"Why are women and men who fight for equality in all other aspects of their lives clinging to a tradition that inherently does not put them on equal footing?"
After a recent Zola survey revealed only 2% of heterosexual women propose to men, Rachel Jarrett, President and COO of Zola, shares her perspective.
When my partner Doug proposed to me over a decade ago, it felt romantic and special. He got down on one knee at the East Village bar where we met, pulled out a solitaire diamond ring, and asked me to spend my life with him. I felt overjoyed because I loved him deeply, but also relieved because I had been waiting for him to ask me for several months. We had already moved in together and discussed marriage, including the style of the engagement ring. Despite already being an independent career woman who considered herself progressive in so many ways, I never felt that I could ask him. Looking back, that reluctance seems absurd and outdated. Sixteen years later, I’m surprised that still only 2% of heterosexual women propose to men.
One of the most joyful parts of my job as President of Zola is seeing how couples make their weddings more a reflection of themselves and their values. In recent years, we’ve seen couples start to eschew traditions like the bouquet toss or brides being "given away" by their fathers. These changes are a quiet dismantling of traditions that have been around for hundreds of years, and are deeply rooted in patriarchal legacy. LGBTQIA+ couples have been at the forefront of change, sometimes out of necessity. Yet, the industry-at-large has evolved at a snail's pace.
Even as younger millennials and Gen-Z couples – who fully embrace and demand a more equitable world – head to the altar, the heterosexual proposal has failed to progress. According to a recent Zola survey, 77% of heterosexual women never even thought to propose, even though 98% view themselves as completely equal to their partner. These are strong and independent women, more educated than any generation of women before them.
Take Jenny, the daughter of a close family friend, who works as a top investment banker and who carried a sign that read “equal pay, for equal rights” to a women’s rally with me a few months ago. After living with her boyfriend Matt for over a year and adopting two cats together, she was still awaiting the bent knee and ring. Over coffee a few months ago, I asked her, “Why don’t YOU just ask HIM?” She replied, “Oh, I just don’t think I could.” A few weeks later, Matt proposed and she said yes.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with men proposing to women. Anyone should be able to propose to the person they love. What needs to be asked is: Why are women and men who fight for equality in all other aspects of their lives clinging to a tradition that inherently does not put them on equal footing?
I don’t have a clear answer. Even Zola’s survey of recently engaged women points to various outdated gender norms. 16% feel a proposal might inadvertently wound the ego of their male partner. 14% are ready to commit, yet are seeking confirmation in the form of a proposal. 36% say the man is just “supposed to propose.”
At the root of all this might be that it hasn’t been normalized or seen anywhere in a meaningful way. As we know, the media – whether it be social, TV, or advertisements – can have a major effect on societal change. There are so few examples of women proposing to men in Hollywood, and the ones that do come to mind typically still end up with the man popping the question in the end, like when Monica proposes to Chandler on Friends. Even on modern dating shows like The Bachelorette, where a woman chooses the man she wants to spend her life with, she still stands in an evening gown waiting for him to get down on bended knee.
When Zola decided to make a video showing real-life female-led proposals, the first audience was my 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. My daughter got teary-eyed. “This is great,” she said, “why can’t a woman propose to a man?!” My son, on the other hand, shrugged and said, “I like it. The music is good.” I breathed a sigh of relief. He is still too young to have expectations for a marriage proposal. He hasn’t really seen one before, given marriage proposals aren’t heavily featured in his usual Star Wars and Jurassic Park rotation.
I hope Zola can help make it easier for the next generation to continue to evolve weddings from everything they’re “supposed to be” into everything couples want them to be. Weddings are moving, joyous, and magical because they represent the coming together of two lives in a loving and equal union. But, true equality cannot exist in a world where a woman does not feel empowered to ask her partner to spend his life with her. The price of progress is that some traditions might need to change.