The feminist problem with engagement rings and why we should stop obsessing about them
It’s pretty hilarious that in 2017, the entire world seemed to stop for one brief, happy moment on Monday morning when Kensington Palace confirmed that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were engaged. Twitter was flooded with articles about Markle, the ever-fascinating history of royal marriages, and of course, what her engagement ring looked like. Ugh, we don’t want to rain on the happy royal engagement parade, but there’s a huge feminist problem with engagement rings that we really can’t ignore.
It is possible to be a feminist and choose to wear an engagement ring, but it’s a little more complicated than it might seem.
Feminism is essentially all about ensuring that women have an equal and representative place in society, yet most of the traditions surrounding marriage — even the concept of marriage itself — are steeped in patriarchy. Every culture has varying histories of marriage, but at some point, most cases come back to a man “taking” a wife in order to reproduce, establish his place in society, or make an “honest” woman out of someone he’s been getting sex from, like neglecting to do so devalues her.
The conventional story goes like this: Once a man marries a woman, she then “gets” to have sex with him without being labeled a whore, and live in a traditional family structure in which she’ll conventionally do a lot of free labor like child rearing, cooking, and housekeeping. Women who did not get married were, and often still are, considered defective somehow and get labeled “spinsters.” Just think of all the historical dramas and Jane Austen novels in which the heroine frets that she will never get married and that that fact will have a huge, negative impact on her life. To this day, our culture tends to look at unmarried women as an (flawed) oddity instead of a perfectly normal thing.
When you consider marriage historically, it doesn’t seem very feminist at all. And it all starts with the engagement ring.
Markle’s ring, much like every bride-to-be’s everywhere, is really pretty. How can a diamond not be? Diamonds are pretty. Jewelry is fun. We aren’t here to bash it. But certain jewelry can be loaded as hell, and never is this more true than with engagement rings.
Historians date engagement rings back to the Egyptians, who believed that there was a vein in the 4th finger, where it is customarily worn, that went to right to one’s heart. That’s very romantic, right?
But note that men have never worn engagement rings, ever. In fact, men didn’t even start to wear wedding bands until the 20th century when many men decided that it was a nice way to remember their wives when they went away to war and were stuck in the trenches. But a lot of men don’t even wear them at all anymore, let alone do they consider an engagement ring.
Price William, back in 2011, made headlines for deciding to not wear a wedding band. Neither Donald Trump nor Jay-Z wears one. In fact, it has always been perfectly acceptable for a man not to don a wedding band, although many assume a married man who isn’t wearing a ring is likely unfaithful. It’s more a “boys will be boys” type of joke: a man is allowed to make a choice about what traditions he follows while women would be judged like crazy if they decided that they didn’t want a ring at all.
Seriously, just take a gander at this insanely sexist explanation of men and wedding bands from Live Science back when Prince William was in the news for his personal preference to not like jewelry (though he rocks hundred thousand dollar watches 24/7). Live Science reported:
"There are several reasons, but the biggest reason boils down to a man's occupation," etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, a Florida-based etiquette consulting firm, told Life's Little Mysteries. If a man has an occupation that requires a lot of work with his hands — such as a mechanic, plumber, roofer, personal trainer, etc. —a wedding ring could get in the way and also prove to be hazardous," said Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work." Comfort is also a factor. There are some men who are very tactilely sensitive and the wearing of a wedding ring drives them to distraction," Smith said. "This is different from the newlywed who plays with his ring just because he is not used to wearing it yet."
That’s insane, right? There are women all over the place who do work with their hands or who just might not like certain kinds of jewelry. Also, what does it say about men if they can’t handle the “distraction” of a metal band on his finger? Like, what does that even mean?
Let’s all just call an engagement ring what it is: The official symbol that a woman is now “off the market” (which is just a gross dating term we should all stop using in general) and officially the property of someone else.
Men give the woman a ring so that other men won’t hit on her, and in a lot of socio-economic circles, as a way to show off how much money a man threw down on a woman.
Aside from the property issue, which most modern couples can likely reconcile within their hearts, the whole tradition of a man saving up money in order to buy a woman a diamond is also sort of messed up. Diamonds are expensive and they sure as hell are not a woman’s best friend. Though some women adore them, just as many do not (yes, it’s true), and the cycle of obsessing over engagement rings perpetuates this nasty tradition of assuming that a woman, deep down, only wants a husband and a big, expensive rock on her hand to show off how much money her husband makes.
There’s no shaking the equation: engagement ring diamond size = how much money a man makes = how valuable a woman is for him “picking” her to wed. This is, make no mistake, the underlying messages behind our obsession with engagement rings.
Also, it puts a stupid amount of pressure on men, who often have to save up or take out lines of credit to buy one for their beloved. And how many of you out there — admit it — has heard a judge-y aunt or family member quietly mention that a newly engaged woman’s ring was not ~all that~, thus implying that she was somehow less loved, or worse, her partner was broke AF? It’s pretty awful. false
With more and more LGBTQ couples getting married now that it’s legal, these wedding band and engagement ring traditions are often thwarted — it’s pretty common for both members of a same sex couple to wear engagement rings and wedding bands (or only one person does, or no one does). Which means that everyone else can maybe start taking a hint and making the engagement ring (and wedding band) conversation more of an *actual* conversation between both partners about what they truly want and like, as opposed to defaulting into what tradition has chosen for them. People might be surprised at how many women actually don’t want a diamond ring at all.
As feminists who seek equality, we have to be careful about what we’re asking for when we’re pining for our partner to pop the question and put a ring on it. When we obsess over the rings celebs, our friends, or our ex’s new fiancé is wearing, we’re perpetuating this cycle that a man somehow has to “claim” us as his own and that he needs to put a large piece of jewelry on our fingers to demonstrate how important he is to us. It’s really kind of creepy.
To be clear, you can be a feminist and love the idea of getting married, just like you can choose to not get married ever.
You can also love your engagement ring or choose to not want one at all! Feminism is about women having choices as much as it is about equality, so however you choose to live your love, go for it. Like all problematic vestiges of the past that still exist in modern culture, couples have found so many creative ways to make a tradition wholly theirs, and we love that.
But love that engagement ring as a gift bae gives you before you two make this huge, happy decision to spend the rest of your lives together. Maybe float the idea of getting matching bands or throw down for another symbolic way to celebrate the event together. You don’t need to wear a ring to advertise that you’ve been selected by someone and we sure as hell should stop scrutinizing other women’s rings as if it were the only interesting thing about her life until she gets married. We’re a lot more than our romantic relationships and how much money we wear on our fingers.