Ring of truth … in Australia, only 7 per cent of proposals are instigated by women. Photo: Getty Images
I said no the first time my husband asked me to marry him, despite a brave and elaborate proposal. We went rock climbing and he hid a ring box 20 metres up a cliff face. I turned him down out of shock and instantly regretted it. So less than 24 hours later I proposed to him. This time, he rejected me. "I didn't say no as an act of revenge," says John, "but accepting would have been emasculating. I'm the man and should be the one in control of our relationship.”
In every other aspect, my partner shows no gender bias. I am the main breadwinner and we have always agreed that if we have children, John will be a stay-at-home father. Yet it seems some stereotypes are harder to shift. In the end, three weeks later, John dropped to one knee again. This time I let him put a ring on my finger.
My husband is not alone in his reluctance to bend tradition. When it comes to marriage, the majority of women still expect to be asked and men expect to do the asking.
"There are all kinds of colourful variations, but marriage proposals are rituals that people hold near and dear to their heart," says Rachael Robnett, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Robnett and her colleagues surveyed 277 college-age adults about their attitudes to courtship in a paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Research last year. Two-thirds of participants said they would definitely want the man to propose. None of the survey participants said they would definitely want the woman to.
Robnett blames the results on "benevolent sexism" and the belief that women are the weaker sex and need protecting. Even the act of dropping to one knee isn't female-friendly. When a man genuflects it's brave and humble, as when receiving a knighthood. In a woman, it can be seen as weak and submissive.
"This type of sexism is subtle," says Robnett. "The idea that women should be cherished and protected. The man taking the lead is seen as chivalrous. On the surface it may seem polite and positive. That makes it harder for people to challenge it. Adherence to tradition becomes dangerous when people fail to consider alternatives or rigidly adhere to it, just because it's the 'approved' way. That's often how inequality is justified and perpetuated.”
In Australia, a survey by wedding website Hitched.com revealed that only 7 per cent of proposals accepted in 2012 were instigated by women. This number was low, despite that year being a leap year, when women are "allowed" to propose on February 29.
Even this custom carries some stigma. Leap year postcards from last century depict women coercing men into marriage by holding guns to their heads. In another, a husband sits forlornly in a corner while his wife tells her friend, "Oh I caught him in 1908. At first he was really vicious and homesick but now he eats right out of my hand." It's an altogether unflattering representation.
Michelle Anderson, a civil celebrant, marries about 60 couples a year in Australia. "Even if a bride-to-be does pop the question the majority let the groom take the credit," says Anderson. "When I meet a woman who has proposed – and it's rare – many ask me not to tell their friends and family.”
Anderson suggests Gen Y is halting progress. "I've noticed a rise in young brides in their early 20s clinging to tradition," she says. "The few women I've met who have proposed are in their late 30s or 40s and often on their second marriage. They are more willing to tear up the rule book.”
Amy Mochi proposed to her husband 14 years ago and still gets shocked expressions when she tells people. "My partner and I had been dating for 18 months when I asked him," says Mochi. "I was 23 years old and had my life plotted out. I wanted kids by 30, to own a successful business by 35. I knew I had to take some responsibility.”
Still happily married, she urges others to follow her lead. "I'm not sure why we still wait patiently in the wings for our knight," she says. "This is our life we're wasting and our hearts we are breaking.”
Wedding planner Caroline Buckle suggests that it's the "princess effect" that is stopping women being more proactive. Despite most couples choosing an engagement ring together, she says many women make their fiancé plan elaborate "surprise" proposals, even after accompanying him to the jewellers. "It's like a test of a groom's masculinity," says Buckle. "One bride-to-be said it's because there are so few surprises in life these days. People live together before they marry, we find out the sex of a baby before it's born. There are few milestones in a modern relationship where you get that thrill.”
Though there's been a rise in sales of male engagement rings in recent years, Toby Bensimon, director of jewellery chain Shiels, says role reversal is still a rarity. "Many women who come in looking at engagement rings still expect a man to spend the equivalent of three months' salary," he says. "Even though these days many women provide for their family, I've still heard male customers say that a woman proposing is 'unfeminine'.”
Historically, it's said that men were expected to take the lead because women were too "emotional" to pick a mate wisely. Etiquette expert Danielle Di-Masi says such ingrained beliefs take time to erode. "I remember when internet dating was first introduced," says Di-Masi. "There was such a stigma to admitting you'd met your perfect match online that many couples would lie to avoid judgment. Now it's perfectly acceptable. "In the same way, attitudes to courtship will change slowly. All that matters is that the person proposing asks from a place of love and respect, not fear and control. And that's the case whether they're male or female."