The tradition is one that seems so engrained in our culture that it's very nearly taken as a basic fact: When a person wants to propose marriage to another person, he or she bestows upon the intended a ring, usually diamond, as a physical symbol of the promise of marriage, unconditional love, and a long and happy life together.
But we recently unearthed an article published in The Atlantic in 2012 that sheds light on the real, less romantic reason the tradition of the engagement ring exists. In short, engagement rings were given as a form of virginity insurance. Here's the scoop.
Back in the early 1900s in America, women were expected to be virgins on their wedding day (of course, no one seemed to care whether or not their husbands-to-be were virginal, but that's a whole different conversation). So if a woman was betrothed to be married, had sexual relations with her future husband, and then he left her, The Atlantic explains, that put her in a very precarious social position. She was then considered "damaged goods."
This was such a rampant problem that an actual law was passed called the "Breach of Promise to Marry" act, which empowered women to sue their partners if they called off the wedding. By the '30s, however, the law was largely considered antiquated and started to phase out, and women had no legal recourse if a man left her. Enter: the diamond ring.
"An engaged couple aren't all that different from a borrower and a lender," Matthew O'Brien writes for The Atlantic. "The woman is lending her hand in marriage to the man, who promises to tie the knot at a later date. In the days of Breach of Promise, the woman would do this on an unsecured basis; that is, the man didn't have to pledge any collateral, because the law provided her something akin to bankruptcy protection. Put simply, if the man didn't fulfill his obligation to marry, the woman had legal recourse. This changed once the law changed. Suddenly, women wanted an upfront financial assurance from their men. Basically, collateral. That way, if the couple never made it down the aisle, she'd at least be left with something. And that something was almost always small and shiny. The diamond ring was insurance."
So, there you have it! The diamond engagement ring was born as a form of social (and, frankly, slightly sexist) need for women to protect themselves in the event her betrothed bailed on her. It also seems to provide an answer to the perennial question: If the two of you call off the engagement, should you keep the ring? Seemingly, the answer is yes, because you earned it as a form of collateral to protect your sexual reputation.
What do you think about all this? Sound off in the comments below!