Leap Day love: once every four years, women are allowed to propose marriage to men

But why on earth would they want to?

NS

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You know the trouble with heterosexual relationships? One party desperately wants marriage and babies while the other doesn’t, and the lengths to which the former will go to tie down the latter are frankly staggering.

We all know, for instance, that straight marriage doesn’t offer women as much as it offers men. Getting married boosts men’s health and income, while the only thing boosted for women is the number of pants to wash. Women are more likely to initiate divorce and less likely to suffer ill-health as a result. Recent research has suggested that single, childless men want babies more than their female counterparts, hardly surprising given who pays the highest price in health risks, workplace discrimination and domestic drudgery. So is it any wonder that poor, needy men have been forced to come up with elaborate schemes in order to snare independent, commitment-phobic women? Otherwise what straight woman in her right mind would ever end up walking down the aisle?

To give men their due, they’ve certainly put the hours in when it comes to persuading women to stick with them for life. Brute force has been one way of achieving it. Just deny a woman access to money, safety and reproductive choice and you’ll find her curiously willing to stay by your side. But brute force is all rather vulgar and you know how squeamish men can be. Therefore the preferred option is romance, a pretend version of love which intimidates women into thinking that men’s desires are their own, and vice versa.

Take marriage proposals, for instance. We all know the rules: it’s just not romantic unless it’s the man who pops the question. So the unmarried woman in a long-term relationship is expected to remain in a state of uncertainty, panicking over whether or not she’ll be left on the shelf. It’s worth noting that she might not actually want to get of the shelf, but that fact is immaterial (since when did what a woman actually wants matter to anyone?). People will think that she does and sometimes that’s all that matters. Believe me, I’ve been there.

I’ve heard the “but why doesn’t he ask?” whispers, intimating a) that I must be very, very sad and b) that perhaps there’s something profoundly rubbish about me that only my partner knows. It’s humiliating, so humiliating that it can make you want to ask your partner to stop humiliating you in people’s imaginations so that said people will stop humiliating you in real life. But of course, you can’t ask for something you don’t want, and if you did ask, it would show that you recognise the very thing that you’re stressing about for the sham that it is. So you carry on as before, knowing that even if you were to, say, write a paragraph about it, plenty of people would read it and say “ah, look, she’s protesting too much!”

Marriage is sold to a woman as the day: the dress, the attention, the party. You can’t sell it to her as the lifetime commitment otherwise she’d run screaming for the hills. The proposal must be an “event” – often an extremely passive-aggressive, public, controlling event – since a long, considered discussion might not lead to the desired outcome. Furthermore, just in case all of this starts to seem a bit suspicious, it’s important to throw in a joker card. Women can’t propose to men except – except! – when it’s 29 February, that is, in a leap year. And hey, look! 2016 is one such year! Get in there, shelf-dwellers!

The leap year proposal tradition works on a principle of artificial scarcity. Women are told “look, you can only ask for this thing that you really, really want once every four years. Use it! Don’t miss your chance!” Sure, you could propose at any other time – it’s not literally against the law – but that wouldn’t be proper, would it? It’s against the rules of true romance. Plus if you could propose at any other time, you might realise you didn’t want to propose and therefore that you didn’t want your man to propose, either. And where would that leave us?

In a situation where men and women might be on a more equal footing and women could say “actually, this is all a bit rubbish and I don’t exist to boost your ego, wash your socks, bear your name or legitimate the continuation of your family line. I just want to be your partner.” But that’s not very romantic and besides, it’s not really sexism if you know what you’re doing could be construed as sexist. In this Age of Equality™ we all participate in cultural misogyny in spite, not because, of the misogynist connotations. Yeah, honest.

Anyhow, don’t mind me. It’s not as though a woman can think for herself more than once every four years.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.