On last week's episode of "Girls," Hannah's mother and aunts argue over who will inherit their dying mother's engagement ring, since both Hannah and her insufferable med student cousin Rebecca are miles from walking down the aisle. Unmarried Aunt Sissy believes the ring is her birthright since her date stood her up for the prom, but her sisters think that's a preposterous idea. The ensuing discussion opens up Pandora's jewelry box to reveal lingering notions about how a woman's marital status is still seen as a measure of her success and personified by the bling on her finger.
It struck a chord with me since I recently started wearing my grandmother's engagement ring in spite of my single status. The other day, I caught my boyfriend staring at my hand. I thought he was admiring my freshly-painted purple nails but when I asked him about it he said, "Your ring is making me jealous. I feel like you're engaged to someone." Throughout my life I've always worn rings on my ring finger, but since I graduated from college and became of "marrying age," my rings have inspired a barrage of critical comments from friends and strangers. Their reactions suggest that only the betrothed have the right to adorn their ring fingers and I am throwing away any possibility of getting married by refusing to abide by this cultural norm.
Engagement rings have a long and interesting history that dates back to Ancient Egypt. However, the modern American custom of the diamond ring has been heavily influenced by a marketing campaign driven by the diamond cartel De Beers to drum up sales by promoting the idea that a proper engagement ring should cost one month's salary, which they later increased to two months' salary. More disturbing than the "girl's best friend's" capitalistic roots is the symbol's tie to a puritan fascination with the worth of virginity. Before the Great Depression, a man who broke off his engagement could be sued for "breach of promise," particularly if he had taken the woman's virginity with him and abandoned her as damaged goods. After most of the breach of promise laws were repealed in 1935, the engagement ring served as an insurance policy for women at a time when most were dependent on men for their financial security.
In twenty-first century America, many women are empowered to make our own fortunes and don't see marriage as a means of gaining economic stability, but the symbol of the engagement ring continues to shine bright like a diamond as women wait for their boyfriends to put a ring on it. While I have nothing against beautiful jewelry, I see the persistence of this custom as an indicator of the passive role that women play in determining the course of our relationships. I can't help thinking that De Beers has won, as I've watched friends grow frustrated while they waited for their partners to save enough money in their ring funds to take their love to the next level. Jewelry is undeniably sentimental, and I can certainly understand the desire to give and receive a ring that has shared significance. But as the economics of relationships continues to evolve, I wonder how much the price of diamonds should determine the speed and trajectory of a couple's union. And for single people who are already missing out on tax breaks, lots of free cookware and all the other benefits of marriage, please give us the freedom to dazzle up our fingers in peace.