The History of Sadie Hawkins Day

On Sadie Hawkins Day's 78th anniversary, we trace the phenomenon from "Li'l Abner" to corny high school dance theme, and ask what its future may hold.

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Nov 7 2015, 5:55pm

Photo by Dina Giangregorio via Stocksy

Earlier this week, we examined the long history of women who hunt game. Today, we deal with women who hunt men.

Not like that. I'm talking about the Sadie Hawkins dance, a high school and college tradition that takes place in November and requires girls to ask out their dates, rather than waiting around for guys to call. (Or, you know, text.) While today's Sadie Hawkins Day mostly just calls for the gumption and self-confidence necessary for the most basic of modern hetero dating, the original event was actually physically strenuous, and had significantly higher stakes.

Chasing Down Husbands in Dogpatch

Sadie Hawkins was one of the more unlovely young women in the podunk Southern town of Dogpatch, USA, a girl so plain that she was perennially without suitors. To get her married and out of the house, her father, Hekzebiah Hawkins, organized a foot race for all the single men in the area. It was more of a hunt, really: the guys were given a head start, and Sadie was to sprint after them. If she caught one, she got to marry him.

So the story goes. Sadie Hawkins was a character in the massively popular comic strip Li'l Abner, created by the cartoonist Al Capp, and her namesake day was a similarly fictional event. The first Sadie Hawkins Day appeared in the strip in November 1937, three years after Li'l Abner debuted in newspapers, and promptly became a recurring part of the strip's plot as the race was extended to all the bachelorettes in Dogpatch. While the prospect of a forced marriage is terrifying under most circumstances, Sadie Hawkins Day created particular dramatic tension for the comic's titular character, Li'l Abner, who was perpetually and inexplicably avoiding the advances of Daisy Mae Scragg, the town's resident megababe. To be fair, Li'l Abner was—and I'm quoting Capp's biographer, Denis Kitchen, here—"naive on his best day, dumb as a fencepost on his worst."

According to Kitchen, writing in Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary, readers were all about Sadie Hawkins Day—especially women, who were no doubt stoked about the idea of pursuing men for a change. A year after it appeared in Li'l Abner, a real-life Sadie Hawkins Day popped up at the University of Tennessee, the first of many to come.

The Thing About Al Capp

Before we get into the diffusion of Sadie Hawkins Day nationwide, a note about Al Capp, born Alfred Caplin in New Haven, Connecticut in 1909: While the tradition he invented seems to have engendered in young ladies of the era a true sense of self-determination, Capp himself was hardly a symbol of female empowerment. The reductive and hyper-sexualized way he portrayed women like Daisy Mae in Li'l Abner—pinups with breasts nearly as big as their obsessions with marriage—was a relatively benign side of Capp's relationship to women.

Though Capp built an impressive empire around his comic, which ran for 43 years and inspired a number of lucrative franchises including a theme park, the tail end of his career was engulfed in scandal when allegations surfaced that he had sexually assaulted a number of women, many of them college students. The incident that finally got the mainstream media's attention involved a 20-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire named Patricia Harry. While visiting the campus, Capp had asked the student up to his hotel room under the pretense of interviewing her to prepare for a lecture he was going to give. Instead, he exposed himself to Harry and forced her to perform oral sex. Capp was charged with sodomy, indecent exposure and adultery in a case that made it into the New York Times on May 8, 1971 under the headline "Al Capp Is Accused of Morals Offense."

Capp denied Harry's accusation and, as the Wisconsin newspaper The Waukesha Daily Freeman reported, was released on a $1,000 bond that October. Li'l Abner ran for another seven years.

Going Viral

Can Sadie Hawkins Day be judged independently from Al Capp's personal history? Maybe not, if we limit the discussion to the comic strip. But just a few short years after its initial publication in 1937, Sadie Hawkins Day had taken on a life of its own. In 1939, Life magazine reported that 201 colleges in 188 cities were hosting dances in November inspired by Li'l Abner, to which young women would ask men to be their dates. High schools and church groups began to do the same; beauty pageants, foot races, and the pursuit of a live, greased-up pig (at least, in Fort Hancock, N.J. in 1941) were variously incorporated into the festivities. At some events, Capp was invited along as the master of ceremonies.

As happens, the tradition evolved with time. The University of Vermont went on to create its own Sadie Hawkins-like event called MERP Week—the acronym standing for "Men's Economic Recovery Program"—during which women paid for all their dates' expenses. The November 16, 1966 issue of The Portsmouth Herald reported that the week began with dates at coffee shops and culminated in a powderpuff football game.

Chasing Men: A Global Pastime

Dogpatch isn't the only town, fictional or otherwise, to create its own pseudo-holiday for man hunting. There's also Women's Day in Germany, which originated in the Beuel district of Bonn, a city on the banks of the Rhine. Sick of doing other people's laundry, the local washing women petitioned for a special day of their own in 1824, according to the district's modern-day tourism bureau. They got one: Women's Day, or Weiberfastnacht, which falls on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and is part of the city's pre-Lent carnival festivities. Women are given license to prowl the streets demanding kisses from males and, if they really want to stick it to the man, they may snip off his necktie with a pair of scissors. As we all know, that is where men's power lies.

The Los Angeles Times gave this description of Women's Day in a dispatch from Beuel, Germany in 1963: "The streets are unsafe for anything in trousers."

Post-Sadie Hawkins

If the fun of Sadie Hawkins Day is predicated on a norm of female passivity and male aggression, what happens when that presupposition begins to crumble? At what point does the tradition go from being irrelevant to totally regressive—not just in terms of the dance's imposition of old-fashioned gender roles, but also its inherent heteronormativity? Welcome to 2015. We may be finding out now be now.

Back in 2002, an article in the New York Times ("She's Got to Be a Macho Girl") clocked the rise of a generation of young women who were more sexually and romantically assertive than their predecessors. Girls were hearing the feminist message that they could do anything boys could and carrying it into the realm of dating. (Of course, Sex and the City was there to reinforce the sentiment.) And, the Times posited, young women were developing their own sort of machismo, looking at sex more casually and at male conquest with more predatory interest. In that light, holding one school dance a year to which girls have to invite their dates is pretty much a moot point.

Cut to 2013, season four of the television show Community, a half-hour sitcom about a motley crew of community college students. When the dean of the college announces that he's organizing a Sadie Hawkins dance, the activist-minded Britta Perry sputters, "So you're saying there's one day a year that women are free to choose their own mates? What is this, cave person times?" Britta decides to hold a competing event, one that will honor "a real feminist icon": Sophie B. Hawkins.

She meant Susan B. Anthony. But you get the point.