‘He Said Yes!’

Despite changing norms, it’s still exceedingly rare for women to propose in heterosexual couples.

Elizabeth Warren and her husband, Bruce Mann, hug.
Gretchen Ertl / Reuters

As public figures have often been known to do in the age of social media, Elizabeth Warren commemorated her wedding anniversary this past weekend by expressing her appreciation for her partner on Twitter. Warren shared a story that also appears in her 2014 memoir, A Fighting Chance, about the day she realized she’d be with Bruce Mann, now her husband of 39 years, for the rest of their lives. “One day at the grocery store soon after we first met, I saw Bruce gazing at the strawberry display. I said, ‘We can get some if you want!’ He smiled, picked up a carton, and told me he was thinking about his family. ‘We didn’t eat things like fresh strawberries,’ he explained,” Warren’s tweet read. “It made me think about my family, too, how my mother would work her grocery list to squeeze out every last nickel. In that moment, I knew Bruce and I would be bound to each other forever.”

Pretty standard fare for a politician’s earnest anniversary tweet, all told, except for the next line: “When I proposed to him, he said yes.”

Warren has gone further into detail on her proposal to Mann elsewhere on her social-media pages; in the summer of 2016, she celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary by sharing the whole story on Facebook. “I proposed to Bruce in a classroom. It was the first time I’d seen him teach, and I was already in love with him, but watching him teach let me see one more thing about him—and that was it,” she wrote. “When class was over and the students had cleared out, he came up to me and asked, somewhat hesitantly, ‘Uh, what did you think?’” Warren responded by asking Mann to marry her.

Warren, who had two children with her first husband before they divorced, got remarried to Mann in 1980. As a remarried divorcee and a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Warren finds herself in a field of presidential hopefuls whose family lives reflect the diversity of Americans’. Warren and Mann’s married life, however, kicked off in a way that was unusual both at the time and now, in that Warren proposed to Mann and not the other way around. The rarity of women proposing to men is something of a curious anomaly to people who have studied marriage and its evolution: While marriage itself has grown to be a more gender-flexible and egalitarian institution, the proposal ritual has remained stubbornly, stagnantly male-driven. This may be, counterintuitively, partly a result of women’s economic and educational empowerment and marriage’s subsequent trend toward equal partnership.

Among heterosexual couples, 97 percent of grooms report proposing to their brides, according to Lauren Kay, the executive editor of the wedding-planning website The Knot. Kay has, to be sure, noticed a small uptick in women proposing to male partners in the stories shared on The Knot’s sister site HowTheyAsked.com, which she attributes to the ongoing trend of couples riffing on or outright rejecting wedding and engagement traditions in accordance with their own desires. For example, some people propose with items such as puppies, artwork, watches, and even new homes instead of rings, Kay told me.

Still, a woman proposing to a man remains an incredibly rare occurrence, as it was when Warren proposed to Mann. In 1980, when the pair married, marriage rituals had certainly been undergoing some changes, most of which were aimed at making making married partnerships more egalitarian. “In the 1970s, a slightly larger percentage of women kept their own [last] names than in the 1990s, probably because the discovery of just how sexist the marriage laws and customs of the day were had only recently come home to them,” Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families and the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, told me in an email. (The 1970s also saw the rise of measures such as “marriage contracts,” pre-matrimonial agreements popularized by feminists that laid out the terms and conditions of a marriage in an attempt to ensure better treatment for wives than they had historically enjoyed.) Despite all those changes, proposals remained stubbornly male territory. Warren and Mann, Coontz wrote, are “a couple who’d be ahead of their time today and were already ahead of their time (AND our time) then.”

Ellen Lamont, an assistant sociology professor at Appalachian State University and the author of the upcoming book The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date, chalks this up in large part to resistance to changing gender norms. But, somewhat surprisingly, Lamont found in her book research that in heterosexual relationships, women disliked the idea of being the one to propose more than men disliked the thought of being proposed to by a woman. Of the 66 heterosexual people she interviewed, “a lot of the women and men … were very professionally successful and upper-middle class,” with degrees from top universities, Lamont told me. (Research has shown that since 1980, people like Lamont’s subjects are more likely than their poorer and less educated peers to be married.)

“They were go-getters and high achievers, used to being pretty assertive in life. And some of the women talked to me about how because they were so assertive in life, they wanted the opportunity to feel like they were wanted or chosen, the opportunity to ‘play the girl’ [in the proposal].” In other words, some of the women Lamont spoke with were so used to pursuing what they wanted in their personal and professional lives that a proposal presented a rare opportunity to be pursued instead. “Ritualized moments seem to be where they really wanted gender norms reinforced, because those are turning-point moments that sent a message about the relationship in their minds,” Lamont said.

Proposals are a ritualized moment in which society’s mixed messages about women’s roles in relationships seem to collide, with especially confusing results. “On the one hand, women are being told ‘be empowered; take the lead in your relationship.’ On the other hand, they’re also being told, ‘If you take the lead in your relationship and you’re pushing engagement, it’s because he’s not really committed. He doesn’t really love you enough to commit,’” Lamont said. Men, as the stereotype would have it, don’t like commitment, and as a result, Lamont found that women worried about being pitied if they were the ones who “had to” propose to their male partners. “[They worried] that people would think their partner didn’t really love them, and that they wouldn’t have the right story to tell their friends,” Lamont said. “That their friends would be like, Oh, that’s too bad.”

That said, Lamont found that although the women she spoke were uninterested in doing the actual proposing, they often took an active role in planning out the moment in less visible, behind-the-scenes ways. “People were planning their proposals together,” she said. One woman Lamont spoke with who had helped plan her male partner’s proposal to her jokingly called it “surprise-ish.”

When confronted with the idea of a woman proposing marriage, “the heterosexual men I spoke to did not seem to care,” Lamont said. Sure, it’s possible that because they were being interviewed, they wanted to project open-mindedness. Several of the men she spoke with, however, seemed to have never considered the idea before, and when they did, found no real objection to it. “[They’d say,] ‘Yeah, I guess that’s okay with me’ or ‘I would be fine with that,’” she said. “I don’t think they felt it reflected on them in the same way [women felt it reflected on them].”

Many modern heterosexual partnerships do have notably different gender and power dynamics than they did just a few generations ago. “Men have tripled the amount of hands-on childcare they do; women are increasingly self-confident and assertive at work,” Coontz pointed out. “And acceptance of equality in marriage is now widespread. When there’s a difference in education between a man and a woman who marry, it’s usually that she has more—and that is no longer a risk for divorce. It used to be that there was an increased risk of divorce for couples where the woman earned more. That too has disappeared,” some research shows. So it’s entirely possible that, especially within Lamont’s set of high-achieving and professionally successful interview subjects, men were simply more accustomed to seeing the women and female partners in their lives take charge, and thus were less alarmed or put off by the prospect of their female partners proposing marriage.

As Elizabeth Warren tells it, this is how Bruce Mann reacted when his eventual wife proposed to him. After she asked, according to her 2016 Facebook post, Mann spent a moment simply staring back at her. “It was not the first (or last) time that I gob smacked him. If I was a hard-charging, go-to-the-mat-for-whatever-you-believe kind of professor, he was more of a scholarly, camping-out-in-the-archives-poring-over-an-old-legal-manuscript kind. I’m usually the one with the wild schemes, and he’s usually the voice of reason, calmly explaining why it isn’t a great idea to paint the ceiling dark purple or rip all those unknown vines out of the overgrown flower bed by hand (lesson learned: poison ivy),” she wrote. “But he blinked a couple of times, then jumped in with both feet. ‘OK.’”