Who Wears the Pants?

Men and women: a history of costume, gender, and power

Men and women: a history of costume, gender, and power

Pants symbolize power — partly because men wore them long before women dared try them on, and men have historically held power.

But pants empower in practical ways, too. Like allowing much more freedom to move.

Once upon a time, women wore heavy skirts and petticoats that were bogged down with wire machinery. So stair climbing required care to prevent tripping over skirts. Even sitting could be tricky, lest a hoop skirt rise and reveal all.

Big skirts meant horses were mounted “side saddle,” allowing women to exert only “gentle control.”

Meanwhile, running and biking were difficult, which limited a woman’s power and independence, as well.

Eventually the bloomer was created — a pant for women that was designed after oriental and little-girl clothing of the period.

Bloomers allowed women to bike around. But they were harassed if no men were there to guard them — from both danger and from real freedom, I suppose.

A woman wearing bloomers with her bike.

A woman wearing bloomers with her bike.

But the bloomer was so ridiculed, by men and women alike, that few women risked wearing the liberating garb.

It all reminds me of patriarchy today:

  • Even today some American women grumble, “I’m no feminist!”
  • Saudi women still cannot drive. But they can ride bikes — for fun, not transportation
  • An Indian man who raped and murdered a woman said she deserved it because women should not feel free to walk around at 9 o’clock at night
  • Egyptian women cannot protest for their rights or even walk the streets without harassment

Who wears the pants?

Who has freedom?

Female autonomy sparks a remarkable level of fear among the patriarchy.

March is Women’s History Month.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 11, 2015, in feminism, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 33 Comments.

  1. What the patriarchy, let’s not put them all together. I read an article about some schmuch from saudia arabia saying how the west allowing women to drive to work, allows women to be hurt or is against women’s protection. And in his erratic mind felt it’s because saudia arabian men respect women that they don’t allow women to drive around to where barbaric men to hurt them. Interesting how he has not only such a low view of women, but apparently such a low view to think men can’t control themselves. And I’m tired of rampant rape in India and not just that but hardly punishable and the arrangement for marriage and lack of choice women have. America is far from perfect but a hell of a lot better than those shit holes.

    Of course there are chauvinist men in america as evidence from domestic violence, etc. But I still think much more men in america feel for women being respected, and equality and think women not driving, and being prohibited basic freedoms and controlled as ridiculous and disgusting as well as want things better for women and to progress.

    • Any men who are for equality and respect for women are not part of the patriarchy. And there are varying degrees of patriarchy, like the men who try to limit women’s freedom by keeping them from riding bikes, whether in America at the turn of the last century or Saudi Arabia versus a rapist who says that women shouldn’t be out at 9 o’clock at night. But I don’t like any of it even though some is much worse than others. It’s also important to make a distinction between the many Indian and Arab men I know who are for equality and what’s going on in those countries. (The San Francisco Bay Area is very diverse so I know quite a few men of all races who care about women’s equality – several of them are my students.)

      • I’m sure men who are indian or arab growing up in america or have lived here since they were born or most of their life, that they might have a more respectful view of women than men in their home country. That’s the problem, it irritates me what saudia arabian men feel about women as well as india. All I know is I have no intention going to that country. And I know there are bad towns and cities in every coutnry including many ghettos in america. But the view and mentality there is scary. I as a man, don’t even want to walk there at 9pm considering what happened to that one couple. Where the woman was raped and sodomized, and her boyfriend beaten up and tied up and had to see his gf brutalized and the only reason he wasn’t raped is because he’s a man. Him being a man didn’t protect him from being beaten up anymore and simply them choosing not to sodomize him is why he wasn’t either.

        It makes me wonder what the gun laws are there. There was a recent thing where a man’s wife was stabbed to death when on the phone walking in the park talking to her husband and this was in India. Poor woman. But back to gun laws, it’s not good to be paranoid or go to the extent like some gun lovers. But in a country like that, very hostile and where a woman might have to walkin the park at night. I think women should have a gun on them. I know it’s a natural instinct to now want to shoot someone.

