Weddings and engagements are an intrinsic part of the fabric of our lives. Chances are you've been envisioning your very own for as long as you can remember, and you've probably already realized that certain aspects of your own fantasy aren't all that different from those of others. One such noteworthy detail: the love of your life proposing on bended knee. Kind of a strange position to assume now that you think about it, isn't it? So why is this practice at the very heart of one of our most highly anticipated life moments? In Catalyst Wedding Co., editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions like these that we take for granted. Liz investigates here.
While the visual of a man proposing on bended knee hearkens back to medieval knights bowing before noble women, this common gesture accompanied by the phrase “Will you marry me?” seems to be a somewhat recent phenomenon. Proposals used to look a lot more like the process of buying a house: “Have your realtor call my realtor. Tell her to throw in the couch, and we’ll have a deal.” Historically, marriage proposals were more like business negotiations between family representatives; romance just wasn’t a part of the picture. Both of my grandmothers got engaged in the early 1960s, and neither of my grandfathers got down on one knee. The proposals were much more casual, while seated in the front of a car. So it looks like we’ve got ourselves a religious fundamentalism situation: What most people assume dates back centuries is rather a pretty modern invention.
The gesture of getting down on one knee while proposing has been connected to prayer, submission, deference, and respect, among other things. But a survey of one woman (aka me) shows that for 98 percent of women, the bended knee moment elicits feelings of “Holy crap! Finally! I would have killed him if I went one more Christmas without a ring.”
Elaina of Ohio asked her husband not to propose. “I think I'm a bit of a scrooge, but I really just don't like proposals at all,” Elaina admits. Working on the nursing staff of a hospital, Elaina says she has often heard women coworkers express sentiments such as: “I told him, if he doesn’t put a ring on it by the end of this year, I am leaving,” or when going on a vacation, “I think he’s going to do it. I think he’s going to propose.” Elaina has observed women withstand months or years of waiting for their partner to propose when they are ready to be married and then “constantly being disappointed in their partners and feeling let down that the proposal didn’t happen.” She asks, “Why is it his decision? Why does this need to happen for your relationship to progress?”
Amy, a wedding planner at Modern Rebel, agrees with Elaina. She explains that women grow up learning that a wedding will be the best day of their lives, and when combined with the norm that only men propose, this translates to: “You know that big change in your life that we've told you is the most important thing? You have no agency over when and if that happens." Amy says this dynamic is incredibly frustrating for many women and that she has had “girlfriends complain that they feel desperate or crazy wondering if/when it's going to happen.”
Alex of Tennessee is in a long-term relationship, but she is not married, and she says that for her, “proposal culture is toxic.” Alex has seen firsthand the pressure even strangers put on her boyfriend to propose: “The assumption is often that I am a ‘poor woman sitting around waiting for my boyfriend to propose to me.’ These attitudes toward women are so icky.” Cindy, a wedding planner and owner of Aisle Less Traveled, says, “I think people get caught up in this notion of romance and forget that it's a giant life decision that should be discussed together at length before agreement.”
Meet the Expert
Cindy is a wedding planner and owner of Aisle Less Traveled, helping independent, feminist, and LGBTQ+ couples plan weddings.
Others love the stop, drop, and gawk moment a bended-knee proposal creates. How many moments in life give us the opportunity to point and say, “awww”? Not enough. Erika Swift, owner of Erika Swift Events, says, “It’s so romantic. I love it. It’s always funny to watch the face of the person getting proposed to because they don’t fully get it yet, and then when they do...be still my heart.” When Elliot of Washington, D.C., proposed, he was the one who didn’t fully get it: “I got on my knee, took out the ring, and forgot to say anything for like 10 seconds.” While it was clear his partner understood what was happening, he says, “I just blanked. I forgot I had to ask and was just watching her reaction. Eventually I realized I needed to ask it out loud before she could respond.”
Amber Marlow, a New York wedding photographer, fondly remembers her partner getting down on one knee to propose: “Having that moment in the park with other New Yorkers cheering and clapping was magic.” She explains, “I didn’t get a lot of love up to that point in my life; the proposal was powerful and wonderful.” And the moment wasn’t a total surprise; she and her partner had discussed their desire to marry and both purchased rings for each other, so she proposed right back. “But the knee thing felt cool,” she says. “Like I finally was allowed to have what everyone else got: a normal experience.”
Amber makes an important point, reminding us that not all individuals and not all groups of people have been granted equal access to being the subject of admiration, love, and romance. And one should be able to experience that “normalcy” first and foremost; the choice to accept or reject the norms of society come second.
For instance, some queer couples choose to propose on bended knee, and others create proposals that are much more egalitarian and shine a light on this patriarchal tradition; but having that choice at all is brand new.