February 29th’s Forgotten Place In The History Of Women In Leadership

In fifth-century Ireland, Leap Day was the one day every four years when women could propose to men.

February 29th’s Forgotten Place In The History Of Women In Leadership
[Photo: Adrian Samson/Getty Images]

In fifth-century Ireland, St. Bridget is said to have persuaded St. Patrick to declare that a woman could do what was then the unthinkable just once every four years: ask a man to marry her. That day became associated with Leap Day, February 29. In St. Bridget’s time, when women were for all practical purposes owned, first by their fathers and then by their husbands, marriage meant not love but economic survival for them and their children. No doubt many seized their chance to override that power structure and take their fates into their own hands.


Tomorrow, March 1, is the first day of Women’s History Month. So today isn’t just a good time to consider how far women have come, but what we still have left to set right. With entrenched gender gaps in leadership and earnings, here are three Leap Day lessons for professional women with an eye on the future.

Old Mores Die Hard

The Leap Day tradition was codified in twelfth-century Scotland–again at the behest of a woman, Queen Margaret. The custom continued throughout the British Isles, replete with merry belittlements to remind women of their lack of power all the rest of the time. For example, women on the prowl for a husband on Leap Day were to sport red petticoats as fair warning; this way poor, beleaguered men could spot them coming and run the other way.

Leap Day marriage privilege now seems an amusing anachronism, even though women still prefer men to do the asking at a time when majorities of men and women both think it’s fine for women to propose. More important than these social habits, though, are the structural changes we haven’t yet made–namely in politics and business.

And neither of those spheres looks ready to change without effective leadership. If women are ever to complete their halting journey toward full equality, we can’t just cluck our tongues hearing that women earn 79 cents to men’s dollar. Nor will the saints intercede this time. The onslaught of anti-choice bills introduced by right-wing legislators to curb women’s reproductive rights in the first two months of this year alone are enough to evoke the fifth century–making the phrase “barefoot and pregnant” relevant again. It’s no wonder that poverty’s face is disproportionately female.

The suffering women experience when they’re barred from power is a matter of historical record and present-day fact. The clearest way to correct that in the future is to widen women’s access to power. Here are three strategies every woman can take today in order to put the reins of leadership more firmly into our own hands.

1. Value Yourself

Some experts believe one cause for the wage gap is women hesitating to risk asking for more money at work. But despite some of the ways women can be genuinely penalized (indirectly or overtly) for advocating on their own behalves in the workplace, it remains true that the costs of timidity multiply over the course of women’s careers, leaving us with much less money in the bank when it’s time to retire.


Fortunately, there’s now more evidence than ever that it’s good for business when organizations court women at every level. Companies with more women in leadership simply make more money, according to McKinsey and Catalyst research. Similarly, female legislators work harder and get more legislation passed than their male counterparts.

So don’t worry about asking for what you deserve. In the long run, employers need you more than you need them. Document your accomplishments, research their worth, and ask for what you deserve.

2. Define Power On Your Terms

Unused power is worthless. You can’t win political office if you don’t run. You can’t get into the C-suite if you don’t ask for a promotion. Professional women who don’t advocate for themselves don’t just handicap their own careers and compromise their financial futures; they inadvertently make it harder for the next women to stake her own claim or convince her boss she won’t leave when she has kids.

Understandably, women tend to resist the traditional definition of power–that it’s something to wield over others. But power is what we make of it. When I suggest women change how they think about power from the oppressive “power over” to the more expansive “power to,” I see their faces relax as they embrace that idea—not just for their own good but for the good they can do for others.

Innovation comes from the more expansive variety anyhow, and a more collaborative approach to leadership can create a powerful competitive edge.

3. Think Bigger, Then Bigger Still

The leap to economic parity demands bigger thinking, and examples already abound: Women Moving Millions in philanthropy; the Pax Ellevate Fund, which invests in women-led businesses and Golden Seeds, which increases access to capital for female entrepreneurs; and Goldieblox, helping girls and young women to become engineers–just to name a few.


The truth is that if you want to put your purchasing power behind companies that promote workplace equity or improve life for women and girls, you just need to know where to look. We’ve arguably never had so many resources; it’s just a matter of leveraging them.

This Leap Day can be the moment when future generations look back and say that that was when women took real power and leadership into their own hands. Today, St. Bridget might be proud. But we can do even more if only we take another leap.

Related: Sallie Krawcheck On The Benefits Of Investing In Women