Propose another day?

// 29 February 2008

For those of you who daily keep abreast of the date (unlike me!) you will have noticed that today is February 29th. Yes, it comes but once every four years, the magical extra day added to the calendar’s shortest month, bumping up 2008 by an extra 24 hours.

The reason for this is practical. Adding an extra day ensures that we keep correctly attuned to the seasons, and don’t end up wearing jodhpurs and ear muffs when theoretically we should be basking in the golden glow of the sun and, excuse the language, sweating our tits off.

This has a strong historical precedent, and was first introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, and later modified as the Gregorian calendar was developed (which is as far as my knowledge of its origins extends unfortunately). However, what is perhaps most significant about its sporadic quadrennial entry into our lives is the social significance it has: Yes ladies, get down on one knee and propose to your man!

February 29th is considered the only day when it is acceptable for a woman to propose to a her boyfried. Marriage is a tradition that is strongly rooted in the idea of male ownership over women. A woman takes a man’s name, moves into a man’s house, and then looks after the children. Of course, this has changed in contemporary Britain, and equality now forms a healthy basis of a lot of relationships. However, it is difficult to dispute that this is an institution that has its foundations in female disempowerment. A man takes a wife, a woman becomes a wife, she does not take a husband.

Speaking with a friend about the four-yearly phenomena of the leap year, she was horrified at the prospect of proposing: “I could never do that, it’s the man’s job to propose, I wouldn’t feel girly. It’s just not right, it’s weird.” I thought this was an interesting attitude. She is a strong, independent young woman, and yet she still believes that it is essentially transgressive for a woman to attempt to take control over her relationship in this way. But did her reaction express that of society in general? And If I am entirely honest, I was initially unnerved by the prospect of women proposing. It’s small-minded, and I am ashamed to admit that, although I can see essentially from where this concern emanates.

This lunchtime, a news report was filmed at a school where a female teacher got down on one knee and asked her partner to marry her as hoards of beady eyed kiddies looked on in amazement. It was a quirky news story, featured at the end of the programme and pedalled as “a good bit of fun.” It was entertaining, but surely millions of men (and women) propose to their partners everyday? While it is a leap year, does this sort of TV courage (while superficially inoffensive) promote that idea that it is not conventional for a woman to buy a ring? And what does this do but leave millions of women around the world unhappy and discontent, with marriage brochures clumsily stuffed under the bed, as they wait in anticipation for their partner, who has a lackadaisical attitude towards relationships, to propose, when if she felt comfortable taking the initiative they would probably both get what they want? Does media coverage of women proposing instil the idea that this is wrong?

Secondly, it’s considered comical for a woman to get down on one knee. Why? Because it is seen as an attempt to emulate male patters of behaviour. The gender boundaries are blurred, and this is where the humour arises. Yes, men traditionally have always tried to woo their loved ones in this way, but instead of seeing male marriage proposals as a template we as women have to follow, can’t we begin to cultivate our own stylised ways of asking for a hand in marriage? One that doesn’t involve recourse to a male stereotype? I think if we were to do this, then we could escape the belief that it is somehow inappropriate for a woman to propose any day of the year, and not one day every four when we’re told it’s ok to do. I do wonder how accepted it would be for such restrictions, however comical they were considered, to be place on male actions?

So basically ladies, if you want marriage, be proactive, do what you want and go get it when you want and how you want!

Comments From You

Josie // Posted 29 February 2008 at 4:20 pm

Great post Abby. I felt really nauseated this morning watching the nudge-wink coverage of women proposing to men, the whole thing was treated as some sort of novelty/freak show. I find the idea of “proposing” repugnant anyway – in all other areas of life it is accepted that within a healthy relationship both partners should openly discuss major plans and come to a mutual agreement, rather than waiting for the male partner to raise issues only when he feels like it. But as you quite rightly point out, marriage remains rooted in the tradition of ownership of man over women, and I find it worrying that people still fall for it in their droves. Time for a change – let’s have civil partnerships for straight couples as a real alternative to marriage, without the ridiculous trappings of proposals, knee-bending and diamond rings.

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 29 February 2008 at 4:24 pm

I find the whole idea of proposing marriage very bizarre whoever does it. Marriage is a massive commitment and therefore surely something that you need to sit down and talk about together and come to a joint decision on, rather than trying to second guess each other’s desires or, as Abby highlights, wait around for a proposal that may never come.

The nasty pile of balls that is romance has a lot to answer for here – I’ve heard women express a desire for the man to propose, for him to ask her father’s permission and to be given away by her father all in the name of romance. To which my rather inarticulate answer is: blergh.

Abby O'Reilly // Posted 29 February 2008 at 4:33 pm

Thanks for your comment Josie, I completely agree with you. There was something about the news coverage that did really bother me, and you’re quite right to say it was like a freak show! Whereas the leap year has been promoted as somehow empowering for women – allowing us to take such a bold step in an allegedly non-judegemental way – ironically it does nothing but demonstrate the extent to which our actions are still dominated by prevalent gender stereotypes and socially dictated norms.

