One ring to rule them all
At feministing, there is a good discussion going of the place of the engagement ring in a feminist's life. The interesting thing is that the discussion veered quickly over to male anger over what is perceived as female-driven demands to obtain this particular bauble, and how this male anger can be dealt with.
While I understand that it's maddening for some men to have women demand entirely too expensive rings as a symbol of engagement, it's time to take a breath and remember that the engagement ring is not a symbol of male oppression, but of female oppression.
Wedding rings used to be good enough. Escalating materialism has a lot to do with why engagement rings, which traditionally have diamonds on them and are more expensive than wedding rings, have grown in popularity, but that's not the entire story. It's telling that the engagement ring rose in popularity at the same time that women began demanding that their husbands wear their wedding rings.
Nowadays, it's so common for men to sport their wedding rings proudly that we forget that most men didn't even have one, much less wear one not that long ago. I remember an episode of the show "Maude" I saw in reruns where Maude asks her husband to accept and wear a wedding ring when they renew their vows and he balks. Why? Because he sees it as a sign that she possesses him. Rightfully, she points out that if that's true, then her ring is a sign that he possesses her. At the end, they both sport rings and the meaning of the ring is subtly changed from possession to commitment. (I point this out in the comments at feministing.)
The change was so rapid a lot of us might have missed it. My father wore his wedding ring when married to my mother sporadically. He's, well, married to his ring with his new wife. The old wedding ring was like a dog pissing on his property. The new one is a symbol of fellowship, love, and commitment. Much nicer. But it undermines male dominance. Enter the engagement ring.
Gaudy engagement rings have two functions--to demonstrate a man's wealth and to demonstrate that a woman is taken. Men do not wear engagement rings. They do not function as display cases for wealth or as territory that is staked out.
But women often push for these rings, which confuses the issue. Why do women want them if they are symbols of their oppression? Shit, for the same reason that women gleefully embrace the white wedding dress, which traditionally advertises their sexual status. The pressure to conform generally outweighs the considerations of dignity. I was engaged to be married once. I was given a ring, and I enjoyed wearing it. It was stylish and cool, and my friends cooed over me and my good fortune to be getting married. I was in love and of course I saw the ring as a symbol of that, so it wasn't something that I questioned. Being a lower-status female, it was easy to fall into the trap of feeling like I'm something special because a man has laid claim to me. And soon he would even consent to wearing a ring of his own!
But it bugged all the same. Men and women both would demand my left hand to look at it, while my boyfriend would stand there looking proud of himself. He meant well, but I felt like he was....getting away with something.
Sara in the comments of feministing says:
How can we, as feminists, lessen the pressure on the men in our lives? Not just boyfriends and husbands, but brothers, friends, and sons? I'm very interested to see if any of you have any ideas.
A simple answer will suffice: Don't buy into the rings. Since they usually symbolize female oppression, it's obvious that men will look to women for signals on their acceptability. If an unsure man turns to a feminist girlfriend and she's eager for a ring, then of course he will trust her opinion.
Not to say that it's entirely the responsibility of women to rid ourselves of this problem. But on a personal level, it's not foolish to expect that some education might be necessary. There's a lot of reasons to be hostile about engagement rings. Just let that pressure go.