On Oct. 15, 1839, Queen Victoria summoned her cousin, Prince Albert, to a private room. According to her diaries, after talking for a few minutes, she revealed the purpose behind the meeting: She proposed marriage.
As the queen of England, custom and convention dictated that Victoria had to do the proposing, not the other way around. In modern-day America, couples are not formally constrained by any such rules. But the wedding proposal process is still tightly wound with symbolism, and stories of women proposing to men are still as exciting — and unusual — as they were in Victorian England.
After about a year and a half of dating, Mount Washington resident Catherine Yard knew she wanted to marry her boyfriend, Ryan Dunne. Instead of dropping hints about diamonds or silently waiting for Dunne to get down on one knee, Yard took matters into her own hands. The night before Easter in 2013, while Yard and Dunne were hanging out at home, she popped the question.
"It was pretty spontaneous," she acknowledges. "I hadn't really planned to do it, but we'd both been thinking about it. He was going to propose, but he'd secretly always wanted the girl to propose. So when I did it, he was like, 'Yeah!' We were both very excited."
Yard and Dunne's families were thrilled by the news — though Yard says that when she approached Dunne's mother to "ask for her son's hand in marriage," there was a moment of confusion.
"I don't think she expected the question," Yard says with a laugh. But a moment later, after realizing what Yard was asking, Dunne's mother screamed with excitement.
It's no surprise that she wasn't expecting the question. In a January 2014 poll conducted by the Associated Press and GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications, only about 5 percent of married heterosexual couples surveyed said that the woman had proposed to the man. The survey respondents were not opposed to the idea — 74 percent said they considered it acceptable for women to propose marriage — but few had actual experience with it.
In her 15-plus years with Smyth Jewelers, district manager Rhoula Monios has only worked with two prospective brides who were planning to propose. In both cases, the women opted to purchase rings with engraved messages on the inside.
"In this day and age, with independent and strong women, I'm surprised we don't see more of that," Monios says. "But you've got to love the girl who knows what she wants and goes after it."
Xochitl Mota-Back, a Baltimore resident and doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona, notes that even though relationships have become more egalitarian in terms of gender roles, marriage proposals are part of a cultural "script" that we absorb from the time we are children. As a result, norms and expectations around who proposes are slow to evolve.
"There's a really powerful symbolism that underlies the marriage proposal," she says. "I can't remember the first time I saw what a marriage proposal looks like — it was on a TV show or movie — but it's so familiar to us. It's almost a script we follow. It's very glamorized in movies and pop culture. So if you're female and want to propose to your male partner, you're contending with at least 20 years of being exposed to this narrative, that this is an important part of the life course."
These cultural concepts are ingrained, though they do shift. Over his career, Arnold Sell, owner of Pikesville-based counseling and psychotherapy practice MarriageWorks, has observed an evolution in relationship gender roles.
"From the traditional model of men being head of household, relationships are much more balanced and democratic. It isn't hierarchical — there's a team." Today, Sell says, "men are more involved as fathers and more emotionally available."
This shift in dynamic suggests that women proposing might become a more common thing in the future — but other cultural indications point to the opposite outcome. A 2012 study of heterosexual students at the University of California-Santa Cruz found that about two-thirds of students surveyed said that when they get engaged, they would definitely want the man to propose.
Mota-Back points out that in recent years, shows like ABC's "The Bachelor" have helped shape public perceptions of what proposals and weddings look like.
"Weddings have changed dramatically over the past fifty years and will continue to change. I just don't know how it will change in terms of what are the appropriate gender roles," she says.
Occasionally, pop culture directly addresses the idea of women proposing, as in the 2010 movie "Leap Year," which is centered around an Irish and Scottish tradition that "allows" women to propose to men on Leap Day — though in the end, even that movie celebrates the traditional man-proposes-to-woman pattern.
"The Bachelorette," another popular ABC series, typically showcases a woman in a position of power, choosing from among two dozen or so men. But once she has selected her mate, it is up to him to do the proposing — or not.
But Yard says that women who want to propose shouldn't let norms hold them back.
"If it's something you want to do, just do it!" she says. "At least for me, there wasn't a stigma about it. My friends knew me, my parents knew me. If someone's going to hold something against you because of proposing, they aren't really your friends."
Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk, who lives in Dallas, spontaneously proposed to her now-husband, Joshua Raymond Frenk, in the late 1990s. In the years since their 2002 wedding, Frenk says, she has been chided by some female friends for not planning a more romantic proposal and has heard from other women that they couldn't imagine proposing. "Interestingly though, all the men we tell, regardless of age, or how conservative or progressive they are, get a big grin on their faces and high-five my husband with comments like, 'Way to go!'" she says. "They definitely act like it's a big feather in his cap that a woman proposed to him."
The proposal itself is not necessarily an indicator of what the relationship will be like, says Mota-Back. "It's more about what their worldview is on gender. Does the couple have a traditional outlook on gender roles, or is it more egalitarian? Those are the things that I think will influence what the marriage proposal will look like — and the wedding planning, marriage and the relationship that follows."
That held true for Yard and Dunne. The couple made it official last August, when they were married at Cylburn Arboretum.
"Our wedding was unusual — it was a little crazier than your average wedding," says Yard. "As an artist and as someone who isn't very into the institution of marriage itself, that's how I knew it was going to be if I was going to get married at all."
Advice for proposing women
Women who are considering proposing can visit websites like Offbeat Bride (offbeatbride.com) and A Practical Wedding (apracticalwedding.com) for insight into what to consider when popping the question. Here, experts, and women who have proposed, provide additional advice for women about to take the plunge:
Do it for the right reasons: "Do it only if you feel like it is natural for the two of you and the relationship you share," advises Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk. "But don't do it just to get a ring on your finger. He deserves better than that. Do it for all the reasons you'd want someone to do it for you."
Tailor it to him: Cathy Hansen of the International School of Protocol in Towson notes that the proposal occupies a special spot in the story of a relationship. Both men and women, then, should take care when deciding how to propose. "Be considerate of the other person," she advises. "What will make them feel good? What is he going to like? A special place? Somewhere you met? Activities he likes to do?"
Be patient: When his now-wife proposed, Joshua Raymond Frenk was caught off guard; his first words were, "Are you sure you know what you're saying?" Though he was surprised, he was also thrilled by the proposal. "Be patient if the guy is startled by it," he suggests. "Just because a guy is not expecting it doesn't mean he's bothered by it."