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Leap year proposals are symptomatic of society’s sexism

ByMallika Sriram

Mar 9, 2016

Every four years, the end of February brings with it what some consider the perfect opportunity for women to pop the question to their significant others; according to a well-known Irish tradition, any man who is proposed to on February 29 must accept the proposal. In this Leap Year’s most popular proposal story, pop singer Adele helped a fan propose to her boyfriend at a Belfast gig; apparently he had said ‘maybe’ when asked earlier that day, but at Adele’s request, how could he refuse?

Although seen as playful and not taken as seriously as other enduring traditions might be, this tradition may raise the question: is there something inherently sexist about the idea that it is somehow more socially acceptable for women to propose on a day that only occurs every four years?

While the Leap Year proposal tradition might be symptomatic of wider societal problems, it is not in itself necessarily problematic; if anything, it normalises the idea of women taking the initiative and ‘wearing the pants’ in a heterosexual relationship, if only for one in 1461 days.

There is a very real stigma surrounding the concept of a woman proposing to a man, and whilst its roots are based in multiple sources, it means that there are often cases in which people think this can make a woman seem more desperate or aggressive than loving and committed to her relationship.

It would of course be a generalisation to say that all women proposing to men are regarded as needy, emasculating shrews – there are many cases in which women have successfully proposed to their male partners. Many men also like the idea of being asked out on a date by women; according to a Match.com study, 90% of the men surveyed claimed that they would not see it as a problem if a woman made the first move.

Of course, marriage proposals are a different situation to first dates, and there are men who would perhaps feel emasculated if their girlfriend proposed to them, because of the pervasive gender norms that society subscribes to, but there are plenty of other factors involved in the disparity between male-female and female-male proposals.

Uncertainty, fear of rejection, stubbornness – these are all reasons why women might be more reluctant to propose than men. Alone, they may seem inconsequential or easy to get over. However, when combined with the traditional gender roles that, although contemporarily challenged, are still pervasive enough to unconsciously inform our decisions without providing us with rational reasons for why we feel the way we do, they can make the idea of a woman proposing to a man seem extremely unappealing. Men may not be expected to open doors or pay for dates anymore, but there is something that makes the majority of people think that men proposing to women is the ideal state of affairs, although that should not be the case.

Maybe, come February 29 2020, more women will be proposing to men without the excuse of it being a Leap Year tradition to do so. Society’s opinions of gender norms are evolving. Regardless, Leap Year proposals are a silly, charming, and harmless tradition that, while related to issues of gender expectations, are not sexist in their own right.

Image credit: Katherine McAdoo

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