        Though unfortunately seeing how Indian views women, even if it’s in self defense a woman would probably still be imprisoned if she shoots a man coming after her. But if a man is lurking toward in a park, knife in his hand and she tells him to keep away and he doesn’t and aggessively moves toward her. That I’d say she pulls out that gun and warns him again. If he still continues on, I saw she shoots that fucker. If she doesn’t want to kill him, then shoot him in the leg. That will stop the fucker cold in his tracks and now kill him at the same time. If I was in India,, even as a strong, tough man, I would have a gun on me, seeing how that country is.

      • So the problem has to do with how patriarchal a group of people are – how much men and women have both unconsciously internalized it.

    • Hey Bob, most men in India stand for women’s equality. The incident which recently has come into the limelight was the incident for which millions of Indian men protested on the street, stood side by side with women to show the integrity of the society as a whole. Of course, there are men who support the patriarchal form of the society but that doesn’t reveal the essence of the country. That stupid man who gave the statement as women should be inside their house by 9.00 pm at night basically represents that minor group. Women in India enjoy as much freedom as in any other country. Trust me, I myself return from my gym classes after 10.30 pm most of the days 🙂 …and as it is not very far from my home, I prefer to walk, alone.

  2. As for those Victorian women in bloomers, they couldn’t ride for a number of reasons, not the least of which was tight corsets. The wasp waist was a fashion and social imperative–one for which women literally sacrificed the ability to breathe! (So much for inspiration.) They also lost muscle mass in their abdomens, probably leading to higher rates of death in childbirth. But the Victorian women weren’t the only ones to sacrifice health in the interests of “beauty,” the Chinese bound the feet of their daughters, Western women wear ridiculous heels, ancient Roman women rubbed their faces with lead powder; it goes on and on. Underlying all of it is the concept of woman as property, as decor. Until we accept equality as a starting point, and we accept the human body as already perfect, we won’t stop the commodification of women–and the risks that that presents.

    • Yep, you’re right. Thanks for chiming in.

    • “Chinese bound the feet of their daughters, Western women wear ridiculous heels, ancient Roman women rubbed their faces with lead powder; it goes on and on. Underlying all of it is the concept of woman as property, as decor. ”

      Accept in China with the feet binding, it was almost mandatory or ritual for women to have their feet bound to look small and petite. A cultural importance, whereas, guys and people in America aren’t forcing or it’s not even close to mandatory for women to wear heels or high heels. Many men wonder why women wear such high heels where it’s hard for them to walk in and is not good for their feet. It’s not that important and it’s more often women who want to wear them and feel the need to, even though it’s not a big deal., It’s because women rather hurt their feet just to make themselves as sexy as possible, despite other things.

  3. I can totally see how the pants could be liberating- thanks for the history lesson, hadn’t realized. I also feel that there is a shift in that I personally find skirts liberating – depending on the skirt, of course- but perhaps because the charge toward skirts is less there than it used to be in terms of suppressing the freedom of the body… then again, that still depends on where in the world one is wearing said skirt.

    The question I feel we must ask is why is the patriarchy so scared of feminine power? – in both women and in men.

    • Yeah. And if you can wear both dresses and pants you have even more freedom.

      Patriarchy’s seem to be obsessed with controlling women, In whichever culture it arises in. Some suspect it’s because they are right wing conservatives and right wing conservative tend to be obsessed with control and clarity and order. Saying there is a difference between men and women, with men on top, and controlling women creates a sense of having order, control and avoiding chaos.

  4. Interesting discussion, Georgia. I would like to think that women’s dress has evolved with the times, from the exclusive accent on beauty and elegance earlier to that offering convenience, comfort and easy movement without compromising the elegance aspect, in keeping with her greater participation in the workaday world. Patriarchy is an attitude that is deeply entrenched by imbibing skewed values across the centuries. It is set to change in due course….best wishes… Raj.

