In the roundly panned 2010 romantic comedy Leap Year, Amy Adams decides to travel to Ireland to propose to her boyfriend on Feb. 29, since—according to the film’s interpretation of Irish tradition, at least—men proposed to on that rare day must agree to marriage.
While this premise sounds like a desperate attempt at injecting originality into a tired rom-com formula, there’s actually a historical basis for it—and it’s not limited to bad chick flicks. A hundred years ago, it was common knowledge in America that women were allowed to propose to men during leap years. (Most believed that the reversal held for the entire year, though proposal mania usually peaked in January and February.) The exact origins of the tradition are murky; one myth traces the tradition to an agreement between St. Patrick and St. Bridget in the fifth century, while another purports that Queen Margaret of Scotland instituted a law fining men who said no to a woman who proposed on leap day. Both of these origin stories are highly unlikely; the tradition didn’t enter the cultural lexicon until the 18th century and didn’t really catch on until the early 20th century.
Despite its uncertain roots, the tradition’s social function is easier to parse. According to Dr. Katherine Parkin, a historian at Monmouth University and the author of the article “Glittering Mockery: Twentieth-Century Leap Year Marriage Proposals” (recently published in the Journal of Family History), the leap-year-proposal rule felt like a way for women to exert a little power over their romantic fate, since their social freedoms in the early 20th century were otherwise not ideal.
However, the tradition came accompanied by a big bundle of mixed messages. “While ostensibly empowering women to take action, this tradition functioned as a form of false empowerment for women by undermining their efforts to control their marital destiny,” writes Parkin. How exactly did it undercut women’s autonomy? With humor—every underminer’s favorite weapon.
In researching the tradition of leap year marriage proposals, Parkin discovered a vast quantity of cartoonish postcards depicting proposing women as fugly harridans. Postcards’ purpose in early-20th-century America fell somewhere between that of text messages and that of image macros—a way to convey practical information and share jokes back when mail was delivered twice a day. One of the most popular leap-year memes depicted proposing women as fat, unattractive, and domineering—sometimes even violent—and the men they proposed to as scrawny, weak, and emasculated. For example, one of the postcards shows a tiny man squeaking “I surrender” as two gargantuan women, brandishing a total of four deadly weapons, pin him against the wall.
Though the postcard craze had faded by the late 1910s, the idea that women could propose to men during leap years lasted until the late 1960s (although it still has some traction in the U.K.). Once strict gender roles softened and sexual mores loosened, the notion of a proposing woman began to seem less patently ridiculous. In an era when both Britney Spears and Halle Berry have proposed marriage, we’ve at least gotten past the stereotype that proposing women look like ogres.
Still, most Americans of today refuse to give up the ostensibly romantic ritual of the male proposal—even when a couple has discussed marriage in advance. Many progressive women still wait for their boyfriends to get down on one knee, just as many progressive men feel obligated to plan a special proposal. We may be past the point of assuming that men accept marriage proposals only at gunpoint, as one postcard from 1908 suggests. But we’re still far enough from true equality that it apparently never occurred to the producers of Leap Year that Amy Adams could just propose to her boyfriend one of the other 365 days of the year.
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