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The strange history of sexist leap day traditions

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

February 29 in Ireland has a special meaning: It's the day that women are encouraged to propose to men, rather than the other way around.

That might seem archaic — although that didn't stop Hollywood from making a movie about it, Leap Year, in 2010. But Ireland is actually just one of the last holdouts for what used to be a much more widespread phenomenon.

In the United States, from at least the late 1700s until well into the 20th century, February 29 was an excuse to flip gender roles and give women power they normally weren't allowed otherwise — all in the service of some eye-rolling stereotypes about men, women, and marriage.

Three Illinois towns celebrated leap day by putting women on city council

Between 1932 and 1980, Aurora, Illinois, as well as the nearby towns of Joliet and Morris, replaced its city council members, police, and firefighters with women on February 29. But the women had only one real objective: finding a husband.

They used the day to jokingly arrest, jail, and fine unmarried men. A newspaper report from 1932 gives an idea of how the day usually unfolded:

Guilty, pleaded Mr John Livingston, a popular United States airman, when he was arraigned at the police court at Aurora, Illinois, on a charge that while he was the town's most eligible bachelor he refused to marry the police magistrate, Miss Florence Atkins.

Atkins ordered Livingston to buy her a silk dress as a fine.

In 1948, the all-woman city council proposed "outlawing corncob pipes" and "putting lipstick in cabs," according to a Life magazine feature, which also noted that a "woman cop, who once got a ticket, directed traffic, jammed it for up to a block."

LIFE Magazine

Life described it as a "spinsters' holiday," when the "she-wolves … celebrate Leap Year by running officials out and bachelors in."

For a tradition 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 — it proved surprisingly enduring. The last time Aurora handed over its municipal government to women on February 29 came in 1984.

Leap years supposedly let women flip the script in romantic relationships

Aurora's tradition, though, was just a twist on a much more common leap day belief: that either a leap day or a leap year was an opportunity for women to take charge in romance. Its most common origin stories — which center on either a 12th-century queen of Scotland or St. Brigid in fifth-century Ireland — are false, but it really is an old custom, one that existed in the US by the late 18th century.

In 1860, Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter described a "leap year dance," where men sit around the room waiting to be asked to dance by women, rather than the other way around, in a letter.

By the early 1900s, a leap year was a common occasion for jokes about romantically aggressive women. Advertisements and postcards joked about the leap year as an opportunity for marriage-hungry single women to pressure men into marrying them.

Most of them were filled with jokes about aggressive women using nets, lassos, or guns to pursue their intendeds:

Wedding postcard
Was leap year really an opportunity for women to propose, or just for everyone to make sexist jokes?
Monmouth University, Leap Year Postcard Database

Still, sometimes women really did propose, and in leap years people did seem to think it was okay. Katherine Parkin, an associate professor of history at Temple University, cites an item in the New York Times from 1908 that she included in a history of leap year proposal traditions. The article described a wedding in New York's Little Italy, where, "apparently inspired by the festivities,"

20 men proposed to their girlfriends and ten women proposed to their boyfriends. The reporter remarked that no two proposals were alike and described one woman proposing, ‘‘‘Joe, we have been keeping company for four months. When are we going to get married?’ And Joe answered, ‘Any time’ll suit me’. Then the girl said ‘Fix it for the first week in February’, and Joe said he would see where he could hire an East Side Hall for some night in the week selected.’’ This account suggests a casual acceptance and embrace of the custom, with one woman remarking, ‘‘‘Oh yes, it is proper for a girl to propose, for this is Leap Year’.’’

Usually, though, instead of a real excuse to discard gender norms, Parkin argues, the leap year tradition actually enforced them — by treating the idea of women taking the reins in a relationship as an enormous joke and a threat to men's independence.

The tradition faded as marriages and relationships became more egalitarian in the 1970s. "In these liberated times, every day is Leap Day," the New York Times concluded on February 28, 1976, quoting several women in their 20s and finding that none of them hesitated to ask men on dates, and none of them were particularly interested in marriage at all.