It's taboo ... we still baulk at the idea of women popping the question.

It's taboo ... we still baulk at the idea of women popping the question. Photo: Lyn Osborn

Taboos. There just aren't enough of them left these days. Men with long locks no longer shock. Same goes for women wearing trousers, dads doing day care, ladies in the Lodge.

Living in sin isn't a sin any more. Homosexuality? Not even outlawed in Tasmania. And so what if you've got a tattoo. So does my mum.

Those looking to stand out a little or rebel a lot are fast running out of options. Although, if you're a chick, at least you still have asking a man to marry you.

Despite women pulling up alongside menfolk in almost every other area of human existence, from education to career, pay, housework, child work and sex, we still baulk at the idea of girls popping the question.

A study reported this week of 277 heterosexual male and female undergraduates at the University of California, Santa Cruz (130 kilometres south of San Francisco and known as a more liberal college) found that none of those polled would ''definitely'' want the woman to propose.

Two-thirds said they would ''definitely'' want the guy to ask. A measly 2.8 per cent of the girls said they would ''kind of'' want to ask but none of the boys went as far as that.

Women proposing marriage is a boutique act, something that ''brave'' femmes are ''allowed'' to do on one day every four years.

''We don't see weddings where the woman has proposed and if we did it would be a real talking point,'' Cosmo Bride editor Franki Hobson told the Australian Women's Weekly earlier this year.

Even if a woman really, really, really wants to get married and Mr Boyfriend isn't taking the initiative, it's still a no go.

In the nine years that Kate Middleton lived with ''Waity Katie'' (perhaps only surpassed in offensiveness by this week's ''Dilatey Katie''), no one suggested that maybe she should ask William herself.

Why? Perhaps because a huge part of the proposal today isn't the fact that it leads to marriage. Most people are already legally as good as married by the time this happens (thanks to the de facto thing).

The proposal is more about the romance - the story you can share with your friends and grandkids for the next 200 years. And it's just not seen as romantic if the woman is the asker, not the askee.

The dude is supposed to be the one to go down on bended knee, produce a giant sparkler and write something in the sky with imported fireworks.

Wedding website The Knot advises that if women are going to propose then they should be ''sensitive to his ego'' (that is, make sure you don't emasculate your bloke along the way). ''Kudos to you for being the first to pledge faith in your future together, but keep in mind that he may be a little disappointed that you stole his thunder, whether he was planning a proposal or not. If this is the case, remind him that your proposal doesn't mean he can't ask you back when he's ready [with a ring]!'' it says.

Another article on the site suggests making up a tradition to justify why the girl proposed if it doesn't happen under the cover of a leap year.

''If you feel more easily empowered with an excuse let's also make it official that with every new or full moon … women can take the step … You can share that you found the info on this new engagement proposal 'rule' on The Knot if [any] curious relative asks at the engagement party.''

Translation: so people don't think you're totally desperate.

The man-only proposal also has deep historical roots that, on paper at least, we're supposed to have moved on from. As the author of Marriage, a History, Stephanie Coontz, explains: ''It is a holdover from the days when women were considered passive beings whose desires could not be expressed until they were awakened by the prince's kiss or the man's declaration of his willingness to marry her.''

So when we talk about ''old-fashioned'' romance, we're also harking back to ''old-fashioned'' chauvinism.

I'm not suggesting that it's automatically sexist or not lovely if the man happens to propose. As my dad says, ''it's the greatest compliment you can give another person'' (to which I would add, apart from, ''I like you so much, why don't you have my yacht?'').

But the idea that women shouldn't or can't propose, or somehow offer a lesser proposal, makes a complete mockery of modern day equality. It also means girls are shut out of one of the most significant personal decisions adults make.

Women would take great offence, and rightly so, if someone talked about cooking as ''women's work'' or managing the family finances as ''the man's job''.

So why is proposing - and our definition of romance - still so stuck in the past?

Judith Ireland is a Canberra Times journalist.