Even with all the strides towards equality that women have made in the past hundred years, it's still fairly uncommon for a woman to propose to a man. But a century ago, proposals by women were not only acceptable, they were a common occurrence—at least on February 29th.
How did it start?
The legend goes that St. Bridget of Ireland was frustrated that all the non-nun ladies in 5th century Ireland had to sit around waiting for proposals that might never come. She complained about it to St. Patrick who, probably impressed by Bridget’s ability to turn her used bathwater into beer, finally proclaimed that women could have the chance to propose themselves once every four years on the leap day. This became known as “The Ladies’ Privilege.”
Another part of the legend says that in 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland made it law that any man who dared turn down a proposal must pay his girlfriend a fine. Different sources say this fine took the form of a kiss, a silk gown, expensive gloves, or simply cold hard cash.
As fun as the story is, it is almost certainly not true.
Despite decades of searching, no record of such a law has been found. (It would have been difficult for Margaret to write the law anyway, as she was five years old in 1288.)
A later legend said that refusing meant perpetual bad fortune for the man. A more recent old wives tale said that women who planned on proposing during a leap year must wear a bright red petticoat to do it, presumably to give the gentleman some warning. Since red petticoats went in and out of fashion all the time, this must have caused unfortunate confusion.
What is true is that leap years, and particularly leap days, were considered such a ridiculous anomaly that many odd traditions sprung up around them. A play from the 1600s states that women can ditch their dresses and wear “breeches” in a leap year. Babies conceived or born on leap day were considered to be especially lucky. Leap years were thought to be the best time to start a new business. And because it wasn’t a “real” day and normal societal rules did not apply, February 29th was the only acceptable day for women to propose.
Despite the claim that the tradition goes back 1,600 years, no mention of actual gender-reversed proposals on that day show up until the 1700s; their occurrences peaked in the early 1900s. The popular postcards of the day poked fun at the practice with images of harridan women who dared propose, and emasculated men who said yes (sometimes only under pain of death.)
In 1937, the 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 29th, he placed it on the November birthday of the comic’s resident spinster, Sadie Hawkins, from which we get the name of the dance.
Who’s done it?
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 Albert, a situation necessitated by the fact that she held a much higher rank than him. 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.”
Zsa Zsa Gabor has claimed that she proposed to all of her nine husbands. The first proposal was when she was only 15 years old, to her 35-year-old boyfriend, a Turkish official named Burhan Asaf Belge. It was Gabor’s parents who provided the ring, sporting a ten carat diamond, for their daughter.
More recently, celebrities such as Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Heather Mills, and the singer Pink have admitted to proposing to their husbands (or ex-husbands).
Should you do it?
There are no official traditions around how propose to your man, although many businesses, especially in the UK, offer special proposal packages and discounts for women getting down on one knee. So be creative and have fun with it, but be careful: According to one poll, only 56% of men currently in relationships would say yes if asked today. But another poll found that the tide is turning in the woman’s favor: More than half of women polled and 48% of men said that a woman proposing was a sign they were bold and modern, not “scary” or “desperate.”