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February 29, 2024

Why Do Women Propose on Leap Day?

Leap year –– when an extra day is added to the calendar as February 29 –– offered a special “opportunity” for women. In folk tradition, it was only then that women could propose marriage. Nowadays, marriage proposals are fair game for either gender. In the early 1900s, especially in 1908 and 1912, postcards like these ones were an inexpensive and novel way to send colorful greetings to family and friends.

As legend tells it, the leap year proposal tradition, officially dubbed “Bachelor’s Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” began in the 5th century. An Irish nun, St. Brigid of Kildare, told St. Patrick that it was unfair women needed to wait for men to propose, and asked that women be allowed to propose marriage too.

Saint Patrick first suggested that women be allowed to pop the question every seven years, but Saint Brigid allegedly drove a hard bargain. He ultimately decreed that women could propose to a man only on leap day, February 29th.

The Irish eventually brought the Bachelor’s Day tradition to Scotland. In 1288, a Scottish law was passed that allowed women to propose on leap day. If the recipient of the proposal declined, he would be fined anywhere between £1 to a silk gown.

Some say Queen Margaret passed the law, but others are skeptical of this claim given that she would have only been 5 years old at the time! It’s also unclear why Scottish women participating in the tradition are advised to wear red petticoats under their dresses, but some credit it as a “warning” to the men receiving the proposals.

By the 1800s, women proposing to men on leap day had become more popular in parts of Europe and the U.K. However, the punishment for when a proposal was refused varied by culture.

In Denmark, a man would be required to gift 12 pairs of gloves to the rejected woman so that she could hide her ringless hands. In Finland, the man would need to give the woman enough fabric to sew a skirt.

During the 20th century, the tradition made its way to the United States, but never really took off in popularity. There’s evidence that the concept of women proposing was too threatening to men; postcards from the early 1900s depicted “husband hunters” as masculine and violent, and their male “victims” as scared and emasculated.

Women proposing to men is much more common today, but many still appreciate the novelty of a leap day proposal. These days, there aren’t any hard rules on how to participate, though.

(via Holden)


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