“Liberty to bespeak”

Unpacking the ludicrous, sexist leap-year proposal rule

If you’re a woman, it’s supposedly the one day you’ve been given to propose marriage to your partner

A 1908 leap year postcard shows a woman proposing to a man. (via monmouth.edu)

Crack open the champagne, pop those heart-shaped cookies in the oven, and get your Valentine ready to celebrate a very special February 2016 – it’s a leap year! Once every four years, we’re granted an extra day in the month of love to do whatever needs crossing off of that long ‘to do’ list—and if you’re a woman, it’s supposedly the one day you’ve been given to propose marriage to your partner.

That’s right – according to folklore, February 29 is the special day in which women are given actual agency in their relationships and are allowed to pop the question. It has crossed continents and become the premise of poorly-rated rom-coms (looking at you, Amy Adams), but where does this idea come from?

Legend has it that after hearing complaints from women in the fifth century who believed they were forced to wait too long to marry, Irish nun St. Brigid of Kildare asked popular preacher St. Patrick for permission for female-initiated proposals. At first he agreed to allow it every seven years, but eventually settled with Brigid for a four-year rule, making leap year the special time. She allegedly dropped to her knees and proposed to St. Patrick right there on the spot, an offer he rejected with a kiss on the cheek and a silk gown. Historians have largely debunked the reality of this incident, recognizing that St. Brigid would have been only nine or ten years old at the time of St. Patrick’s death in 493 A.D. – just a tween, so probably not too concerned with marriage.

Another legend suggests that Queen Margaret of Scotland in 1288 enacted a law that allowed women the “liberty to bespeak ye man she likes” during leap year, but only if she wore a red petticoat as warning (and, if a man said no, he was forced to pay a fine). Though passed down through the times, it’s also unlikely that Queen Margaret ever made such a rule – she was only five years old and living in Norway in 1288, and no reference exists in the history books.

Some believe the tradition stems from a time when English law did not recognize the leap year as an official day, so women would break convention, proposing to men through a legal loophole. Folklore also suggests that in other European societies, like Denmark, a woman denied was to receive 12 pairs of gloves from the man who rejected her, so as to cover her ringless hands. And in Finland, where legend has it that if a man refuses a woman’s leap year proposal, he also faces a fine: enough silk for the (likely heartbroken) woman to make a skirt.

Certainly not the same as a life-long bond of matrimony, but at least she’ll have warm hands and a new look!

Though debunked by scholars and derided as inherently sexist and heteronormative, leap year proposal rules are still culturally prevalent in Europe and beyond: On January 19, Irish Central ran a story with the headline “2016 is a leap year – that means women can ask men to marry them,” and a quick YouTube search for “February 29 Proposal” produces nearly 30,000 results.

Old habits die hard, especially in the realm of l-o-v-e.

But aren’t rules made to be broken? On this leap year — and every year, for that matter — we at Women in the World encourage you propose whenever, wherever, and to whomever you please.

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