Is It OK For the Girl to Propose? No Way, Study Suggests

Bride and groom kiss under the veil.
Will she be Mrs. HisLastName? (Image credit: Olga Vladimirova, Shutterstock)

Despite loosening of gender roles at work and in society as a whole, men and women are remarkably traditional when it comes to marriage, new research finds.

In fact, the study of college students at a liberal-leaning university found that not a single man or woman wanted a proposal in which the woman asked the man to marry her. And while 60 percent of women said they were "very willing" or "somewhat willing" to change their surname to their husband's upon marriage, 64 percent of men said they were "very unwilling" or "somewhat unwilling" to do the same for their wives.

"These topics are something that most people deal with and that most people decide to do in a traditional way," said study researcher Rachael Robnett, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

However, Robnett told LiveScience, the results suggest that the strongest believers in traditional marriage roles tend to be people high in benevolent sexism, or attitudes that women should be cherished, protected and given special treatment.

Marriage and sexism

Benevolent sexism seems positive on the surface, Robnett said. People who hold these attitudes might say that women should be saved first in a disaster, for example. They're likely to say that women should be put on a pedestal or cared for. Such beliefs are often seen as polite and kind, she said.

"The flip side, which is more insidious, is that it is robbing women of some agency," or self-direction, Robnett said.

This downside is perhaps best described in a quote widely attributed to feminist activist Gloria Steinem: "A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space."

Robnett and her colleagues were interested in finding out whether benevolent sexism might be behind the persistence of gender roles in marriage traditions. Data from the 2004 American Community Survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, found that 94 percent of married women born in the United States took their husband's last name upon marriage. Likewise, although marriage proposals are harder to study, research on men's and women's attitudes suggest that both sexes overwhelmingly believe the man should propose, on one knee, with a diamond ring. [10 Wedding Traditions from Around the World]

Who should propose?

Who should propose marriage?

The researchers surveyed 277 heterosexual undergraduate students at UC Santa Cruz on their own attitudes toward proposals and marital name changes. The students also answered questions about their attitudes toward women, such as toward the idea that women should be "put on a pedestal."

Two-thirds of the students, both male and female, said they'd "definitely" want the man to propose marriage in their relationship. Only 2.8 percent of women said they'd "kind of" want to propose, but not a single man indicated he'd prefer that arrangement. Notably, not a single student, male or female, "definitely" wanted the woman to propose.

"No one, not a single person, expressed that type of a preference, which was surprising," Robnett said. UC Santa Cruz is a relatively liberal institution, she said, and many students are flexible about gender roles. In this case, however, they fell squarely on the side of cultural tradition.

The students were also given space to explain their answers. Many — 41 percent of women and 57 percent of men — directly referenced gender roles in their explanations. One man, for example, said that if he did not propose, he would "feel emasculated." A woman responded that female proposals would just be "very awkward."

"A really commonly cited [explanation] was a desire to adhere to gender-role traditions, so this is something that is coming through very explicitly, straight from the mouths of our participants," Robnett said.

About a quarter of women cited "romance" as the reason the man should propose, as did 17 percent of men. Twenty percent of women also said they feared rejection or being seen as coming on too strong, while 14 percent said proposing would be awkward or scary. (Women could give multiple answers, so percentages may not add up to 100 percent.)

Taking his (or her) name

Students were slightly more lax about gender roles and name changes. About a fifth of both men and women (19 percent and 22 percent, respectively) said they had no strong preference about keeping or changing their name. But most students still held traditional attitudes, with only 5.9 percent of men "very willing" to change their names compared with 26.2 percent of women. Overall, about three out of five men preferred to keep their name, while about three out of five women were willing to change theirs. [6 Gender Myths Busted]

Those who desired to keep their names often saw the decision as a way to keep their identity. The desire to pass on the name to children was also cited, and 36 percent of men specifically said they wanted to keep their name because of tradition or gender roles.

When explaining why they'd change their names, 31 percent of women said taking the husband's name symbolizes unity or devotion, while 28 percent mentioned gender roles and tradition. "It's a tradition and that is how things are done," one woman explained.

After controlling for gender, ethnicity and family background factors, the researchers tested to see if benevolent sexism co-occurred with these traditional attitudes. They found that it did.

"Women and men who are high in benevolent sexism are also the people who express a really strong desire to adhere to marriage traditions," Robnett said.

There's nothing wrong with that, Robnett added. Plenty of people are perfectly happy with traditional proposals and name changes, she added. The problem, she said, comes when tradition takes precedence over flexibility and what is right for individual couples.

"If you don't have that flexibility, it can be constraining to both women and men — women who would like to propose or men who would like to receive a proposal," she said.

The full results are detailed in the January issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.