NEW YORK – Leap years are more than just a quirky thing that gives infrequent birthdays to a rare few born on the 29th of February.
The extra day that rolls around every four years, including 2016, includes a world of lore related to women — gasp! — popping the marriage question to men.
Here is a look at that magical mark on the calendar as it relates to love and marriage, courtesy of Monmouth University historian Katherine Parkin, who has researched the topic.
The year was 1904 when syndicated columnist Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, aka Dorothy Dix, summed up the leap day proposal tradition this way: “Of course people will say … that a woman’s leap year prerogative, like most of her liberties, is merely a glittering mockery.”
Parkin said this pre-Sadie Hawkins tradition, however serious or tongue-in-cheek, could have empowered women but merely perpetuated stereotypes. The proposals were to happen via postcard, but many such cards turned the tables and poked mean fun at women instead.
The end result? Leap year, according to Parkin, served to reinforce traditional gender roles.
Advertising perpetuated the marriage games in leap years. Parkin, in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Family History, offered one solid example.
A 1916 ad by the American Industrial Bank and Trust Co. read thusly: “This being Leap Year day, we suggest to every girl that she propose to her father to open a savings account in her name in our own bank.”
That, Parkin said, further undercuts the idea that leap year somehow offered a breath of independence.
Baseball Digest took to running articles showing off bachelor players during some leap years in the 1950s and ’60s, listing them by hair and eye color, religion and whether they batted left or right.
“They were trying to persuade women they were a good catch,” Parkin said. “They encouraged single women to window shop.”
There is a distant European past.
One story places it in fifth-century Ireland, with St. Bridget appealing to St. Patrick to offer women the chance to ask men to marry them, Parkin wrote.
Another tale is focused on Queen Margaret of Scotland and a law she supposedly passed in 1228 ordering a man reluctant to accept a woman’s proposal to pay a fine or present her with a silk gown to make up for his bad attitude.
“I think that’s all pretend,” Parker said.
Nobody really knows where it all began.
“We know that (cartoonist) Al Capp started Sadie Hawkins. We can see that history unfold. This is more anomalous than that,” she said.
As for the existence of leap year itself, history has it that in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar came up with the adjustment to ensure the seasons remain aligned with the calendar. Further adjustments were needed when the Gregorian calendar came along.
By the 1780s, there were leap year parties that allowed girls to ask boys for a dance — but on just the one night. Ellen Tucker Emerson described the experience in an 1860 letter to her dad, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
She said a promenade was held after the dancing with the boys leaning on the girls’ arms and being fanned.
“It was very funny and they all had a rousing time,” she concluded.
One elite leap year party was held in New York City every four years, starting in 1924 and continuing through 1968. It was one of the most prominent, held at times at the Ritz-Carlton, and was skipped just one time in that period, during World War II. The women outnumbered the men. There was a stag line and women were allowed to cut in on dances.
“Women were in control and had charge of the night,” Parkin said.
Based on a long-standing Valentine’s Day tradition of “using the mail to court and shame,” penny postcard makers produced leap year cards in the early 20th century, Parkin said. Most used humor to “dissuade women from actually exercising their prerogative to propose.”
Guns were common in the imagery as early as 1904, depicting women using them and other weapons such as bows and arrows, lassos and nets to snare men. The other tool depicted on the cards was money, with women holding bags of it to set their marriage traps.
Dix returned often to leap year issues throughout her nearly 50-year career, urging women to give up the idea of proposing by letter or postcard. She counseled them to come right out with it in person.
Though leap year was filled with biting humor, marriage was no joke to Dix. She had been pressured into marriage by her family and found herself supporting them both due to her mate’s mental illness and inability to hold a job. In 1928, she wrote:
“The right to pop the question is the only right that men have now that women do not possess. They have the same right that men have to vote, to own property, to attend institutions of higher learning, to follow any business or professional career for which they have the brains and a hankering.”
Dix continued: “The only masculine right that is denied them is the right to choose their mates. And this is the greatest right of all, for the privilege of helping pick out the town dog-catcher or deciding on who is going to be President for the next four years is a poor thing compared with the privilege of picking out the father of your children and the man with whom you are going to have to live for the next forty years.”