Dear Straight Dope:
Who was Sadie Hawkins, and why did she get a dance named after her?
SDStaff Dex replies:
Sadie Hawkins’ fame is not really from the dance, but from the race. She was a creation of cartoonist Al Capp in his strip Li’l Abner, set in the hillbilly town of Dogpatch, which started in 1934. Sadie first appeared in the daily strips of November 15-30, 1937. After a brief build-up, “What is Sadie Hawkins Day? Why does it inspire such terror in our Hero?” the strip explains:
Sadie Hawkins was the daughter of one of the earliest settlers of Dogpatch, Hekzebiah Hawkins. She was the homeliest gal in all them hills. … For 15 years, [she] had failed to catch a husband. Her pappy, in desperation, one day called together all the eligible bachelors of Dogpatch.”
He declared Sadie Hawkins Day. A starting gun is fired, to give the boys a head start, then a second gun is fired, and, as her father says, when Sadie “starts a-runnin’, th’one she ketches’ll be her husband.”
Sadie did catch one of the boys. The other spinsters of Dogpatch reckoned it were such a good idea that Sadie Hawkins Day was made an annual affair.
For Al Capp, this was a plot device in the ongoing romance between Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner. More or less each year, the Sadie Hawkins’ Day Race took the form of Abner hearing a prediction (usually pretty confusing) about the outcome; Abner puzzling about it for a while, trying to outwit it, and then the prediction coming true in an unforeseen, twisty way. Eventually, of course, Capp did allow Abner and Daisy to marry.
The dance came about a bit later. The Sadie Hawkins Day dance was on the night before the race. The girls wore hob-nailed boots to trample on the feet of the bachelors, to impede (heh) their running the next day.
Alexander Theroux, in his biography, The Enigma of Al Capp, comments, “Satire was his gift, and its ancillary weapons of burlesque and parody.”
The idea of Sadie Hawkins Day took college campuses by storm. By 1939 — only two years after the Day first appeared in the strip — Life magazine reported that over 200 colleges, in 188 cities, had a Sadie Hawkins Day. The magazine called it an “epic pursuit” and featured pictures from Texas Wesleyan. Sadie Hawkins Day spread like wildfire.
Why? According to Dave Schreiner in volume 3 of Li’L Abner Dailies (a massive effort by Kitchen Sink Press to reprint all the Abner daily strips — they’re now on about volume 30), the era showed the first glimmerings of relief from the Great Depression. It was a time of social ferment, as the labor movement strengthened. College students who “could not afford to rent a tuxedo or buy a formal gown for homecoming or other dress-up dances … could still have some fun by dressing in the rags these Dogpatchers wore in that new comic strip.” And, of course, girls could invite boys.
Compared with the 1920s, the 1930s were sexually repressed. Schreiner says, “For a woman to pursue a man openly was bad form. But here was, in effect, a sanctioned activity where women could state their preference with impunity and men could feign terror and be secretly pleased. It was such a safe activity, couched in fun and costumes,that even a Methodist college in Texas could approve it.”
Sadie Hawkins Day made an impact, and continued to do so for the 40 years of the strip’s existence. In 1952, Capp wrote: “It’s become my responsibility [to include Sadie Hawkins Day every year in the strip.] It doesn’t happen on any set day in November; it happens on the day I say it happens. I get tens of thousands of letters from colleges, communities, and church groups, starting around July, asking me what day, so they can make plans.”
Such races and (more common) dances are still popularly run by college fraternities and sororities, country clubs, and as Capp said in 1969, “just gangs of desperate girls.” Theroux comments that the concept of women chasing men for marriage was not strictly new, and he cites St. Catherine’s Day in France as an Old World example.
Theroux says that Li’l Abner was “in the opinion of many, America’s greatest comic strip, one of this country’s icons for more than half a century … his cartoons mixed caricature with intensive regional and cultural realism. Underneath is social seriousness.” John Steinbeck, in 1952, called Capp “very possibly the best writer in the world today.” John Updike, in an introduction to Capp’s posthumous memoirs, wrote that “The adventure comic strips of the period presented a wooden superman — Mandrake the Magician, the Phantom, Smilin’ Jack, Joe Palooka — eft over from a simpler time, an era of stark laborious myths and inflexible draughtsmanship. Capp, with his rollicking abundance of fanicful grotesques and topical allusions, broke this mold.”
Capp’s last strips appeared in November 1977. He announced his retirement on account of poor health, following a sex scandal, and died two years later.
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