A Woman’s Privilege: A Leap Year Exhibit

Every four years the date February 29th appears on our calendars. This extra day is added to our datebooks to keep us on track with the solar year. From the late-18th through the mid-20th centuries, a leap year carried an additional unique meaning in the United States. Like most folk traditions, the how, where, and why it all began are unclear, but a custom took hold that during a leap year, it was a woman’s privilege to propose marriage. How many women used the occasion to take charge of their marital destiny is unknown. Leap year parties and dances, though, at which women were expected to take on the “male role,” were often held to allow for the brief, and more socially acceptable, reversal of traditional gender roles in courtship.

By the 1900s as more women began to assert themselves in areas outside of the home, and women’s rights gained momentum, the idea of a leap year proposal took on a more emasculating and unromantic tone. Every four years, magazines and newspapers published articles about the prospect of a woman proposing marriage, often portraying it as comical and unsuitable, and even the mail was not immune. In 1908 and 1912, the sending of leap year postcards grew in popularity. Ranging from the sentimental to the ridiculous, these cards either portrayed a woman as being desperate but passive, thereby making it tolerable for her to pursue her romantic interests; or overeager, scheming, and unattractive, certain to feminize any man that would accept such an offer of marriage.

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A leap year proposal, 1908

At first this beautiful card seems to differ visually from most leap year cards, except for the crepe paper mitten with the pleading verse. However, the symbols on this card are actually much more suggestive by 1908 standards. The anchor signifies hope; the four-leafed clovers mean be mine; and the flowers are forget-me-nots, denoting true love. On the reverse was written, “You first, my dear Alphonse! Lollie” What happened to Alphonse and Lollie is lost to history, but at least we know the mitten wasn’t returned!

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Leap year want ad, ca. 1908

This coy card depicts a pretty, young woman holding a newspaper want ad for a husband. Notice however, that the ad does not specify the type of man she is looking for, but rather implies that any man will do. Many leap year cards from this period often suggest that women were more concerned about getting married rather than finding a good mate.

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If music is the food of love, 1908

A young woman with a guitar serenades a man with hopes of winning his heart. Images depicting a reversal of “traditional gender roles” were a common theme to leap year cards. Other cards in this particular series show the woman courting the young man in a café with letters and seating him on her lap.

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Try this on your piano, 1908

A variety of “hints” are placed on a piano in this tame version of a trap card. Leap year cards often portrayed women as schemers, using a variety of tricks to encourage men to propose. Other trap cards show women going to great and, at times, violent lengths in order to “catch” a man. Examples include building elaborate “mousetraps” and holding guns and axes to the heads of men in order to force them to agree to marriage.

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With this ring I thee betroth, Taylor Platt, 1912

This image of a young woman offering an engagement ring to a man is meant to lampoon the idea of women proposing marriage. It subtly reinforces the idea that in order to offer marriage you need financial independence and the means to purchase a ring, something that was not available to most women in 1912. But as women continued to work towards gaining equal footing with men, jewelry makers in the late 1920s did attempt to create a line of male engagement rings. The idea, however, didn’t take hold. Today, there is a resurgence in engagement bands for men, dubbed “mangagement rings,” as a way for couples to show their equal status and public commitment.

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A proposal of marriage is traditionally thought to happen to women, not by women. In the United States, from the late 1700s through the 1960s, it was generally recognized that during a leap year it was socially acceptable for women to exercise this unwritten masculine privilege. This leap year letter [above right] was sent to Francis Temple [above left], who owned the Homestead after the death of his grandfather, William Workman, in 1876. Signed simply “Leap Year,” it is unknown who the sender was, but, unfortunately, her heartfelt and earnest plea was never fulfilled. Temple died a bachelor just days before his 40th birthday in 1888. You can read a transcription of the letter here.

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A letter from Emma to an unidentified cousin, sent from Santa Ana, March 20, 1888

This short letter written by a woman named Emma to her cousin briefly describes a leap year ball that they were planning to hold on April 5th. Though the location and persons in attendance are unknown, she does mention that she was planning to invite not one but two “gents” to the dance. Until the mid-twentieth century, leap year balls and parties, where women were expected to take on the “male role” and invite, escort, and entertain their male guests, were common events. You can read a transcription of the letter here.

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You can get a closer look at the objects in this exhibit by visiting a special online edition on Prezi. Check it out!

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