diamonds don't enslave women, women enslave women

Part of why I decided to blog again is because I had a backlog of stuff I wanted to write about. Here’s the first of that stuff. Let’s call this the beginning of a “Feminism Friday” series.

An Engagement Ring Is a Deposit on a Wife

This piece was written in response to a recent New York case in which a woman whose fiance cheated on her wanted to keep the $19k diamond engagement ring. The court ruled that the ring is not just any gift, but a gift given “in contemplation of marriage” and that – regardless of fault – it must be given back if the marriage does not take place.

The author concludes that valuable diamond engagement rings are, therefore, deposits on wives. Furthermore, even if they were given freely (i.e., not in contemplation in marriage), they would still be unacceptable, because “treating a gendered ritual as if it were a freely given gift doesn’t change underlying creepiness.”

Feminists usually really like paying attention to social norms, cultural contexts, power relations, scripts, etc. But this argument is guilty of total context dropping. The behavior of men is shaped by cultural forces at least as much as women in this situation – how many of them would even *think* of proposing without a ring? Like it or not, this is simply a sociocultural fact. The law is, and should be, somewhat sensitive to sociocultural facts. To treat the engagement ring as any old gift is to disregard the sociocultural pressure that men face in purchasing it, expressly for the purpose of fulfilling their parts in the marriage proposal script. In legalese, the ring ends up sounding kind of like a deposit. But who cares? Everyone who’s not a moral monster now knows that women aren’t objects.

Would things really be better for women if the jilted female plaintiff in New York had been awarded the ring? Not at all. Then, enshrined in the law, would be a wildly objectionable way for women to make tens of thousands of dollars fairly quickly and easily: just get a guy to fall in love with you and propose, and then walk away. After all, when you actually marry, you keep the ring to wear and enjoy (barring difficult financial circumstances which require its sale). But I would guess that those who don’t actually marry typically sell the ring. Diamonds are valuable, durable, and in constant demand, making them unlike ordinary gifts you might receive from a boyfriend: clothing, books, DVDs, small electronics. This is a legally and morally relevant difference from ordinary gifts – diamond rings represent a cash windfall available to the owner at almost any time. Furthermore, getting to keep the ring would also add to the sickening stereotype of women as engagement- and marriage-crazed, more concerned with the trappings of love than love itself.

I suppose that you might worry that a man could then just offer diamond engagement ring to a woman in order to extract sex from her, and then break up with her and take it back whenever he wants. But it’s not like men don’t use women (and vice versa!) already. It’s not the rightful purpose of the law to order social arrangements in any particular way, even if it could effectively do so (which I doubt).

The important thing is that, even having received a valuable diamond ring, a woman can still change her mind and back out of the engagement. She merely has to give the ring back. Provided there are no extremely extenuating circumstances (e.g., she is literally starving), this should not be a particularly difficult thing to do. The diamond ring itself does not constrain a woman’s life choices in any appreciable way. If a woman were to marry because she really likes the ring and has chosen to see it as a deposit placed upon her life, then she has only succeeded in enslaving herself.


  • I don’t really get “the underlying creepiness” that the blogger mentions, honestly. I also think the deposit metaphor falls short, even if the particular law would seem to treat it that way.

    There are much more powerful forces at work here than cultural ones. Let me put it this way: there’s a reason that only male peacocks have the impractically large and attention-getting feathers and the females don’t. It’s the same reason that human men will always have to do something like an engagement ring–even if that specific custom were to one day vanish from this Earth.

  • Yeah, I think you’re basically right. And the economics-ish analyses of sex & relationship behaviors are really fascinating to me, when they crop up on the various blogs.

    Trouble is, some people are still implicitly or explicitly denying that there are meaningful gender differences. So, strategically, it makes more sense to take the sociocultural angle, which is not a contested method of inquiry in feminist circles.

  • Wow, what a great court case!

    But I think I would disagree with your analysis here. In this particular case, the woman was the one who was harmed here. She agreed to marry this man, and then he goes out and cheats on her. He essentially engaged in activities that were implicitly excluded by the rules of their relationship (I’m assuming that they had not agreed to have an open relationship or a poly amorous relationship…. if they had agreed, then perhaps she should give back the ring).

    Since she was the one who was harmed, she deserves some kind of compensation. The ring would be a nice form of that.

    In your hypothetical scenario, the woman is violating the social agreement between the two. She accepted his proposal, without any real intent to live up to that acceptance. She should give back the ring in these cases, because he was the one who was harmed.

    We don’t have to look at the ring as a downpayment on a wife in either of these circumstances, and as you allude, thinking about it this way is terribly problematic.

  • Hi Wayne – Thanks for stopping by. To be clear, I don’t think that fault is necessarily irrelevant, I just think it is outweighed by other factors (providing perverse incentives for broken engagements, etc.). Finding of fault makes more sense in marriages, where there is a great deal of communal property at stake. But, the only object of great value at stake in broken engagements is often the ring. Fault will very often not be so clear as in the cheating case. For instance, one person takes a job out of town, the other one doesn’t want to move, and a big fight ensues. Returning the ring to the man is the easiest way to restore the positions of the parties to as close as they can be to their pre-engagement states, without making women look bad, and without court hassles and expenses that might even exceed the value of the ring (most are worth much less than $19k, after all).

    Besides, even if this particular woman were owed something because the broken engagement was not her fault, why assume that the value of the ring tracks that? Why should two men who have the same income owe their jilted fiances different amounts, just because one man went all out on the ring, and the other man bought a modest ring in order to save for a house downpayment or something?

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