Leap days disrupt our calendar, and with it — if history is any indication — our entire societal sense of decorum. Clutch your pearls and ready your smelling salts for what you’re about to hear: On a leap day, women are permitted to propose to men, according to tradition.
Though men still do most of the proposing, these days, women can propose to men — or women — any day they choose. For centuries, a leap day was a day for gender reversal, according to the Wall Street Journal: “A play from the turn of the 17th century, ‘The Maydes Metamorphosis,’ has it that ‘this is leape year/women wear breeches.’ A few hundred years later, breeches wouldn’t do at all: Women looking to take advantage of their opportunity to pitch woo were expected to wear a scarlet petticoat — fair warning, if you will.”
Men who declined a lady’s proposal had to pay the woman a forfeit, in the form of money, a kiss, or sometimes, a silk dress. The tradition evolved to inspire Sadie Hawkins Day (based on the bold “Li’l Abner” character), sometimes celebrated in November, in which women can take the lead in asking men to a dance.
The Washington Post actually spelled out the end of Sadie Hawkins in a 1972 article called “One Giant Leap for Womankind”:
With the woman’s liberation movement growing by leaps, by leap year 1976 Sadie Hawkins may be all but forgotten along with the English common law of 1600 that ordained: “As oft ye lepe yeare doth return ye ladies have ye privlege of making love to ye men, which they doe either by wordes or by lookes, as to them seemeth proper.”
Today, the antiquated tradition of leap year proposals actually seems like the making of a Hollywood rom-com perhaps based on the premise of the widely panned “Valentine’s Day,” and “New Year’s Eve”: A series of couples, ready to propose on Feb. 29, who encounter obstacles and hijinx. Summon Katherine Heigl’s agent! Actually, Heigl is too late — a version of that movie already exists, starring Amy Adams. It came out in 2010, which was not a leap year, and it was not met with critical acclaim, either.
But in the spirit of a traditional leap day, how should a lady go about proposing to her man? Well, besides the obvious advice — make it personal and heartfelt, and don’t ask unless you’re sure the answer will be yes — we’ve pulled some of our advice guru Carolyn Hax’s best quips about proposals. Many of them are to women who ask why their boyfriends haven’t proposed, and she often tells them to take charge of their own romantic destiny.
Nevertheless, if proposing isn’t in the cards but you’re still looking for a sweet role-reversing gesture, perhaps you could just get him some flowers.
2000: “What's the protocol if a woman proposes to a man? I know there's probably no set rules, but should she get him something that would be like the traditional ring?”
Not if he doesn’t wear rings. I’m not sure you need to give him anything. (I was proposed to sans ring — marriage currently in progress.) Congratulations on your guts, and good luck.
2001: “DOING is good. WAITING blows, and I am continually amazed by how many women take charge of every other portion of their lives and yet wait wait wait for the marriage thing. If you aren’t living the way you’d choose, do something. Propose, leave, embrace shacking up. Whatever.”
2001: “Propose 1. when you want to marry [him] (and when you have that feeling uninterrupted for at least 30 days, perhaps, to be safe) 2. in a way you think [he] would like.”
2001: “If you want to marry him, propose. If you’re trying to find out what future he envisions for himself, ask him that. I'm inclined to say couples who are groovin’ don’t so much ‘bring this up’ as come across it in the natural flow of things.”
2010: “Considering what it takes to make marriage work, I believe a mutual decision to marry is a better start than a bended knee.”