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Ring of Fire

In Slate Mehgan O’Rourke writes about the consumerist roots of the engagement ring:

But behind every Madison Avenue victory lurks a deeper social reality. And as it happens there was another factor in the surge of engagement ring sales—one that makes the ring’s role as collateral in the premarital economy more evident. Until the 1930s, a woman jilted by her fiance could sue for financial compensation for “damage” to her reputation under what was known as the “Breach of Promise to Marry” action. As courts began to abolish such actions, diamond ring sales rose in response to a need for a symbol of financial commitment from the groom, argues the legal scholar Margaret Brinig—noting, crucially, that ring sales began to rise a few years before the De Beers campaign. To be marriageable at the time you needed to be a virgin, but, Brinig points out, a large percentage of women lost their virginity while engaged. So some structure of commitment was necessary to assure betrothed women that men weren’t just trying to get them into bed. The “Breach of Promise” action had helped prevent what society feared would be rampant seduce-and-abandon scenarios; in its lieu, the pricey engagement ring would do the same. (Implicitly, it would seem, a woman’s virginity was worth the price of a ring, and varied according to the status of her groom-to-be.)

On the face of it, the engagement ring’s origins as a financial commitment should make modern brides-to-be wary. After all, virginity is no longer a prerequisite for marriage, nor do the majority of women consider marriageability their prime asset. Many women hope for a marriage in which housework, child-rearing, and breadwinning are equitably divided. The engagement ring doesn’t fit into this intellectual framework. Rather, its presence on a woman’s finger suggests that she needs to trap a man into “commitment” or be damaged if he leaves. (In most states today, if a groom abandons a bride, she is entitled to keep the ring, whereas if she leaves him, she must give it back.) Nor is it exactly “equitable” to demand that a partner shell out a sixth of a year’s salary, demonstrating that he can “provide” for you and a future family, before you agree to marry him.

The financial bargaining that once surrounded marriage in the form of dowries are still with us. No matter how equitable any particular marriage might become, marriage is sold as a tradition that is inherently inequitable. Add to O’Rourke’s thesis, that engagement rings symbolize a lot of attitudes that women don’t really want to be associated with anymore, the fact that diamonds are symbols of exploitative labor practices that range from murderous to shameful, and the whole engagement scene suddenly reveals itself to have been reeking for a long, long time.

 

Comments

I dumped a pretty good chunk of change into De Beers’ coffers as part of my effort to get B to marry me. We’re part of the problem.

I’m bothered by the exploitation in the diamond business, but not by the whole buying your bride business. Marriage has been an economic arrangement for 99% of its existence, if it is not still already. If you really want to be a radical, non-commercial type person, it isn’t just the diamond ring tradition that is an anachronism, it’s marriage itself.

Point taken. I’m not entirely against understanding marriage as an economic endeavor. I think we can all agree that it’s an historical truth that humans benefit more in concert than alone. That’s not to say, though, that marriage can’t be fashioned into something more egalitarian—let it be a contract by itself and be done with all the uncertainty about property.

Still, it’s frustrating that practically anything you do that requires precious metals or jewels almost certainly means you’re stomping all over the environment and probably means you’re stomping all over other people. K & I have platinum wedding rings (the only rings we have). When I interviewed for that job in Montana last year, one of the interviewers asked me about it: “Do you know where it’s from? We have a platinum mine here; it’s our ‘Good Neighbor Agreement’.” I had read up on it of course—it was one of the org’s biggest successes—but I had neglected to learn what in fact the mine dug out of the earth. I had to cop to having no idea where the metal in my ring came from (true enough, I don’t) rather than take the opportunity to jump all over that opening.

Anyway, the point is that nearly all precious metals are mined these days by leaching mountains of ore with arsenic. The metal separates from the rock, and the arsenic soaks into the ground and contaminates the water supply for miles around.

What could be the final nail in the coffin of an understanding of marriage as male ownership of a woman? Gay marriage. Perhaps that’s why the religious right keeps saying it’s a threat to the institution of marriage?

The situation with gold is ridiculous, I agree. When it gets to the point where you have to drench the earth with poison, it’s time to hang it up for good.

Interesting thought, that there could be enough of a vestige in marriage of the ownership of women that it might be why gay marriage is as despised as it is. Yes, very interesting… of course, that could never be the whole story, but it could be something. There’s certainly enough argument in favor of resubjugating women (e.g., Wild at Heart) to make the claim work.