Is the tradition of proposing on Leap Day really something to celebrate?


Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

Grace Downing, Staff Writer

Whenever someone delivers the phrase “will you marry me,” a picture of a man getting down on one knee and proposing his undying love to a woman usually comes to mind in the case of heterosexual couples. The idea of the roles being reversed, and a woman holding out a ring and delivering those very same words to a man is still a pretty rare sight – even in the 21st century.

However, the arrival of 2016 brings with it an age-old tradition, in which a woman can propose marriage to a man on Feb. 29 – Leap Day. This custom has stories of origin from multiple countries, but the one that is probably the most well-known comes from Ireland.

As the legend goes, St. Brigid, a nun during the fifth century, got permission from St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, to allow women to propose marriage to men once every four years, on Leap Day.

Now, hundreds of years later, the tradition continues, but not just on Feb. 29. There are stories of women holding out a ring and professing their love throughout the year. Although, how many women today actually want to be the one proposing, whether this is a leap year or not?

According to CBS News, as of 2014, about 75 percent of Americans said that “it would be fine for the woman to do the proposing, in theory.” That’s definitely an encouraging number, but the reality is a little less so. CBS also stated that only about five percent of married heteroseuxual couples surveyed said that the woman was the one who proposed. And, in a study at the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, it was concluded that about two-thirds of its heterosexual students would absolutely want the man to be the one getting down on one knee.

Why is it that even in the year 2016, in an age when traditional gender roles are constantly being broken and barriers against women’s success are continuously knocked down, the reality of the woman proposing to the man is still a scarce event?

In an interview with the New York Times, Katherine Parkin, a historian at Monmouth University in New Jersey, said that this could result from large amounts of scorn in the first of half of the 20th century against the idea of women proposing.

“From 1904 into the 1960s, shame and ridicule made it difficult for women to take advantage of the opportunity to propose to men,” Parkin said. “Critics held that women who asked men to marry them were desperate, aggressive, and unfeminine.” She also added that, “The leap year tradition looked like it was giving women opportunities but in reality, it kept them in their place.”

Another reason women might be reluctant to propose is due to the rise of social media and the overwhelming reality of how it can blow the door wide open on our private lives. In a world where a single post can be seen and commented on by hundreds of people, the battle to be viewed in a positive light is a losing one. So when an engagement picture is posted depicting how the woman proposed to the man, this creates an opportunity for public ridicule.

Beth Montemurro, who works at Penn State University as a professor of sociology, spoke to the New York Times about the fears of how both men and women are seen by others.

“Women don’t want to be seen as less feminine, or too sexual or coming on too strong. And there’s a concern for men about being publicly emasculated,” Montemurro said. “When you look at how public social media makes things, it could be holding people back. They may be afraid to take bigger risks and break gender roles because they’re concerned with how their story will come across.”

Despite how far women have come over the years, there are still some cultural barriers most of them are afraid to break. Yes, traditionally the man is the one to move the relationship forward, but just because something is traditional doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily right.

The whole point of a healthy relationship is that both partners share the power equally. So why should a woman have to sit by and wait for a man to ask her to spend their lives together? Why can’t women take charge of their romantic lives in the same way they’ve taken charge of their careers? The custom of “allowing” women to propose once every four years is wildly outdated and sexist and something that has been transformed into a haunting enigma throughout our society.

Instead of embracing the idea of matrimonial equality in the same way that other movements for equality among men and women have been welcomed, our culture has been stuck in virtually the same spot on this topic for hundreds of years, and the invention of the Leap Day Proposal has only served to add yet another barrier in the pathway to equal treatment on this issue. In the end, this century’s out-of-date tradition has accomplished nothing except to ensure that men continue to occupy the throne when it comes to marriage.