Kane County History: On Leap Year, 'She-Wolves of Aurora' Have 'Gender-Swapping Fun'

Kane County History: On Leap Year, ‘She-Wolves of Aurora’ Have ‘Gender-Swapping Fun’

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Aurora Historical Society‘s Mary Clark Ormond and John Jaros. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

The fire department heading to squirt bachelors with the hose.

It’s Leap Year, folks. Time to stand back and admire how an ages-old European folk custom was turned into a brand that put 20th-century Aurora on the map on account of all the high-spirited and gender-swapping fun the citizens were having every four years.

Early ‘Bloomers’

There is some evidence that the ladies of Aurora had achieved national notoriety for their progressive thinking as early as 1856, when a writer for the Weekly Standard in Raleigh, NC, commented that word had reached the South about Aurora, IL, where women practiced “public lecturing, professional life, man-courting and bloomerism,” meaning, we suppose, wearing pants.

With such a legacy from the Victorian era, who could be surprised that, in the era of jazz and swing 75 years later, the descendants of those women concocted a Leap Year turnabout of government to throw alpha males off balance and put themselves in political office, at least for a day.

It all began in 1932. Drawing upon the custom of allowing maidens to propose marriage to unmarried men once every four years on Leap Day, the women of Aurora contrived to make Feb. 29 a day when women could replace men in city government.

It was all so cute and innocent — why not let the little ladies have their fun, and think of all the amusing pictures the newspaper could run — that the men of Aurora may have been blindsided by what happened next.

The new government promptly declared it a crime for a man over the age of 21 to be unmarried. Talk about dictatorships and social engineering.

Well, there’s crime and there’s crime, and from the get-go no one took the criminalization of bachelorhood — or the ladies who espoused it — seriously.

Far from it, the turnabout day was a success and became an eagerly-anticipated event in which every four years thousands of citizens participated by casting votes for candidates and hundreds of bachelors played along as they were dragged off to jail.

Happily, a perusal of the newspapers of the time confirms that no eligible men were harmed in the making of this tradition. And, like the bloomerism of 1856, it made Aurora famous nationwide.

Girl Government

Here’s how it worked. The Beacon would run a popularity contest of unmarried women. Top vote-getters became the mayor for the day, as well as police chief, fire chief, aldermen and so on through the ranks of government.

Any woman who wanted a government job could get one at some level, and at the same rate of pay as the mayor. Which is to say just laughs.

On Leap Day the participating women donned the duds of their new positions and set out to run the city. Stamping out the crime of bachelorhood was high on the to-do list, and in fact it is not clear that there were any other items on the list at all.

Some of the new appointees carried batons and handcuffs, while others sat in the seats of the high-and-mighties, passing judgments and levying the fines required to be sprung from jail.

In the earlier days, fines were things like a pair of silk stockings or a bouquet of flowers to the arresting officer but later a financial contribution to charity was required.

Women not engaged in police work were driven around town in fire engines or attended official-for-a-day meetings. A 1932 report indicated that the regular firemen remained on duty in the central station, although they quit their pinochle game in order to observe “the spectacle.”

The young women not only captured the attention of the town but won the admiration of many.

In 1964, 22-year-old Sally Wolf served as mayor and urged people to call in tips regarding the whereabouts of likely suspects.

“It was like something out of the futuristic novels of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell,” one policeman was quoted as saying. Prompting someone else to say, “I’ll tell you one thing, from now on they won’t have to ask who’s afraid of Sally Wolf. In Aurora, all of us men are.”

These frolics, managed in the final 20 years by the VFW, certainly created a bright spot in the gray days of an Illinois winter, but they also served as a kind of social glue, and provided a civic identity.

In the region, only Joliet and Morris had a similar turnabout day, but theirs had no drama-driven bachelor/bachelorette subscript. Participants in those towns were married and professional women.

The statistics paint a picture of a popular entertainment in full roar. High numbers included 300 bachelors arrested (1964), 21,000 votes cast for female candidates (1968) and $3,100 raised for Dr. Eugene Balthazar’s free clinic (1976).

Every four years, the pages of newspapers were awash with photos of smiling, sparkly-eyed young women posing on fire engines or frowningly manhandling their abashed prisoners.

Life Magazine, in 1948, breathlessly reported that the “she-wolves of Aurora [are] running officials out, bachelors in.” Everyone was having fun, it seemed.

There was only one interruption. In 1944, with America in the midst of the Second World War, many of Aurora’s eligible young men were away fighting. The Aurora City Council cancelled the celebration “on the theory that bachelors remaining in town these days are either too young or too old.”

Not to mention that a number of its young women were also in the service or were home in Aurora doing essential war work in jobs formerly performed by men.

Close Calls For Bachelors

Many a former bachelor has a story of a brush with the law on Leap Day.

Aurora native and long-time sportscaster Neal Ormond remembers his first experience with the tradition, which happened in the gym of Freeman School in 1952. A basketball game was under way, coached by his handsome and unmarried sixth-grade teacher, Bill Augustus.

Several officers-for-a-day entered and announced Augustus was under arrest.

The tyros learned a valuable lesson that day — you have to cover all exits when apprehending a suspect. Augustus made a fast break through the south door of the gym, running through the parking lot and across Glenwood Place, with the ladies in hot pursuit.

To the gleeful cheers of his team, Augustus climbed to the roof of a house under construction and refused to come down until the defeated women finally left. The arrest was never made — and the game was never finished.

Several leap years later, Ormond himself was the target of the quadrennial hijinks.

He was at home broadcasting his sports talk show for radio station WMRO when he heard his colleagues, Dave McAley and Dan Lewis, back in the studio cracking jokes that made him think they had tipped off some of the ladies.

Soon enough, the doorbell rang but to no avail for the officers. Ormond, failing to rise from his microphone or to the bait, escaped arrest.

As the years passed, the sight of a woman in uniform or behind a city desk became less and less a source of amusement. Marital status became more complex, and civil rights became touchier.

In 1984, there was opposition to the event from Alderman Anne Baumann, who called it sexist. In 1988, the Aurora Beacon finally pronounced the event dead, noting that “interest this year has almost been non-existent.”

The only echoes of those innocent carryings-on were a few phone calls from national media wanting to know if the folks of Aurora were still at it and, according to then-Mayor Dave Pierce, a call from one woman with a list of gentlemen she wanted picked up.

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