Louise O'Neill: Leap Day, proposals, and unpacking expectations

Louise O'Neill: Leap Day, proposals, and unpacking expectations

In late December, a woman stopped me and said, “congratulations! I heard you got engaged over Christmas.” I frowned, and took a quick look at my ring finger as if checking to make sure I hadn’t forgotten about said proposal. (Spoiler: There was no proposal.)

My partner and I went for dinner with family that evening and when I relayed the story, someone jokingly asked my father if he had been asked for permission for my hand in marriage. My dad seemed alarmed at the thought. “Louise would never be with someone who would ask her father for ‘permission’ to marry her,” he said, putting a swift end to the conversation.

It’s true. I find the concept bizarre, as if the bride is a piece of chattel that is being sold from one man to another. But then I find a lot of things about heterosexual weddings strange. The idea of wearing a white dress to symbolise virginity — but just the woman, of course, chastity is only valued in the fairer sex — when most couples have been sexually active for years at that stage. The father walking the bride down the aisle and handing her over, again from one man to the next.

Even the idea of a proposal itself, the cliché of an increasingly desperate woman having to wait until her partner is ready to settle down — everything is predicated on his desires, his needs. The relationship moves to the next stage according to his timeline, not hers.

To be fair, this isn’t the case for most modern couples. Usually they will have had a conversation about their future plans, whether marriage and children are something they both want — getting engaged is a decision they will take equally. Most women I know want to pick out their own ring, which seems fair considering it’s a piece of jewellery you will be wearing for the rest of your life. And many men won’t ask for permission to propose, they will ask their partner’s parents for a blessing instead.

But no matter how progressive the couple, there is one area of straight relationships where gender norms reign supreme — it’s still incredibly rare for women to propose to men. Of course, as 2020 is a Leap Year and today is February 29 which means… drum roll please… that women are ‘allowed’ to get down on one knee today and pop the question.

The tradition is believed to date back to the 5th century when St Brigid, patron saint of abortions and general badass, went to St Patrick and pleaded that women deserved to have one chance every 1,461 days to give their reluctant suitors a nudge towards the altar. The other theory is that Queen Margaret of Scotland passed a law in 1288 which decreed women could propose on the 29th of February and if they refused, the man in question had to pay a fine of a kiss, a pair of gloves, or a new gown. (Personally, I would have asked as many men as possible to marry me in the hopes of an entire new wardrobe. Got to respect that hustle.)

I know of two women who asked their now-husbands to marry them, and no, they didn’t wait for a Leap Year to do so. Both couples are wildly happy and have a very clear sense of themselves as equal partners in their relationships. Both men have talked about how moved they were by the proposals; no doubt never having pictured The Moment since they were children the way girls have been conditioned to do.

And it made me wonder how many other straight men would enjoy the experience but won’t get the chance because of societal pressure. Imagine! Being whisked away by your other half and told in great detail how much they love you and why they want to spend the rest of their lives with you. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? I don’t often say that sexism is unfair to men, but in this case, I think it might just be.

I’m always curious when gay friends of mine get engaged, asking who proposed to whom. How is that decision made when there isn’t a deeply engrained expectation that one partner should ask the other, just by virtue of gender? Is it the person who is ready to take the next step? Or do they instinctively know that one half of the couple would enjoy the experience more than the other? It makes me wonder how many women I know who would rather be the one proposing, how many men I know who would rather be proposed to. I can’t help but wonder about what I would prefer — I’m aware for all my pontificating, I know I don’t want to propose to my boyfriend.

I can’t figure out if that reluctance is because a) I can’t undo the conditioning which tells me that it’s ‘the man’s’ job, b) I’m really lazy and it seems like a lot of work or c) I’m worried about how it would look to other people. And I’d wager that last option is a genuine barrier to many straight couples from subverting the proposal plot, because of fears about what that gesture might say about our respective femininity and masculinity. It goes so deep, gender and the expectations of behaviour it carries. It’s a lifetime’s work trying to unpack it all.

LOUISE SAYS:

WATCH: The second season of Sex Education has landed on Netflix and while I’m not on board with all the characters’ choices (no, Adam. No!), it’s still as refreshing and funny as ever.

BUY: I am obsessed with P50 Lotion by Biologique Recherche. It’s been called a miracle in a bottle by every skincare expert you can name and for a long time, you could only buy it in Paris. But it’s available to buy in Ireland now and my skin has never been better. See skinbyolga.ie.

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