If you are a woman, chances are you’ve contemplated your future engagement ring; I know I have. A more important topic of contemplation, though, is the real history and meaning behind engagement rings and what these symbols of “love” mean for modern women.
Engagement “symbols” were seen in pre-historical times. Cavemen used to tie cords of grass around their mates’ wrists, ankles and waists to bring women’s spirits under their control. The Romans were the first to use actual finger rings to tie people not only to their social classes, but also to their marital partners. According to Pliny the Elder – the naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire – the groom gave the bride a gold ring to wear at special events, and an iron ring to wear at home, which signified his ownership of her.
As archaic as it may seem, giving engagement rings to women has sustained itself through modern times. By the 1940’s, engagement rings had become the leading line of jewelry in most department stores, and, according to weddingstats.org, the average cost of an engagement ring in 2013 was $5,000.
The modern-day obsession with engagement rings as a symbol of love and commitment is thanks to De Beers Jewelry, which has played a leading role in diamond exploration, mining and marketing. De Beers, along with the company’s advertising agency, created the slogan, “A Diamond is Forever” in 1948 and created the idea that a man should spend two months worth of his salary on his fiancé’s engagement ring.
Engagement rings aren’t symbols of love and affection, though, and diamonds themselves are linked to terrible international atrocities; particularly the Sierra Leone Civil War, which was funded by the sale and trade of “blood diamonds” on the backs of the poor and child laborers.
If international genocide and acts of war aren’t enough to dissuade you from wearing a diamond on your finger, then I implore you to consider the implications of a woman wearing an engagement ring given to her by a man. Whether that ring is a diamond, a ruby or a sapphire, the engagement ring is a symbol of male-ownership of the woman and a corporate mechanism to keep profits high by perpetuating harmful gender roles.
Think about it. When a man and woman get engaged, the commonly accepted norm is that the woman wears an engagement ring to signify her commitment leading up to the marriage ceremony, while the man’s finger remains free of any betrothal embellishments. If you break it down to the basics, this means nothing more than that the man has “claimed” the woman while maintaining his own outward appearance of being a bachelor. It is unfair and sexist that women wear engagement rings while men do not, yet society and marketers manufacture fantasies about the day we finally receive rings of our own.
Aside from the disturbing realization that we are taught to dream of wearing bands of patriarchy around our fingers, engagement rings simply do not make sense considering modern-day gender roles and the demise of heteronormativity. Men are no longer expected to be the breadwinners of the family, since many modern men and women are sharing both financial and domestic responsibilities equally. The notion that men should save money to buy rings for women promotes inequitable gender roles and operates under the assumption that a woman’s love is for sale, or that a woman seeks a man to financially provide for her.
Engagement rings are as complicated and complex of a topic as chivalry, because many women dream about receiving a beautiful ring to wear on their fingers and show to their friends. Engagement rings have so much tradition behind them, and overall, the idea of receiving an engagement ring feels really good and rewarding, similar to how it feels good when a man takes a woman out to a fancy dinner or pays for her cab ride home.
The truth is, though, that engagement rings are just another piece in the large puzzle that is the modern-day patriarchy; a puzzle that includes pieces as significant as the wearing of veils, the father “giving his daughter away” at her wedding ceremony, chivalry, and disadvantageous maternity-leave policies at companies where women work.
As women who support gay marriage, open relationships, equal rights, equal pay, and the destruction of unfair gender roles and expectations, we must let go of things that feel good but are actually harmful, and engagement rings are no exception.