[Note: This article is about a bit of sexism from America's past. It will quote sexist passages from days of yore, and deals with a subject that cannot escape the label of sexism. I say this up front, as a warning to readers, but it really is (and was) all in fun, so I hope most of you will take this in the spirit it is being offered.]
Leap Day has been around for over 2,000 years. At some point -- possibly as far back as Medieval times -- a European tradition emerged for this once-every-four-years event: it was the one day when women could propose marriage to men. In America, this got confused and conflated with Sadie Hawkins Day, which actually had its origins in the Lil' Abner comic strip (the original of which ran in November, not February). You can read about this long Leap Day tradition elsewhere, if you're interested in the larger history of the day.
But there's another Leap Day tradition in America, from a suburban Chicago city. Aurora, Illinois used to be famous for its Leap Day fun, when the unmarried women took over the town and arrested all the unmarried men for the "crime" of being a bachelor. Yes, you read that right.
The town's takeover was an orderly one, complete with an election for the one-day chance of any eligible woman to be mayor, police chief, or fire chief. Any single woman who didn't win the election for the top jobs still had the chance to participate, as police officers and doing other city jobs. Eligible men were arrested all day long, dragged to jail, and forced to pay a fine before they were let loose.
On March 22, 1948, Life magazine ran an article (with plenty of amusing photos) about the fun. Being 1948, the article was titled: "SPINSTERS' HOLIDAY: The she-wolves of Aurora, Ill. celebrate Leap Year by running officials out and bachelors in." The article itself wasn't quite as blatantly sexist as that title, and began (the "above" refers to the lead photo on the same page):
Every Leap Year since 1932 as many bachelor residents of Aurora, Ill. as could arrange it have left town on Feb. 28. The reason is that on Feb. 29, Leap Year day, the administration of Aurora is turned over to the unmarried girls, who promptly fine and jail every bachelor they can hunt down. This year a few men delayed their getaway until daybreak on the 29th. Two made it, one in the men's room of the train, another under two train seats. The rest, like Bob Smith (above), were trapped.
The Aurora Historical Society has written about this history, in slightly more modern language:
By citywide vote conducted through ballots in The Beacon-News, a female mayor, police chief, fire chief, aldermen and other officers were elected for one day. Additional girls were appointed to various positions such as police officer and fireman. This force of young, never-married females, usually about 19 to 24 years old, made up what was known as the "powder puff brigade" or "the petticoat government."
Bachelorhood became a crime on that special day, and offenders -- unmarried men 21 or older -- were subject to arrest, jail and fine by the women now in power. They patrolled the city from the early morning hours, hunting down bachelors in their homes, their places of business and even at the commuter station. In 1952, one unfortunate fellow was pursued a full two miles by the girls "on foot and in their squad car, which they drove across an open prairie where he was finally cornered."
Sounds like a good time was had by all. Life has more scenes from the hunt:
It went on like that all day. When a bachelor, cornered on a rooftop 22 stories up, took one look at the girls pursuing him he went right up a radio mast in a driving rainstorm but finally dropped back. By some mistake three married men got caught in the dragnet. Even the police magistrate was arrested, escaped from his jail only to be caught again. At Leap Year day's end both the men's and women's sections of the city jail had been crammed with men, some $1,700 in fines had been paid to the giggling spinsters and Aurora's 4,000 unmarried men had become more confirmed bachelors than ever.
The Aurora Historical Society has more details on the "fines" collected, although it appears to contradict Life as to what happened in 1948:
After the war, in 1948, the Leap Day practice was back with a vengeance -- more than 15,000 votes were cast for mayor in a three-way race. In those early years, through 1948, fines assessed were items such as dresses, silk stockings, lingerie, flowers and candy.
Starting in 1952, it became a charitable event -- with monetary fines going toward causes like the Heart Fund and the blood bank. In 1956, individual fines of $3 each amounted to $1,200 for the Heart Fund.
The VFW took over management of the event in 1964, and continued to run it until the end, while its popularity did not cease. In 1964, more than 300 bachelors were detained and fined. In 1968, more than 21,000 ballots were cast in the voting. And in 1976, more than $3,100 was raised for Dr. Eugene Balthazar's free clinic.
The Leap Day celebration lasted until at least 1980, but did not survive the "politically correct decade" and was ended due to charges of sexism (which are, on the face of it, completely justified and understandable). Beyond this obvious complaint, the entire affair was horrifically and blatantly unconstitutional, and a serious invasion of (the men's) civil liberties, to boot.
Because of this, bachelorettes did not take over Aurora, Illinois today. They did not haul all the bachelors in town to the pokey and force them to cough up a few bucks for a charitable purpose.
Of course, today, women don't need any sort of special day to pop the question to their beloved -- such things happen on a daily basis now. Women also don't need a special day to be mayor, police chief, or fire chief of any town across America -- plenty of women now hold such positions every day of the year. We have evolved as a society, and we're in a better place for it now. Women have equal rights in such matters, and that is a good thing. The word "spinster" might even cause younger Americans to reach for a dictionary -- which, again, is a good thing.
But even having said all of that, it still sounds like the citizens of Aurora had a lot of fun on Leap Days past, doesn't it?
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant