, any proposal that they don't think it thought. It might also be sensible, you can always back out if you decide it's not for you, you can have a long engagement if you need time, and if you decide you do want to marry him, you won't be able to erase the hurt and damage your 'no' might have done. (Of course this also showcases our gender's extremely annoying preoccupation with the male ego *sigh*).


  7. You're certainly not alone as a feminist getting married and being frustrated by all the strange gender roles suddenly thrust upon you.

    You might want to consider, though, that people are congratulating you on taking a big step in your life, on finding the person you want to be with for the rest of your life and (we're making assumptions here) on being happy. Not every message has a hidden agenda. Congratulations might just meant congratulations.

    So .. feliciations on you upcoming marriage. I hope you can get past all the gender nonsense and still be happy and let others be happy for you.