  5. Apparently Saudi women CAN drive but just for ‘fun.’ I’m not sure what that means as it isn’t fun to be suppressed…

    • Well they can ride bicycles for fun, But not transportation. But they can’t drive cars at all. Riding a bicycle for fun means that they can ride around for exercise and compete in a sport. But they are not allowed to ride a bike from home to work or to a grocery store, Etc.

  6. I don’t have much to add to the discussion except my personal experiences. I enjoy wearing skirts and I wear them more than most of my peers. However, I will usually wear trousers of some kind when I’m working in the garden or doing other activities which a skirt would interfere with. I’m very glad I live in a society where I’m allowed to wear either (although I sometimes feel conspicuous in my local towns, where very few skirts are seen).

  7. The women of the Duggar family say they choose to wear skirts because they are more modest than pants, and Anna Duggar also said it was to show deference to men. They take this to ridiculous lengths, wearing skirts while hiking, over leggings to work out, and a couple of the older girls who were training to be first responders converted their uniform pants into skirts. This may be only one family but they are just the best known of the Christian Patriarchy movement as detailed by “Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement” by Kathryn Joyce.

  8. Emily Quintanilla

    This is so ironic. It really puts everything into perspective. Now that I think of it women have always been depremented for wanting some freedom, I feel like it’s crazy that in this situation of a pair of pants could have so much symbolism and meaning to it. We have to keep in mind that it also depends in the type of culture that we love under or around. Known countries are still known to have little to none respect to women or treating them down upon, they are considered as still being dependent of men and in some cases due to their culture they have no right to say or do otherwise. Women of years have earned their respect for everything that is done already, and I feel like judging and proving punishment for wanting some freedom is incorrect and unjust. We live in a society where differences still exist.

  9. Aram Moshkounian

    I feel like there has been a deep injustice between men and women in terms of clothing for a very long time. Society has always looked as men as the one who wear the pants in the family and control everything. Back in the old days when women were forced to wear bogged skirts with wire machinery they weren’t able to be very mobile and had zero freedom. When bloomers came out women were finally able to ride bikes and travel around. Although they were able to get around they still were harassed by people if they didn’t have a man with them to protect them. This in my opinion is very demoralizing because it makes women feel like they cant do things on their on and have their own freedom. Reading about the cases in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and India are very surprising. We are currently in 2015 and some countries still don’t allow women to drive and have their own freedom. In terms of the pants in the family I truly do believe that it has a huge impact on the lives of everyone. Women deserve to be appreciated and given more power because they work just as hard as men do.

  10. Christopher Solomon

    Time and time again in history and even in the current times, women have been challenged. While the saying “who wears the pants” is literal and figurative, the reality is, is that women are still not seen as equals. When I think about the bloomers, and how ridiculous they look on women I think it was done for women to be made a mockery of. When I think of bloomers, I think of babies or clowns. But that thought seems fitting as clowns and babies are truly not taken serious in society, just as women are not taken serious either.

    Pants for a man is defining. While the wool petticoats were heavier and required more physical strength to wear, pants was the desired image of men and women that wanted to be taken serious. I think we make things too material in society. Pants, skirts, anything. Whomever has earned the respect should be given the respect, man and woman alike.

  11. What really gets me is the fact that these countries are saying that women need mens protection but from what or whom? The answer is simple men claim that women need protection from other men. The part that gets me the most is that the men who are saying women need protection are the same men who are abusing women. This false claim is obviously a front to keep women out of power. Men have ruled this earth for many years, even in the times of Kings and Queens when a Queen was left without her King, the son would rise up and take control of the Kingdom. Even though Queens had power they were still underneath mans rule. This just goes to show you how women have been powerless in just about every country except the United Kingdom. I’m not sure if there have been other women in charge of a country other than the Queen of England. All that can be said from the article is for women to keep fighting for their rights and for their freedom as a citizen. Equality should be expressed in more areas around the world.

