Phoebe Maltz wrote an interesting piece a while back about how, despite all of the advances that women have made and are trying to make, there is at least one area where there is absolutely no movement:
Even for those against a traditional definition of marriage, who think dating bills should be split, that both parties should work outside the home, and that both parties should be allowed to be of the same sex, the notion that (among straights, obviously) the man must do the proposing has, it seems, gone nowhere. Even the NYT, home of the librul media elites, features Vows videos, one after the next, of ‘when he popped the question.’ We could look at this as a quaint and harmless tradition, were it not for the increasingly common situation of women towards the end of their potential childbearing years essentially ‘waiting for the boy to call.’
To examine this, it helps to go back a stage, to the who-asks-who-out. From ample anecdotal evidence, amongst my fellow heterosexuals, relationships tend to work out better when it’s the man who does the asking. This is because, when a woman asks, she will doubt the man’s interest for the duration of the relationship. If he liked her, why didn’t he ask her out?
This is one of those areas where I’m progressive in theory but conservative in fact. It’s sort of like how a woman should be free to ask out a man at any point, the statement that she makes by cutting against that particular grain is problematic. The women who do cut against that grain often poorly represent women as a whole. Not because they bucked the norm specifically, but the same attributes that freed her from cutting against that norm can sometimes also cut against other norms that are more useful. It’s been generally true in my life that people that are inclined to follow good social norms are also predisposed to follow bad ones. People that buck bad norms also often buck good ones. Still. If I were asked out by a girl that came across as uncrazy, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes if it was someone that I could be interested in. Another worry would be that the woman might come across as domineering. This is of course totally unfair, but as I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago it is not unfounded. Women that have the gumption to ask men out are often more aggressive in general.
From the girl’s point of view, though, it’s a lot more problematic. It’s not just a matter of lingering doubts on her part. The problem is that there are a lot of men that will, if asked out, say “yes” and think, with all the cogency of Beavis & Butthead, “Heh, heh, she wants to jump my bones.”
Or if there thinking isn’t that crude, the fact will cross a lot of men’s minds that “Hey, she likes me! I won’t even have to try!” It’s a stereotype but true that men are often at their best when they’re put in the position of having to prove themselves. Men are more inclined than women to do as little work as they need to in order to get the job done.
Of course, all of these problems could be solved if more women in general asked more men out in general. You wouldn’t have the skewed representative sample. Men would learn that being asked out is not a proposition for easy sex and that yes, they will have to try in that relationship just as they would in any other. Men can be kind of dense so it would require several failures before it gets through their thick skulls what the deal is. Right now they don’t get enough experience with it to discern the patterns. So to get it so that women that do ask out men are not to be considered doormats, crazy, cavalier, or aggressive, more women will have to voluntarily have to put their neck out and have that assumed about them to start bucking the trend. Any takers?
As a brief aside, it seems that from the comment section on Phoebe’s blog and elsewhere that some women really underestimate the difficulty of it all from the male point of view. It’s one thing to think hypothetically “I should ask him out” but it’s another to actually do it. Someone suggested that under the current regime men get the best that they can do and women get the worst. Not true. Women are asked out by men that they’d never have the courage to ask out. Men fail to ask out girls that would probably say yes. It’s all strategic in ways that a lot of guys are not good at strategy. I do prefer the male role in things and think that we do slightly have the better end of things, but only slightly. It’s possible, though, that in a society in which men and women do the asking in roughly equal measure that it will become less painful for everybody involved. Being asked out on a regular basis would likely give men some insight on what to do and what not to do. Not to say that the approachment would be the same, but there would be lessons to learn. I think that men’d also be more understanding of the terrible position it is to be asked out by someone that you think is a pretty nice person but that you don’t want to date and women’d would get a better understanding of why men become embittered with constant rejection (even a man that is not desperate and lonely faces rejection with startling regularity).
Now on to the main thrust of Pheobe’s post, which is marriage proposals. I think that this is something just too ingrained to have any prayer of changing. The cultural norms tell us precisely what is going on when the man proposes. Particularly if he’s on one knee with a ring box in his hand. I think that if a woman asks a man to marry him, he doesn’t automatically know whether it’s a knee-and-ring situation or just putting out feelers. One of the more humiliating experiences in my ex-girlfriend Julie’s life was when she thought she was proposing to her then-boyfriend Tony and he thought that she was putting out feelers or otherwise outright joking. On the other hand, my friend Dave Linas’s wife proposed to him and it worked out fine.
Despite the formal knee-and-ring tradition, I do think that the process of proposing has become more egalitarian. My oldest brother Ollie proposed to his first wife at her request and my older brother Mitch and his wife Brynne decided together to get married. The actual proposal was, in both cases, a formality. Clancy and I didn’t have any formal discussion on the matter, but I constructed a pretty straightforward way of determining whether it was something that she was open to and ready for. I think the days of popping the question in a way that’s anything more than momentarily shocking are passing. I think that women are in general a lot more emboldened to needle if not outright ask. And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the tradition of the man outright asking.
That brings me to Phoebe’s original post, which inspired the one above. She asks the question:
Why, if a woman asks for marriage, is it an “ultimatum,” and if a man asks, pure romance?
The short answer is that if a woman says “no” it doesn’t necessarily end in a break-up. Phoebe says it should, but I’m not so sure. If I proposed and was told “no” with the inflection that more time was needed and not that she didn’t want to marry me, I wouldn’t view that as the end. It would certainly be a blow to my self-esteem and could cripple the relationship, but wouldn’t necessarily. An ultimatum, by its definition, would.
In some ways, though, the ultimatum is the much more fair way and it definitely shouldn’t be viewed as “nagging”. A man can pop the question to a clueless woman and really put her on the spot. As I said above, it seems more frequently than not it’s discussed, but it’s not necessarily so. And if the man does so choose to break things off after she says “no”, he’s heartbroken and more likely to get sympathy. If a woman demands that a man propose immediately (or almost immediately) with no forewarning and threatens to leave if he does not comply, she’d come across as positively nuts.
So in conclusion, I think that Phoebe is quite right that women should not be tagged with the label of “nag” for agitating for marriage. Women should be free to ask out men that they would like to see, but I don’t blame them for failing to do so and (with the exception of the Beavises) don’t blame men for being a little wary of being asked out. I disagree with some of her analysis, but it definitely got me thinking about the subject.