A few months ago, a man approached me on a beach in Tel Aviv and asked if I was married. I said “no” because I’m not. But also, weird. Regularly, I don’t entertain pickup lines. I think they’re lazy, and I hate meeting new people. However, this man—let’s call him “Gal”—was so beautiful that it hurt my weak, mortal eyes. His English was also very good, so I let him sit with me.
A good follow up question to the “are you married?” pickup line is “are you married?” Ideally, you should ask this question a lot sooner than I did. It will save you twenty minutes of flirting that you will then feel gross about. In this case, Gal was, in fact, married. He was not, however, wearing a wedding ring.
“If you’re married, then why aren’t you wearing a wedding ring?” I asked, naively.
“Those rings are for women,” he said. “That’s why a man gives a woman an engagement ring. It symbolizes bondage. Men aren’t bonded to women.”
Yes, Gal was a real catch. He won points for knowing words like “bondage” and “symbolize” in a second language, but he lost me at extreme misogyny and, you know, being married. Still, Gal raised an interesting question: if we’re all so enlightened, why are we still giving women engagement rings?
A few years ago, The Atlantic published an article called “The Strange (and Sexist) Economics of Engagement Rings.” In it, Matthew O’Brien explains that diamond engagement rings were once a sort of “virginity insurance” for women. As recently as the 1940s, virgin brides fetched a higher market value than non-virgins—i.e. virgin brides attracted more desirable, richer husbands. If a virgin bride entered into an engagement, but slept with her fiancé before the wedding (which happened fairly regularly) it affected her worth.
Without her virginity intact, the woman in question could never re-enter the market with her most valuable commodity. Therefore, if her fiancé left his no-longer-a-virgin bride before the wedding, she was basically screwed on finding another husband of equal status. Not only did she incur emotional damage, but the loss of a bride’s virginity also decreased her marriageability and hence her future economic prospects.
So while Gal was correct in his suggestion that the ritual presentation of engagement rings evolved out of sexist assumptions about the value of women, they didn’t bond women to men. Instead, they gave women leverage. A diamond ring was a promise that even if a man ruined a woman’s economic mobility, she would at least be left with something.
However, if the recent legalization of gay marriage teaches us anything, it’s that our society acknowledges two people can come together in a partnership that isn’t contingent on heteronormative gender roles based around old systems of economic dependency and biological childbearing. People can get married just because they love each other. People can get married to showcase their mutual commitment. (I know, shocker.)
Moreover, the legitimization and general agreed upon okay-ness of pre-marital sex basically negates the original purpose of an engagement ring. Economically speaking, women don’t rise and fall on the state of their virginities. Nowadays, most women return their engagement rings if/when the engagement dissolves because they don’t need to hock it for cash. Even though (white) women still make 78 cents to the (white) man’s dollar, woman have much more economic mobility than their grandmothers’ once did. With the (sometimes infuriatingly) slow deconstruction of structures that once forced women to insure against the economic loss of their virginity, diamond rings mean something different than they once did. I daresay that in today’s world, the engagement ring is reduced to what most of us probably thought it was anyway: a symbol.
So, what’s the takeaway? Get an engagement ring if you want one. Don’t get it if you don’t want one. They aren’t any more or less sexist than everything else in our society. Let your feminist heart rest a bit easier.
And also, Gal is an asshole.