My grandmother, Judy Slate, waited on a porch in Pekin, Ill., for a young man in an orange Buick one Friday in the early 1950s. She was the new girl in town, and she wore a skirt with patches. Grandma was a high school sophomore about to attend her first Sadie Hawkins dance—the kind where the girl asks the guy.
It was an era of big changes. The Cold War was a toddler, Pluto was a planet, people read newspapers and ate Twinkies. A man wouldn’t walk on the moon for two decades. But the roles of men and women were not yet seriously questioned. Women’s suffrage was over a generation old, yes, but feminism was a dirty word to the average mother.
My grandmother, unlike most college students today, knew who Sadie Hawkins was. Anyone who read the paper did. The woman had become a national icon without ever existing.
The first Sadie Hawkins Day was in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner, one of the longest-running satirical comic strips in history. Sadie Hawkins made her debut on Nov. 15, 1937. Worried his homely daughter would live forever unmarried, Mr. Hawkins gathered the eligible men of the fictitious town of Dogpatch, Ky., for a footrace. Sadie, he informed them, would marry the first man she caught. When Sadie skipped away at the end of the day with a new hillbilly hubby, the other forlorn bachelorettes decided to make the race a yearly tradition.
To Capp’s surprise, the semi-holiday leaped from his comic strip into high schools everywhere. At first, organizers often included a footrace. Girls ran around with nets or herded young men into traps.
Social dances for adolescents were becoming wildly popular at the same time, and the two events quickly merged. Instead of catching a beau, ladies extended invitations. Couples danced the jitterbug to "Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers in halls decked out in the rustic Dogpatch look—hay bales and pumpkins lined the walls and men wore overalls. According to Life magazine, some 200 schools celebrated Sadie Hawkins Day a mere two years after the initial strip appeared in print.
The feminist movement quickly reinterpreted Sadie Hawkins dances as an opportunity for girls and women to feel “empowered,” and they have remained a staple in high schools and colleges across the country. Although it was a harmless game rising amidst a pre-sexual revolution youth culture, some still claim the event jeopardizes the roles God ascribes to men and women.
One student at the Christian college I attend told the campus newspaper in 2010, “I love having fun. But just because something’s fun, doesn’t mean it’s something good.” Others, men and women alike, protested Sadie Hawkins Day by refusing to participate.
But Sadie Hawkins doesn’t threaten gender roles. In a way, it reaffirms them by emphasizing how unusual it is even today for women to initiate relationships directly. Dana Mills described in Psychology Today a small study in which he found 93 percent of women prefer to be asked out on a first date and 83 percent of men preferred to do the asking.
“I actually think the Sadie Hawkins kicked the macho up a notch” said Becca Chin-Yee, an alumna and the organizer of the first Sadie Hawkins Dance at my school. The girls came up with such creative ways to ask the guys that they “had to work a little bit harder to prove that the girls were not better men than they.”
And sometimes, when a belle asks out a beau, it disarms the romantic implications. “You don’t start a crush thing at a Sadie Hawkins dance,” said Alyssa Foster, a junior. Although plenty of girls in Foster’s dorm have crushes, they don’t ask them to the dance. They ask a friend.
My grandmother, for example, had known her date since third grade. “He was the only person I could even consider asking,” she told me.
And traditional gender roles don’t require women to be completely passive. They never have.
After waiting on the porch for an hour, Grandmother retired, rejected. Her date never came to pick her up. “Well,” she said, “I was surprised he said he would even come. I just figured he didn’t want to go. But I really wanted to go and see what it was all about.”
He pulled up at 7 p.m. the next day, in overalls.
“The dance was last night,” she told him. He apologized, and she forgave him for confusing the date. They chatted on the porch and ate hamburgers. They remained friends, and only friends.
Some years later, Grandma noticed a fellow “in a nice Cadillac” move in across the street. He was tall. She asked a friend to introduce her. Like déjà vu, she summoned the gumption to ask him to a party at a friend’s house. He proposed five months later.
Now with two great grandchildren, and four more on the way, Judy Slate believes women should know their place—but that place may involve taking some initiative. Wear the skirt, my grandma might advise, and wear it with spunk.