The Strange History and Uncertain Future of Sadie Hawkins Day

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The "holiday" where women ask out men originated with a comic strip—and doesn't feel all that relevant today.

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Al Capp

My first memory of Sadie Hawkins Day is from 1999, when it was the inspiration for an awkward chaperoned middle school dance. We were told that for this special dance, the girls were empowered to ask the boys out.

The idea that I needed special permission to ask a boy out seemed ludicrous to my confident middle school self because I was taller, faster, and could spell better than any of the boys in my class. Not to mention I was too busy running away from suitors like the one who told me I was the prettiest but meanest girl in the neighborhood.

Perhaps the concept behind Sadie Hawkins Day sounded so silly because it originated with a comic strip. The pseudo-holiday is named after the so-called "homeliest gal in all them hills" in Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip. The story goes that Sadie's dad Hekzebiah Hawkins, a prominent resident of Dogpatch, was so concerned that his homely but speedy daughter would become a spinster that he declared Sadie Hawkins Day, when unmarried women literally chase after the town's bachelors. The comic strip was first published on November 15, 1937 and was never meant to become an annual event. But in just a few years, the day took on a life of its own.

"And how about that Sadie Hawkins Day?" says Al Capp in an article he wrote for the March 31, 1952 issue of Life. "It doesn't happen on any set day in November; it happens on the day I say it happens." Al Capp says he received, "tens of thousands of letters from colleges, communities and church groups," starting around July each year asking what day so they could make plans accordingly.

The day was celebrated across the nation. In its November 24, 1941 issue, Life reported on a day of "humorous osculation" at the University of North Carolina, as well as 500 other colleges, clubs, and Army camps across the country, as they celebrated "the only holiday based on events in a comic strip." Racy photos accompanying the article show an actress demonstrating effective techniques for kissing an unwilling man.

As the holiday became an empowering rite for women across the country, the comic strip's protagonist Li'l Abner spent nearly two decades outracing his pursuer Daisy Mae on the annual Sadie Hawkins Day until finally marrying her in 1952.

"Well, Sadie Hawkins Day has always revolved around Li'l Abner fearing marriage to Daisy Mae. Now that his worst fears have come hideously true, what will he and Daisy Mae do on Sadie Hawkins Day?" the comic strip creator wrote in the cover story of the March 31, 1952 issue of Life. He was already questioning the fate of his invented holiday.

Sadie Hawkins Day feels anachronistic now, but it was quite a progressive idea when it was first created. In the 75 years since, we've come along way. Or have we?

I can probably count on one hand the times I've asked out a guy. I once emailed a boy in college to invite him to my sorority formal and was so nervous to read his response that I made one of my sorority sisters read it to me.

Sure, it's no longer taboo for a woman to ask a man out on a date and many a modern man would say he's attracted to a woman who takes the initiative to ask him out, but it's still not a common practice for a woman to explicitly ask a man on a date.

Men's Health recently reported on a study that found that 41 percent of the 273 undergraduate study participants deemed that if a woman initiated a date and then the man kissed her, he was giving her a "pity date." However, the overwhelming majority of participants said that if the man initiated the date and then women kissed him, both the man and the woman were interested in a relationship. This doesn't mean that women wait demurely for men to become interested in them.

"Women essentially do it without asking the question," says my friend Dana, one of the strongest and smartest women I know. "They make themselves available or put themselves in front of men in key situations."

The nonverbal flirting techniques to which Dana alludes are known as "proceptive behaviors." As Michael Mills, Ph.D. explains in Psychology Today, these behaviors, like smiling, raising eyebrows, and flipping hair, leave the signaler "less open to direct rejection" and are rated as most effective when performed by women.

Dana's never asked out a man, which she attributes to her Southern roots, and believes that it's still perceived as very forward. For her, the thin line is handing a guy a phone number, which she's heard of girls doing at coffee shops or with waiters, because it comes off coy and not overly aggressive.

According to Mills, Dana is in the majority. His 2011 study found that 93 percent of women preferred to be asked out and 83 percent of men preferred to do the asking. But what does asking someone out mean in today's world, anyway?

Singles these days kinda ask each other out and women are just as capable (or guilty?) of doing that as men. It's less scary for a pursuer to send an informal text message just to "see what's up" or ask a potential love interest to "meet up later." It's easier to handle rejection indirectly and anyway, we are all so mobile and our plans are so fluid that to ask someone to commit an entire date is considered bold.

One single guy says he got frustrated texting back and forth with a girl he was trying to meet up with so he picked up his texting machine and called her. After 30 seconds she picks up and says, "Calling? Now that's aggressive."

It's no longer a question of whether or not a woman is empowered to ask out a man. Technology has rendered people helpless and turned us into utterly awkward communicators. Time went so far as to create a chart for "dating in the texting era," a choose your own pathetic adventure of sorts, that explains what to do when "he doesn't text" or "he hasn't texted so you take the plunge." When the guy doesn't respond to any texts, the woman indulges in rom-coms, nachos, and self-pity. I'd like to say that we've moved beyond the need for Sadie Hawkins day, but in reality all singles could use remedial lessons in dating.

Let's reimagine Sadie Hawkins Day as a day to ask someone out the old-fashioned way. It doesn't matter whether you're male or female—just pick up the phone and ask the person you've been pining after out to dinner. No texting allowed. And as for who pays, well that's a discussion for another time.

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Julia Plevin is a writer in San Francisco.

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