Leap Year Tradition

Is there a tradition 100 years later?
Anjana Basu gives us feminist insights on this quadrennial event.

Post Card dated 1908 about Leap Year

February 29 falls once every four years, offering a unique phenomenon on the calendar. During the early 20th century, Leap Year held significance beyond the addition of an extra day, providing an opportunity for women to propose marriage to men throughout the entire year, not just on Feb. 29. 


The origins of this tradition remain uncertain, with historian Katherine Parkin from Monmouth University suggesting it may have its roots in Irish or Scottish folklore. In 1908, Leap Year postcards emerged depicting women seeking husbands in a threatening, masculine and violent light, while portraying men as scared, small and emasculated. 

Three Illinois municipalities marked leap day by appointing women to their city councils. From 1932 to 1980, Aurora, along with the neighbouring towns of Joliet and Morris, opted for an all-female line-up in their city council, police force, and firefighting teams on February 29. However, the primary goal of these women was lighthearted – they aimed to humorously apprehend, imprison and fine unmarried men, all in good fun as part of the leap day festivities. The agenda behind it was of course marriage and it was founded entirely on a sexist stereotype — that the only possible use a woman could have for political power would be to flirt with unmarried men. 

Despite Leap Year’s potential to challenge traditional gender roles, it ended up reinforcing them. Women proposing marriage were scorned and ridiculed for challenging male privilege. This, along with other instances of women challenging societal norms, taught them that seeking rights threatened those in power. Ultimately, the Leap Year custom contributed to maintaining male dominance in matters of matrimony.  

A century later, one can see little change. Women proposing marriage to men are still regarded with suspicion, though invitations to dates are allowed, and there is a trend for marriage proposals becoming more traditional over time. 

In another manifestation of traditionalism, the practice of grooms seeking permission from their in-laws before proposing has seen an increase in recent years. The aversion to women-initiated proposals may be linked to broader societal discomfort with changing gender dynamics, as proposals traditionally imply the provider role, reinforcing outdated notions. 

Even as 38 per cent of heterosexual marriages see women earning more than men, societal norms surrounding economic dynamics may be hindering the evolution of romantic proposals, keeping them rooted in the past. 


One Response

  1. Some might read this and ask, what is it doing on a feminist website? Is it only fluff? This opinion piece has serious things to say about the status of women and their role in male-female relationships not having evolved that much over the decades. Also the lost opportunity for women in power when their appointment to City Council, Fire and Police Departments, things that are only now becoming commonplace, was not taken advantage of when the opportunity presented itself.
    It is quite likely that the men choosing women for those one-day positions were careful not to appoint any women’s rights advocates and women taking part in the pseudo-appointments had few if any feminist ambitions. Even if they had tried in some small way to improve women’s access to power, they understood that anything they did while “in office” would be undone immediately on March 1st.

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