An uncommon proposal

New Age woman pops age-old question - but who got the ring?

It came to me one sunny morning, almost exactly a year ago, on a Market Street trolley in downtown San Francisco. I never expected it to be so sudden, but there it was, in the face of the chess masters gathered at 5th Street, in the early morning sunlight climbing up the TransAmerica Pyramid, in the sound of Chinese, French, and Russian mingling on the corner: I was ready to get married.

The first thing I did was try to stay calm. The one person I wanted to throw my arms around and talk to for hours on end was the very person I couldn't tell. So I occupied myself with all the details that must be thought out before a proposal: Where would I ask him? What would I say? And how would I surreptitiously determine the size of his ring finger?

It didn't occur to me that I was being the least bit revolutionary, but in light of the cultural revelations that came with it, it turns out I was.

When I recently asked Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who heads the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey, I found that, despite all the gains women have made in recent generations, most apparently prefer dropping hints to dropping the big question.

"It's more common that women feel entitled or empowered to raise the question," she told me. "They take the initiative in their work life, so it seems not unusual for them to take the initiative in raising the issue in their relationships.... But the formal proposal by women isn't increasing."

I, however, had wanted to do more than "raise the question." This was quite possibly the biggest moment in my life, and I wasn't about to spoil it with a chat about who should ask whom.

I may, I confess, be a product of circumstance. My twin brother and I were raised as equals, no boys-wear-blue and girls-wear-pink in my house. And my parents, both lawyers, first met as opposing counsel in court; my mother won, and my father brags about it to this day. That men and women should operate under a different set of rules never even occurred to me.

Naturally, I didn't think twice about being the one to propose.

So I called my boyfriend's father. There was no way around it: I had to get his blessing before I could get the rings. Rather conventional for an unconventional person, I suppose, but it felt like a tradition worth upholding - a respectful, even necessary gesture.

After a heartwarming conversation - "If that boy says 'No,' you have him come talk to me!" his father declared in his charming Missouri accent - I marched over to Tiffany's and told the graying gentleman behind the counter that I needed two rings within a shockingly meager budget.

"Who's the lucky young man?" the gentleman asked, his eyes twinkling as if we were in on some big secret. I smiled, pleasantly surprised by his discernment: "A man whose ring size remains unclear." We laughed, delighting in our stealth, and he helped me find the rings.

A week later, en route to a family reunion, my boyfriend and I found ourselves on a beach just south of Santa Barbara. We'd hopped over an ugly concrete divide - "What's wrong with the car?" he had asked when I had jerked his Honda to the shoulder of the road - and plopped down on some jagged rocks, traffic humming noisily at our backs. It wasn't quite what I'd had in mind, but I would not be deterred. When I finally mustered enough courage, the question came out as a shaky command: "I want you to marry me."

He said yes, and we joked about the noisy cars and the jagged rocks and the engagement ring that almost slipped off his finger, the Pacific Ocean lapping gently at our toes.

It wasn't until later, at the family reunion, that I realized how the response to our story varies by generation.

My grandmother was caught off guard. She wanted to know who got the ring - and why I hadbeen the one to ask. She seemed confused, but delighted for us.

My mother, the strongest and most supportive woman I know, shrieked with excitement. But we didn't really talk about how I had proposed. To her, the details weren't at issue; our happiness was what mattered.

Then I called my younger sister. She was with a group of high school friends when I told her the big news, and the first thing she wanted to know was who had asked whom. "Well, duh, who do you think asked?" I teased. "Your big sister, of course."

She turned from the phone and relayed the news to her friends. In the background, a dozen shrill voices cheered in unison. "That is so cool," my sister said, and I knew she was speaking for many.

The more I tell people about my proposal, the more I realize that it was far from commonplace.

In general, people respond positively - in fact, many men look as if they might enjoy sharing the responsibility - but when I ask women if they would ever do the same, they almost always shake their heads.

"Isn't something wrong if you have to ask?" they want to know. To which I reply, "Isn't something wrong if you have to wait?"

Elizabeth Armstrong is on the Monitor staff.

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