Let’s Give Engagement Rings New Meaning

Emilie Littlehales says the only way to combat the sexist tradition behind engagement rings is to strip them of their original meaning.

The other day I had this conversation:

“So…you’re engaged?”

“Yep.” The question came out of nowhere, and I couldn’t help but wonder where this person—a co-worker—had gotten this information to begin with. For better or worse, I’ve never been one to broadcast the changes in my relationship status to my office-mates.

“But you don’t wear an engagement ring.”

“Uh, no.” That statement struck me as being even more strange than the question that led up to it, and unsure as to why we were talking about this in the first place, I decided to change the subject.

But although we moved on to a different topic, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this conversation. It bothered me that my co-worker said “you don’t wear a ring” instead of “you don’t have a ring,” implying that I decided for some reason not to don my diamond. It bothered me that he took for granted the fact that because I’m engaged, I should be wearing a ring. And it bothered me that having it pointed out to me that I didn’t wear a ring had such an effect on me to begin with, as though the observation was actually an accusation, or a judgment on the state of my relationship.

It’s true that I don’t wear an engagement ring, and I don’t wear one because I don’t have one (it’s not that I just take it off at times when I think it would be more convenient to appear unattached). My fiancé and I didn’t plan things this way: Before he proposed, my fiancé got the stones from his late mother’s engagement ring from his father, and after I accepted, we picked out a new ring design that would incorporate them. We just haven’t had the ring made yet (it’s a long story).

We’ve been engaged for two and a half years, and for a while, not having a ring upset me. At one point, after we talked about whether or not I would ever get the ring we’d chosen, my fiancé teased me by saying that as a feminist, I shouldn’t even want a ring. The comment stung when he made it, but I still haven’t been able to come up with any strong arguments against it.

He’s right—engagement rings and pretty much everything they symbolize are antithetical to feminism. They reinforce the idea that women are just gaga for anything that sparkles; they make it known that you’ll be secure and taken care of because your partner is financially secure enough to spend one to two months’ salary on a jewelry item; they indicate that you’re “taken” even though he doesn’t wear anything that sends the same message; the list goes on. But I still want one. I’m no longer upset about it like I used to be, but I think often about the ring design we picked out and how much I want to look down and see it on my finger. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I don’t think that this makes a hypocrite, or any less passionate about gender equality.

Just because tradition dictates that an engagement ring basically signifies that a woman has become someone else’s property doesn’t mean that it has to continue to send that message. The ring itself is a neutral object, and has no meaning other than the one we divest it with. The problem is that everything wedding related, from the proposal to the honeymoon, has gotten so over-the-top in the past several years that it’s hard to keep in mind that we can treat them as something other than all-consuming affairs that turn rational women into monsters, bring up new and exotic tensions between families and friends, and cost everyone involved far more money than they can afford.

My fiancé and I worked together to decide on a ring, and found one that we both liked and that wouldn’t leave us broke. The incorporation of the stones from his mother’s ring give me a connection to her that I wouldn’t have otherwise, as she passed away a few years before my fiancé and I met. I consider it less a symbol of the fact that I’m becoming a wife, and more a symbol of the fact that he and I are going to be a family. And if, ultimately, I never get it, that’s OK. It’s like Dumbo’s magic feather in a way: There’s nothing that it stands for that we don’t already have in our relationship. 

I know my perspective puts me at odds with other feminists who are entirely opposed to engagement rings. And to be clear, I am opposed to the cultish obsession that has developed around engagement rings, or the idea that the size of the stone (I’m sorry, I just can’t stand the word “rock” in this context) is any indication of a man’s love and/or devotion. I’m also aware that some might say that if I really don’t need any sort of symbol of my engagement, then why even be open to the idea of a ring? It’s a fair criticism.  

But I really do think that one way of combating this sexist tradition is to propose that it be seen as more than what it currently is, which is something we can’t do by abandoning the ring entirely. In letting the ring be neutral and less divisive, we’re doing our part to imbue it with our own power.

Emilie Littlehales lives in New York City and works in academic publishing. She’s contributed to LUNA’s Chix Journal and Jezebel, and writes regularly for the RUNiverse and her personal blog, I Came to Run. She is interested in questions of body image, physical and mental health, gender roles, and sexuality, and especially the various ways in which they are shaped and affected by society’s expectations.

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