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.
Read: Marriage proposals are stupid
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.)