The Ladies' Privilege: Encouraging Women to Propose on Leap Day

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Women have made great strides toward equality over the past century. But when it comes to marriage proposals, it’s still typically the men doing the asking. According to The Atlantic, in 97 percent of heterosexual marriages, the groom proposed to the bride.

Unless, of course, it’s February 29.

The idea that women could propose on this particular day during leap year became known as The Ladies’ Privilege, but it’s not quite clear how this supposed tradition got started or how far back it goes.

The disputed stories behind Ladies’ Privilege

One story goes that Saint Brigid of Ireland was frustrated by the fact that women in 5th century Ireland had to sit around waiting for marriage proposals that might never come. She complained about it to Saint Patrick who finally proclaimed that women could have the chance to propose themselves once every four years on leap day. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, St. Brigid would have been a child when St. Patrick died, so the likelihood that this actually happed is pretty slim.

Another tale claims that in 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland had a law instated that said any man who dared turn down a proposal on February 29 must pay the woman a fine in the form of a kiss, a silk gown, expensive gloves, or simply cold hard cash. As fun as this story is, according to Snopes, it’s not true.

The same Snopes article goes on to say that while there are many folktales and superstitions surrounding Ladies’ Privilege, it’s more likely the tradition started because February 29 isn’t perceived as a "real" day. Therefore, normal societal rules do not apply, making this odd calendar occurrence an acceptable one for women to propose.

Ladies’ Privilege in Pop Culture

While the folklore surrounding this custom dates back hundreds of years, the idea of Ladies’ Privilege didn’t really come around until the early 20th century according to Slate. Slate also said that Ladies’ Privilege became a way for women to have some power in a time when they didn’t have much, however it was more of a false sense of empowerment. It also was not without criticism. There were even postcards that circulated poking fun at the tradition, often depicting the women doing the proposing as domineering and sometimes even violent. While the men being proposed to were depicted as weak and submissive.

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, Al Capp, author of the Li’l Abner comic strip, took the idea of women proposing on leap day and turned it into a running gag. But instead of occurring on February 29, he placed it on the November birthday of the comic’s resident spinster, Sadie Hawkins. Because Hawkins was unable to get a date, her father set up a race of all the eligible bachelors in town and if a woman caught them, they had to get married.

However, Sadie Hawkins Day started to become reality. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, in November 1938, the first recorded “girls-ask-boys” Sadie Hawkins Day dance occurred. The next year, Life reported that 200 colleges hosted Sadie Hawkins Day events.

The times they are a-changin'

A handful of famous women have proposed to their husbands, although sadly none that we can find on a leap day.

In 1839, Queen Victoria proposed to Prince Albert—a situation necessitated by the fact that, because she was queen, she must do the asking. Victoria recorded in her diary,

“At about half past 12 I sent for Albert; he came to the [room] where I was alone, and after a few minutes I said to him, that I thought he must be aware of why I wished [him] to come here, and that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished (to marry me); we embraced each other over and over again, and he was so kind, so affectionate ... I told him I was quite unworthy of him and kissed his dear hand.”

Actress Zsa Zsa Gabor reportedly claimed that she proposed to all nine of her husbands—the first one when she was just 15 years old, and proposed to her 35-year-old boyfriend, a Turkish politician named Burhan Asaf Belge.

More recently, celebrities such as Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Heather Mills, and the singer Pink have proposed to their husbands (or ex-husbands).

It’s still commonplace for men to propose but that status quo is starting to change. A Pinterest study in 2018 showed that women proposals were up 336 percent.

In 2018, The Knot changed the name of its sister site from How He Asked to How They Asked. “We believe proposals are founded in love and that love comes in all shapes and forms," How They Asked, site director Meghan Brown told Refinery 29 of the name change. "Men proposing to women, women proposing to men, same-sex couples proposing to each other, and everyone in between.”