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Why Women Proposing Is Still Rare

Alix Strauss

Tom Bloom

When uttered by a man, the words will you marry me serve to

signal a tradition that is both widely accepted and ages old. Having
the same spoken by a woman however except in a leap year like
2016, when an old Irish tradition of having the woman ask is known
to emerge are still surprisingly rare.
Legend has it that The Ladies Privilege, as it was known then,

originated in the fifth century, with an Irish nun later known as St.
Brigid. Through her intervention it was decided that on Feb. 29,
women would be given the opportunity to pop the question as a way
to balance traditional gender roles in a manner not unlike how leap
year serves to balance the calendar.
On the face of it, giving a woman an occasion to ask a man to wed
would seem an empowering moment. But not everyone sees it that
way. The leap year tradition looked like it was giving women
opportunities but in reality, it kept them in their place, said Katherine
Parkin, an associate professor of history at Monmouth University in
New Jersey. Back then women who asked men to marry were
portrayed as ugly, mannish, crass or desperate.
Centuries later, women are still using this bit of folklore as an
impetus to get down on one knee and ask for their partners hand in
marriage on a Feb. 29 or on any day in a leap year.
In February 2012, Dana Sessa and Kevin McGettigan of Fairless
Hills, Pa., had been together for seven years when she began to
become concerned that both the calendar and biology were
creeping up on her. Ms. Sessa already had a child from a previous
I knew we wanted more children. So time was ticking, she said. But
no marriage proposal had been put on the table. I knew he had
been thinking of it, but sometimes a girl has to take things into her
own hands to get things done, she said.
Then Ms. Sessa, now 35 and who says shes half Irish, heard that
The Rachael Ray Show was looking for women who were willing to
propose to their man on a special leap year segment on the show.

Mr. McGettigan is full Irish, she said, so the leap year tradition fit
well into our theme.
Mr. McGettigan, now 34, had been lured into appearing on the show
that Feb. 29 to be interviewed about a dietary matter when during
the taping Ms. Sessa got down on one knee with a ring box in hand
and asked him to marry her.
I dont think it matters who asks whom, Ms. Sessa recently said.
Some women dont need leap year to step up and ask what they
Alexandra Pavlenko asked Alexander Tague to marry her on April
13, 2015. I asked Alex for two reasons; I was madly in love with him
and nothing about asking him felt wrong to me, said Ms. Tague, 32.
He said something about how much he loved me, and I said, Im
crazy in love with you and do you want a reminder of that every
Mr. Tague, 33, who lives with Ms. Pavlenko in Brooklyn, said he did.
She then brought out the rings she ordered on Etsy and presented
them to him. Mr. Tague said yes right away.
For women like me who live in New York City its almost chic to do
it, she said. To me, there was something very empowering about
not having to wait for the man you love to ask you.
Although girlfriends say how great it is that she asked him, Ms.
Pavlenko added those same friends admit that they could never do
something like that themselves.

Were seeing more couple-level negotiations in the marriage

process with college-educated women and thats a real sign of
progress, said Amanda Miller, a sociology professor at the
University of Indianapolis. Though women have more power to
move the relationship closer to marriage, they still want the man to
ask. Thats considered his job.
That thinking, Professor Miller added, shows no sign of dissipating.
For as many traditions as we cast aside church marriages
replaced by married on a beach, a minister replaced by a
web-ordained college friend there are just as many traditions we
still cling to. A man proposing to a woman is the one that has
changed the least.
A man asking a woman to wed is a ritual thats very powerful, said
Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the
University of Virginia, where he is an associate professor of
Having him ask for her hand in marriage is a way of signaling to
her, and his friends and family, that hes serious and ready for a
future with her, Professor Wilcox said. The guy who proposes in
the basketball arena is sending a massive signal to the world that
hes all in and completely committed.
Just as an engagement ring has been a symbol of a mans ability to
provide, some wonder if the proposal hasnt taken on a similar
Her fear might be if she asks and he says yes, hes going along to
get along, Professor Wilcox added. Getting that formal proposal

from him is one way of addressing that concern.

Even the rise of same-sex couples, an area of great change, has
seen little movement of the proposal pendulum among heterosexual
A woman asking a man is disrupting a sacrosanct power that men
have held throughout American history, Professor Parkin said.
Same-sex proposals have not changed traditional heterosexual
ones because, within that couple, there is a balance due to the fact
that they are the same sex. They are not providing an alternative for
what continues to be the narrow rules of getting engaged.
Wedding planners, too, see almost no movement in the area of the
Michele Velazquez is an owner, with her husband, Marvin
Velazquez, of The Heart Bandits, a Los Angeles proposal-planning
company that creates and orchestrates about three dozen marriage
proposals for couples a month. To date theyve had only two women
propose to their boyfriends.
I dont think its going to change or shift, said Ms. Velazquez, 36.
Women traditionally want to be courted, and men still want to
propose. Most men are not comfortable being asked. She added:
Men can feel powerless or rushed. They think, Why isnt she
waiting. I want to do it on my time.
If the woman asks, she may resent that decision years later, Ms.
Velazquez said. If she jumps the gun, five years down the line that
action might backfire. She might say to her husband: Why didnt
you ask me? I dont have the great story to tell people about how you

And what better way to tell that story than on social media. Despite
our share-all mentality, in which one click equals global
announcement, people still care about how theyre seen by others.
Women dont want to be seen as less feminine, or too sexual or
coming on too strong. And theres a concern for men about being
publicly emasculated, said Beth Montemurro, a professor of
sociology at Penn State University.
When you look at how public social media makes things, it could be
holding people back, Professor Montemurro said. They may be
afraid to take bigger risks and break gender roles because theyre
concerned with how their story will come across.
Specialists also surmise that women arent more forthcoming
because they lack encouraging illustrations.
We dont have many positive examples of women who have
proposed, Professor Parkin said. Those that have asked men have
not been successful in our eyes. Pink and Britney Spears asked
their men to marry, and those marriages either ended poorly or
didnt do well in the beginning, she said, (although Pink reunited
with her husband and they are still married).
Professor Parkin supposed that, if Taylor Swift pops the question it
might start a trend, but right now, its not seen as romantic.
And perhaps thats the conundrum.
Mr. McGettigan, who was proposed to on television, recalled that the

experience was shocking and exciting. But it also stole some of my

thunder and flipped the script on me, he said. My mouth went dry. I
didnt know what to say.
That response is very normal, Professor Miller said. When women
ask men, theres no script for how they are supposed to react.
Women scream or jump in the air. From our research, many men
said having a woman propose to them wouldnt feel right, she
added. Its also about controlling the timing of these events. When
they ask, they advance the relationship.
Ironically, Mr. McGettigan had planned on asking Ms. Sessa to
marry him.
Its been in the mix for a few years, he said. Im eccentric. I dont
like to do anything ordinary, but the things I was going to do were
based on timing. We go to an annual balloon festival and weve
taken a few trips to different islands. She thought I was going to
propose to her a couple of times, but it didnt feel quite right.
Two weeks after having been proposed to, Mr. McGettigan had his
own moment, something men who have been asked to wed by their
lady partners often want to have. I wouldnt change anything and
Im glad she did it, but I proposed to her on her birthday at home in
front of her family and mine.
As for the romantic story women are always wishing for, the former
Ms. Sessa (now McGettigan) feels that got it. Women always
believe in the fairy tale, that Prince Charming is coming to sweep
you off your feet. That still happened to me she said. I still had the
white dress, the destination wedding, the great honeymoon. I had
what any person would have had if he had asked me first. The fact

that asking him took his breath away, and that I was the one to do
that, was an amazing feeling.