We don’t need your permission: why it’s time to abolish leap year proposals

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Harriet Hall
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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week writer, Harriet Hall, discusses the tradition of the Leap Year proposal and argues that it is an outdated, sexist tradition. 

I don’t know if you’ve heard but 2016 is a leap year.

And guess what that means – YAY – us sassy gals can officially propose to our men.

So far this week I’ve already received a total of six press releases about ‘taking the leap’ and ‘empowering myself’ by proposing to ‘my man.’

I’ve been sent some useful suggestions as how to do it, too, so it doesn’t emasculate the poor chap: I could present him with an onion ring and have ‘Will you Marry me’ branded onto a sirloin steak or – better yet – I could propose with a vibrating cock ring.

That’s the difference between the sexes, isn’t it? Women like diamonds and men like their equipment.

I’m told by several surveys, that 150,000 British women are planning to propose to their partner at the end of this month, and that 94% of unmarried men think it’s ‘okay’ for women to propose to men – why, thank you.

Oh wait: it’s 2016 and women don’t need permission.

And they don’t need to be guided by an archaic tradition that still thinks women should wait four years to be ‘allowed’ to pop the big Q.

We might be about to see a woman in the Oval office for the first time in history (fingers crossed), the most powerful political figure in Europe is a woman and yet ‘tradition’ still says that the 29th February has some kind of magical power that allows women to step into the man’s shoes and ask him to be her life companion.

So where did this absurd and outdated custom come from?

Some attribute it to 5th-Century Ireland, when St Brigid of Kildare approached St Patrick and was all: ‘mate, men take too long to put a ring on it, I wanna take things into my own hands.’

To which St Patrick obliged, saying: ‘Sure, but you can only do it on the 29 February.’ The law was then taken to Scotland by the Irish monks.

In 1288, Scots passed a law that allowed women to propose on the 29 February and would be paid a fine if said man declined (a sure fire way to soften the blow- we like this part).

The story goes that it was Queen Margaret who passed the law (although this is absolutely unconfirmed) and she ruled that a woman must wear a red petticoat if she wanted to propose, just to give the unsuspecting man a heads-up.

The fine ranged from a kiss, to yardage of fabric with which to make a skirt, or a pair of gloves.

Others suggest the tradition came about in England in another way. Women were historically forbidden by law to propose marriage – but the canny lasses found a loophole. Since 29 February wasn’t a real day per se, it was simply ‘leapt over’, it meant that anything went on that day. Thus women could take the opportunity to ask, if they were fed up of patiently waiting like good little girls.

The fine for a rejection was a dozen pairs of gloves, so that the scorned woman could hide the shame of her ring-less finger.

Whatever the origin of ‘Leap Day’, it only serves to remind us of a history of courtship in which men take charge and women wait patiently in the wings.

It’s getting quite boring now, all of these societal standards that are put in place to ensure women don’t appear too aggressive, bossy or assertive.

We are expected to be dainty, feminine, delicate; to fit into the space of a man’s world and then to only make a peep about a monumental life decision, on a day that we have been given as some kind of gift.

Isn’t it time to abolish leap year proposals?

It’s not romantic, it’s not empowering; it’s total obsolete nonsense.

And I’m not putting the blame on men – by no means. As we’ve already seen, almost all of them think it’s totally not a big deal if a woman wants to propose. But history has told women that it is, very much, a big deal.

It deeply saddens me to know that most of my female friends wouldn’t even consider proposing to their male partners (in same-sex relationships the books are already balanced), that they’d rather wait ‘just to be sure’.

The leap year proposal is absurd, but we’re all guilty of it to a level. According to the myriad surveys I’ve been sent this week, 29% of women believe proposing is the man’s job and 71% of men take responsibility for the proposal and yet, 59% would love it if their girlfriends proposed.

It’s not like it’s less stressful, because they’re men, you know.

Men in long-term relationships are constantly prodded by their friends and family, asked: ‘so do we hear wedding bells in the near future?’ ‘You’ve book a holiday- are you going to ask her?’ Or, in wedding speeches, the all-too-familiar ‘then finally Steve got round to asking.’

And then they’re told the minimum acceptable price to spend on a ring is three months’ salary. No wonder it takes the poor guys so long to ask.

It’s as if telling someone you’d like to spend the rest of your days on earth by their side is a purely virile thing to do. In fact, if we’re going by sexist stereotypes, isn’t revealing your true emotions and being totally soppy like so un-laddy?

No – because that’s offensive too.

How on earth can you expect to spend the rest of your life with someone if you’re embarrassed to ask them?  Why is asking someone out the man’s job?

It’s not.

Let’s abandon this ridiculous day and the idea that women are the passive, pampered ‘Waity Katies’ and instead, propose whenever we’d like to.  

After all, us women can think of far better ways to spend a ‘non-existent day’ than simply hiding our proposal from the eyes of the patriarchy.

If you’re thinking about proposing to your boyfriend on the 29 February, why not just do it the day before, on or the 1st March, to stick it to 'tradition.'

Send your feminist dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.