  12. Grecia Cornejo

    Thanks for this discussion. Women have definitely come a long way with the way they dress. Now you definitely don’t see women wearing those heavy skirts or bloomers. I never really thought of how these types of clothing made it very difficult for women to do such things that involved sports and to just move in general. This is why society has the belief that sports are not for women. Even though many women play sports and are very good at it. I myself play and truly enjoy playing soccer. It is sad to know that women were made fun of even for what they dressed like, after everything women already went through, men still humiliated them for what they dressed. Thanks to those women who decided to dress differently, the way women dress now is totally different and it shows how far we have come in order to be more free and independent. We can move around more and do as many things as men can.

  13. The whole topic of pants = masculinity = power ties in to my belief that women wearing men’s clothes (is there even such a thing any more as clothing exclusively meant for men to wear?) get approval from society because they appear to be elevating themselves by becoming more masculine, whereas men wearing women’s clothes are to be ridiculed because we are degrading ourselves into something less than masculine. Society may *claim* that women have achieved equality, but the disparate reactions to crossdressing in either direction says otherwise.

    As it happens, a comic strip totally unrelated to gender issues touched on this topic the other day:
    http://www.gocomics.com/inkpen/2015/03/16

    In it, the two male superheroes are insulting each other by using feminine variations of their names. What does this tell us? That implying a man is perceived as female in any way is a horrible insult, something to be ashamed of.

    If women truly held equal stature in society today, being thought of as a woman would not be considered an insult, and saying “you’re just a woman” would be no more likely an insult than “you’re such a mechanic!” or “you’re such an athlete!”

  14. Ι am not sure if this is the right thread but anyway this is interesting

    http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/touch-isolation-how-homophobia-has-robbed-all-men-of-touch/

    http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/07/29/bosom-buddies-a-photo-history-of-male-affection/

    the ironic thing is that those times are considered to be more conservative and less open minded!!

      • Now days we consider our society to be more liberal and open minded than it was those years. Still all these photos of male affection would seem now days to be “gay” and less manly and that’s why men are afraid to show affection to each other. On the other hand women can freely show affection to each other.
        Perhaps that’s another reason why female sexuality seem to be more fluid. Men have to constantly try to prove that they are ridiculously straight.
        Catcalling women on the street – you are da man!
        Going to strip clubs – you are da man!
        Watching porn – you are da man!
        Going to bars to pick up girls – you are da man!
        Use them and abuse them – you are da man!

      • You are so right. Have to write on this.

  15. You touch on a very interesting and controversial topic in my opinion. I believe your topic is a metaphor for today’s society. Normally, as a women, one would think that because men are considered to be more powerful they wear the pant, however, now a days, that’s not how I see it at all. Today, our society is formed around money $$$. It has been very controversial in my own life. Growing up my dad had a successful business and my mom was a stay at home mom who lived off my dad’s income; He wore the pants. Yet, his company eventually diminished and my mom got a job, which meant she wore the pants. Money is power and who ever make more wears the pants. I see it in my own relationship, I am a full-time student but I work a full-time job to put myself through college, however my boyfriend is a full-time student who’s parents pay for whatever he needs (most of the time). I would say because I make more money, and have more variation to where I spend my money I wear the pants in our relationship because I’m normally the one who pays for stuff. It was very interesting reading other peoples views on your topic.

    • Take a look around on my blog some more and you will see that there is definitely a pattern that men have more power in society, Even today.

      Just to look at the money issue, men have more power on average partly because they are paid more, on average. A woman needs a college degree to make the same amount of money that a man makes from graduating high school — again, on average.

      Also when a husband makes more money than his wife, he tends to get much more power in the relationship. But when the wife makes more money than her husband, it often doesn’t work out that way. Women often worry about emasculating their husbands and are careful to treat them equally, Or even given more power to help compensate.

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