Can feminists wear engagement rings?

I recently came across a blogpost (dating from 2010) written by a woman who had recently got engaged but was not going to wear an engagement ring. The post had been linked to on a Facebook group, where quite a lively discussion had developed about the tradition of wearing them. I found it pretty interesting, so linked to it in the Sharing Thoughts & Taking Action forum where a similar debate broke out, which I’ll admit surprised me.

The original blogpost was fairly reasonable. Rather than having strong feminist objections to wearing an engagment ring, the writer seemed to feel a) that it was too much money to spend on a ring, and as a couple they could do more interesting things with it, b) she didn’t like to wear expensive jewellery in general and c) she had ethical objections to diamonds – all of which are fair enough. However more feminist arguments against rings were made on the forum.

In the interests of disclosure, I’ll first state I wear an engagement ring. When it was given to me, I didn’t debate whether to wear it or wrestle any feminist demons. My excitement about it, and love of the ring, may have been coloured by the fact that my (now) husband had spent six months designing it to be something to give me as a token of how much he loved me. I love it, and it’s a daily reminder of how happy I am to be with him.

Not long afterwards a work colleague, who was fairly new to the company and barely knew me personally, asked me if I felt uncomfortable wearing it and did I not see it as a symbol of my fiance’s ‘ownership’ of me. I dismissed the comments at the time and told her that because my fiance could never view me that way, it wasn’t an issue in my relationship. But it niggled. Inside, I was pretty pissed off that someone viewed my decision that way and I felt like she was calling into question my feminist credentials -who did she think she was? She didn’t even know me well enough to know that I would identify as a feminist. I thought it was rude.

However, as a teenager I’m sure I viewed things differently. I used to say that I wouldn’t get married at all. The phrase ‘legalised slavery’ may have been uttered (embarrassing) and I would probably have been horrified by the idea of wearing an engagement ring. But that was at a stage when I’d never had any relationships, let alone serious ones, and didn’t understand that your relationship with your partner is what you both make it. The roles you adopt, whether traditional or not, are up to you. If you feel like someone’s property, or feel like a domestic slave, then that’s because the role you have in that specific relationship has left you feeling that way – not because you wear a ring.

Engagement rings were traditionally given as a symbol of a promise of commitment. It marked the woman out as being off the market and the money spent by the groom-to-be meant that they were not given lightly. It’s in this light, that some of the objections to engagement rings are made now. Only the women wear them and the men are expected to spend a lot of money on them. The woman wears it as a symbol of being ‘taken’ (which could be perceived as belonging to someone else) and the man shows his provider credentials by flashing cash. It’s old school, no doubt. But is it really anti-feminist to wear one? Is it, as one of the forum members claimed, an attempt to ‘cherry pick’ the things we liked about traditional female roles and while fighting against the rest?

Many women I know bought their fiances a gift in return, like a really nice watch for example. The symbol may not be as obvious to everyone else, but it redressed the balance in their relationship in a way that made them happy. I suppose for me, this is what’s key. How you view an engagement ring is coloured by the context of your relationship. Because I feel like an equal partner in mine, I didn’t strongly feel that wearing a ring threatened that. Also, it was only for 10 months that I wore a ring and he didn’t – by last July we were married and both wearing wedding rings. In any case, I think my evolving sense of myself and my views on feminism have left me just not feeling that strongly about this issue. What I do in my relationship is up to me, and how I choose to express my position in that relationship is my own business. I am a feminist. And a wife. With two rings.

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5 thoughts on “Can feminists wear engagement rings?

  1. There is no possible way to achieve equality without equality. Only one person being required to spend thousands for an engagement ring while the other spends nothing creates a foundation of inequality from the very beginning, whether they are fully conscious of it or not. Engagement rings are anti-equality, especially those with precious stones (which almost all have). The problem is not only the cost but the symbolism, as if women are more precious than men, as if the right of passage to marry a women is money (a vestige of the bride price).

    By contrast, wedding bands, although outward symbols of ownership (If I’m married, I and all our friends and family know it. Why do we need to broadcast it to strangers?), at least each one gets essentially the same ring, and you can ensure that they cost about the same. Ultimately, I would never buy an engagement ring or wear a wedding band. Being married is not about ownership, broadcasting that ownership, and certainly only one person being required to spend thousands for an engagement ring while the other spends nothing.

  2. Hi Eric,

    Thanks for reading and for commenting.

    I was all prepared to disagree with you, but I wonder if I’m being honest. Many people’s problem with engagement rings is that it’s not equal – women wear them and men must buy them. I suppose in the context of my relationship, and those of many of my friends, I don’t view it like that, but maybe I’m just sticking my head in the sand.

    I’ve just read this great article online:
    http://www.xojane.com/relationships/cubic-zirconia-engagement-ring
    I’m honestly surprised that the reaction to the ring Mark Zuckerberg gave Priscilla Chan has been so judgmental – like she’s been cheated out of a massive, bling-fest somehow. It certainly reinforces your point about the symbolism of the ring being about women being precious.

    That said, I do disagree with your view of wedding bands being worn to broadcast something. I’m a sucker for symbolism and love the ring as a unending circle representing love and commitment. I don’t wear mine for other people that’s for sure.

    I also think it’s a bit false to dislike engagement rings just because only one person wears them. I know women who bought their fiances watches in return – does that make it okay? It’s a muddy point in my view.

    • “I also think it’s a bit false to dislike engagement rings just because only one person wears them. I know women who bought their fiances watches in return – does that make it okay? It’s a muddy point in my view.”

      If the woman buys a man something of equivalent value (i.e. cost), then that makes things equal, and therefore consistent with feminist ideals. So, if she gets a $5,000 diamond ring, he gets a $5,000 Rolex. If the ring is $10,000 he gets a $10,000 Rolex or something of equivalent value.

      However, one person (be it the man or the woman) being expected to spend thousands of dollars on the other as the price of admission to marry them, without the other even attempting to reciprocate with something of similar monetary value is in no way equality.

  3. Actually, the thing that seems to be getting lost over the years is the very concept of feminism itself. Feminism isn’t purely based in like-for-like equality. Just like the racial movement wasn’t.

    Both groups fought for the equality of CHOICE which means that regardless of colour or sex we should be able to choose how we live our lives as long as they follow the law of the land we live.

    Too often we (as a society) get bogged down in what traditional roles are and then equate feminism et al. as being everything opposite. It’s a very black and white view. Where we should be by now is in a place where we can choose to stay at home/go to work/wear the trousers/wear a skirt/wear an engagement ring/wear an engagement tie without women and men making assumptions about our political beliefs.

    When my partner hands me a ring I will gladly accept it. Not because I want to be “kept” or I am anti-feminism but because I am pro-feminism and I choose to wear a symbol of his love. I will be PROUD to say that I am his and he is mine for the rest of our lives.

    And, in all honesty, not all traditional things are bad. The suffragettes wanted to vote and be allowed to work in roles that weren’t typically female; they didn’t ask for a total recall of everything relating to women’s culture. They didn’t, all, denounce marriage and babies. They wanted the choice to do those things…if they wanted.

    • Feminism without equality isn’t feminism. Women shouldn’t expect to be paid less because of being women, nor should men
      expect to pay more because of being men.

      Why shouldn’t women expect to spend as much on the man’s (whatever – he probably doesn’t want a several thousand dollar ring) as he spends on her?

      If the man is unilaterally expected to spend several thousand dollars, there is no reason for him to not expect her to take his name, for example. Why? Because once you expect inequality in favor or one person, it’s not possible to logically argue against inequality in favor of the other.

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