On a recent episode of How To!, a listener, Ashley, wants to propose to her boyfriend, Carter, but she’s not sure how to go about it. Fortunately, Washington Post writer Caroline Kitchener has some experience in this area. She joined host Charles Duhigg for a conversation on busting this age-old gender norm. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: Everything in our society tells us that the guy should propose. As much as gender roles and gender stereotypes have started to dissolve around weddings and the beginning of a marriage, they really haven’t. Men making these big grand gestures to women are just all over movies and TV. You just see it everywhere. And now on social media, so many people put their proposals on Instagram and Facebook, and it’s always the guy making a scavenger hunt, or just doing something, or gathering all of the friends and family together.
Charles Duhigg: Why do you think that’s true? Why is it such a taboo for the woman to pop the question?
Caroline: I’ve written about this. I talked to a professor at Appalachian State University, Ellen Lamont, and she talks about something called symbolic gendering, which is this idea that as women become the equal of men in every other way, as we work more and we’re graduating from college at a higher rate than men, there are fewer opportunities for a woman to be pursued as opposed to do the pursuing. And so she talks about the proposal as this kind of thing that we cling to, to enact those traditional gender roles, when we don’t see them anywhere else in our lives.
Charles: It’s kind of like we get to hold onto the Disney movie by letting men propose and women say yes or no.
Caroline: Right, exactly. I think, in the scheme of all of these antiquated traditions, it feels like a relatively harmless one. But I would love to see men propose 50 percent of the time and women propose 50 percent of the time, like whoever’s feeling it in that moment. A proposal feels really significant to me. It sets the tone for the rest of your life. It’s the beginning of the rest of your life.
Charles: Caroline, how did you propose?
Caroline: I had a hundred candles all out, and I had the sign, and I actually had the ring that I stole from his underwear drawer where he had been keeping it. And that was how I asked. And then I had all of our friends together waiting to celebrate with us.
Charles: So you planned a big thing.
Caroline: I did. I planned a big thing.
Charles: And the fact that you were a woman proposing to a man, did that change, do you think, how you thought about it, at all?
Caroline: I mean, the only big logistical thing is, what do you give him? There is an item that is exchanged in a traditional male-proposes-to-female proposal. I asked a couple of people about that, and no one really had a good answer, and Google had no good answers. So what I ended up doing was just giving him the ring back and he put it on me. So I’m curious, Ashley, what are you thinking you’ll do? Do you want to give him something?
Ashley: Yeah. I’m like, well, why do the women just get to have this flashy, sparkly thing? Why can’t he have sparkly things too? And so it’s important for me to kind of gauge if he would want that. But he is the one who loves to cook most in our relationship, and he’s wonderful at it. And part of me is like, do I propose with a KitchenAid mixer? Because he’s wanted one for so long, and this is really important to me, you’re really important to me, you really want a KitchenAid stand mixer.
Charles: What I love about this is that if I was making a movie about 1950s gender relations and I wanted to show that a man was clueless, definitely the scene would include him proposing to his wife with a KitchenAid mixer. But on the other hand, if you give it to Carter, maybe that works.
Ashley: It might work.
Charles: At the end of the day, a proposal is an offering, right? So put a ring on it, or give your man a watch or a KitchenAid mixer. Anything goes. Still, how will Carter feel if you are the one who proposes?
Ashley: I don’t think it’ll be necessarily stealing his thunder. I don’t think he dreamed of getting down on one knee and proposing to anyone. I’m not going to ruin this childhood fantasy of his, and I think he’ll enjoy it.
Caroline: Totally. Ellen Lamont, from her study, said that while the women felt it was very important for them to be asked, actually the men were far less bothered by the idea of the woman asking the men than the women were.
To listen to the entire episode, click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.