Leap year: ladies’ choice
The English term “leap year” refers to the bissextile year, which has 366 days rather than the usual 365 in order to reconcile the tropical year (cycle of the seasons) with the calendar year. (For more history and the rest of the rules that determine a leap year, see this explanation from the US Naval Observatory). The best-known custom associated with leap year in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States was that during a leap year, women were allowed to propose to men. The origins of this tradition are murky. One newspaper article from 1956 attributed it to a misinterpretation of the Latin term “bissextile” as having to do with the sexes (rather than indicating when in the Roman calendar the extra day was added in the leap year).  However, this explanation is not widely given in discussions of leap year traditions, and it too may be based on a false etymological interpretation.
Leap year privileges could include less permanent decisions than marriage – the principle of ladies’ choice extended to invitations to dances, parties, and other social events. In the words of a newspaper article from Vincennes, Indiana in 1868, “The ladies must not forget that this is leap year, and that the peculiar privilege of leap year continues throughout the year 1868. All the etiquette of the sexes is reversed. If ladies wish to walk or ride with gentlemen, to dance at balls or escort them home from parties, to attend concerts, or to treat them to ice creams, they have the right to ask, or rather command everything, for it is not to be supposed that a refusal in such a case is within the bounds of possibility.”  The Vincennes Weekly Western Sun had also reminded women of this custom in earlier Leap Years, noting on February 6, 1864 (and again on the 13th) that as men were scarce due to the Civil War, women should “go to WATSON’S book-store, and procure a supply of Valentines with which to lay siege to the hearts of the sterner sex.” 
According to a custom known in Great Britain and the United States through the 19th century, if the man of her choice refused her proposal, the woman might expect a silk gown from him as a gift to ease her disappointment at being turned down. A February, 1856 article in the Provincial Freeman, a newspaper by and for fugitive slaves who had settled in Canada, specified that the gift of a silk gown was contingent upon the woman wearing a scarlet petticoat beneath her dress when she proposed, and showing the lower hem of the petticoat to the man if he refused her. The article noted a trend in the wearing of scarlet petticoats that winter season.  The silk gown tradition (but not that of the scarlet petticoat) also appeared in a story by Leigh North, published in 1919. For the ten-year-old girl in that story (whose twenty-something cousin does not want to accept her proposal, for obvious reasons) the silk gown was far more attractive than the man. 
Want to read more about this custom that turned gender roles around every four years? Penrose Library’s primary source databases are rich in content. Starting from the Primary Sources Subject Guide, you can access subscription databases through the library that include text and images from newspapers, magazines, and books. We searched for “leap year” in a number of these databases to find the interesting tidbits above. There are also many primary sources available on the open web. The HathiTrust Digital Library is an excellent place to find texts in the public domain. You can find an interesting collection of Leap Year postcards in a database hosted at Monmouth University. Wherever your search takes you, enjoy this Leap Day!
You will need to log in with your Whitman network ID and password to read the articles in notes 1-4. For notes 2-4, you must search within the database; there is no direct link to the article.
 Barnes, Aleene, “Yes, girls, there’s a basis for leap year,” Los Angeles Times, February 29, 1956. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times. http://ezproxy.whitman.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/166913351?accountid=1208
 “Leap Year,” The Vincennes Weekly Western Sun, January 18, 1868. Accessible Archives.
 “Leap Year,” The Vincennes Weekly Western Sun, February 6, 1864. Accessible Archives.
 “The Ladies’ Law of Leap Year,” Provincial Freeman, February 16, 1856. Accessible Archives.
 North, Leigh, “A Leap Year Bargain,” in Verses and Stories by C. E. D. Phelps and Leigh North (New Brunswick, N.J.: Press of J. Heidingsfeld Co., 1919), 69-73. HathiTrust Digital Library. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.hn6gft
1904 A Leap Year Valentine. Image from the Library of Congress http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19058
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