Cara // Posted 29 February 2008 at 4:39 pm

Well said, Abby, and agree with the comments too.

Bleurgh, indeed.

Abby O'Reilly // Posted 29 February 2008 at 4:43 pm

Hey Hey Laura, I agree..I find the whole idea of the passing of ownership really I think Josie made a really good point about civil partnerships as opposed to marriage. Marriage is supposed to have a religious significance, but I’m sure (from friends and family members) that a lot of people enter this commitment without any thought of these implications, and do so because they think they’ve reached a stage in their lives when that’s what they are ‘supposed’ to do.

chem_fem // Posted 29 February 2008 at 9:33 pm

Love it! Best thing I’ve read on the subject.

Matthew // Posted 2 March 2008 at 7:13 am

I’m sure alot of guys would love the idea of being proposed to, I know I would (when I get to that stage in my life, anyway).

But yeah, I suppose that if a man is proposed to then it’s sort of seen as him losing his masculinity.

Has anyone seen that Friends episode where Pheobe proposes to Mike at the hockey match? And how people react?

I know that alot (hopefully) most people would not react in that way, but I know that alot would.

Oh, and did you know that in Scotland, if, on the 29th Feb, a lady is turned down, the man has to give her £100, and in England she must be bought a purple dress?


Holly Combe // Posted 2 March 2008 at 11:13 am

Yes, I got a bit sick of all those awful TV features as well. At first, I wanted to give the benefit of the doubt and thought “why not? It’s just a bemused look at a dead old tradition connected to a date that is worthy of note because, hey, it only comes once every four years. And look how far we’ve come!” Wishful thinking I guess because by the end of the day I was starting to feel like we live in a society where, normally, women are strictly forbidden to be so bold as to propose marriage and isn’t it lovely for the ladies to have their special day of agency? Better get in quick while it’s allowed! Yuk, yuk, yuk.

Yes, civil partnerships available to all. That’s what we need.

Kat // Posted 2 March 2008 at 7:07 pm

hmmm I think marriage in and of itself reinforces patriarchy and privileges one group of people over another. Surely it is purely economical and has little to do with love otherwise there wouldn’t be incentives provided by the state’s government, there wouldn’t be debates over gay marriage at the governmental level, it would only be within the church. Not only are heterosexual relationships unequal, marriage is a crock! I am for (heterosexual) women taking initiative within their relationships and asking for commitment…but marriage? come on, the institution is a bit archaic.

Tristian // Posted 3 March 2008 at 1:01 am

I remember when I first found out that the 29th was women’s day to propose to men. I didn’t understand why women weren’t allowed to propose any day they wanted.

It’s interesting how people assume that a decision to get married had to begin with one party asking out of the blue. When I became engaged my friends asked how my boyfriend proposed, and seemed somehow disappointed when I explained it was more of a mutual agreement.

Oddly, he and I both claim to have ‘asked’ first. We’d been talking about it for months before it became official, so I can’t actually remember, but it’s like neither of us wants to be seen as the ‘passive’ party. It seems that even though we both got used to the idea gradually, in small doses, and finally figured out “Are we really doing this?” “Looks like it,” the idea of an official Proposal still lingers. I’m not sure why.

Holly Combe // Posted 3 March 2008 at 9:20 am

I think part of the problem is that fairness and clear-sightedness aren’t seen as romantic. For example, cutting down on risk to autonomy and/or livelihood so that you know that neither one of you will be in real trouble if you encounter problems or fall out of love isn’t seen as sexy. The whole point seems to be that this person *could* destroy you and to try to lessen this possibility is to fly in the face of so-called “romance.”

At the very least, we are all supposed to prove our love and “faith” by hurling ourselves into the unknown (though, of course, the woman getting scooped up and whisked away into the unknown by a man is presented as the most romantic tableau of all). Even if we are egalitarian, we still have to contend with the antiquated notion that love *has* to be about one person submitting to the will of another. That there is always a “lover” and a “loved.” Romantic love is presented as a game where there is a perpetual “self” and “other” when, actually, it is always two selves and two others, constantly negotiating with one another.

Jessica Metheringham // Posted 3 March 2008 at 3:00 pm

I’d second many of the comments seen here.

I am a women who “proposed”. I call it a “proposal” in the lightest way possible, as the actual question was asked only after my partner and I had carefully considered marriage, wills, mortgages and recieved two different quotes on the price of a wedding. I had assumed that most people slowly slide towards marriage, but I’m surprised by the number of people who do propose out of the blue.

Getting married need not be an event based on inequality. I must admit I’m perplexed by the “traditional” idea of marriage and all the trapping which go with it. I happen to be a Quaker, which does simplfy things. There is no “engagement”: we just have a date on which to get married. There’s no priest, no “giving away”: we marry each other with a whole load of witnesses. (see the “declaration” section)

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