NEW YORK — Leap Year is more than just a quirky thing that happens to newborns on the occasional 29th of February.
The extra day that rolls around every four years, including 2016, includes a world of lore related to women popping the marriage question to men.
Here’s 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 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.
There’s 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. “I think that’s all pretend,” she 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,” Parkin said.
As for the existence of Leap Year itself, history has it that in 46 BCE, 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.
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.
Based on a Valentine’s Day tradition of “using the mail to court and shame,” postcard makers produced Leap Year cards in the early 20th century. Most used humor to “dissuade women from actually exercising their prerogative to propose,” she said.
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.
“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 40 years.”