Some words seem to have such a pervasive, negative connotation that it’s almost started to completely adapt or change its actual meaning. Etymology fights these new trends of reclaiming words, but sometimes it seems to be out of our control. Some people translate “millennials” into “lazy youths” and a determined, meticulous boss can be misconstrued into being nitpicky and difficult.
More recently, with this historical presidential election, the phrase “pantsuit” has become laughable, mocking, and disturbingly sexist. Whenever presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes an appearance, it seems way too much attention is given to her appearance, and more precisely, what she is wearing. Her pantsuits have been hailed as too masculine, boxy, unflattering, boring, and just plain ugly.
However, what is important here isn’t that we focus more attention on Clinton’s outfits than her actual rhetoric, or even that some media outlets are resorting to elementary-school bullying tactics to bring down our first major-party female candidate. The issue isn’t even about whether or not you support Clinton at all. The issue here is that by wearing her pantsuits, Clinton is not only reflecting on the sexist past of our nation, but also recalling the discrimination that women in government faced not so long ago.
Historically speaking, Clinton wearing her pantsuits is a relatively new phenomenon in government. Yep, “Achy-Breaky-Heart” technically predates the mandate that women can actually wear pants in the Senate. Now, at this point, we’re all pretty used to men telling us what to wear, especially to work. But the seemingly inherent disgust directed at the female pantsuit is especially hard to understand, and yet even more disturbing when you really think about it.
Women in government have been changemakers and revolutionaries for decades. We’ve seen suffrage, inched towards the glass ceiling for way too long, and have fought tirelessly for what we all believe is right. We’ve sat in tiny cubicles, answered calls, gone on coffee runs, taken notes and witnessed the pay gap for ourselves. We’ve put in the hours, dealt with sexist coworkers, and put an extra amount of thought into thinking about an appropriate work outfit.
So, is it a little frustrating that a historically significant outfit gets so much negative attention, and has become synonymous with “ugly hag” or “old lady pants”? Yeah, a little bit. It’s also not new news. Unfortunately, women in government have been dealing with unfair treatment and an insane emphasis being placed on work attire for years. Because the fact of the matter is that women, in and out of government, have had their clothing choices being decided by men for centuries. Shall we fondly reminiscence on the super comfortable, not at all confining nor catering to the male gaze era of the corset? The fact that my own mother remembers not being allowed to wear pants to elementary school?
Reality delivers here, as does history. The pantsuit itself wasn’t even designed and implemented until 1932, and yet in 1938 a kindergarten teacher was sent to jail for wearing slacks while testifying in a courtroom. Women industrial workers during World War II started altering their husband’s pants to fit them to wear to work. A Manhattan socialite was denied service at a restaurant in 1969 for wearing a pantsuit.
Ladies, it’s been a long time coming.
So, please, let’s stop harping on pantsuits—regardless of who’s wearing them. We’ve earned our right to wear them, and we’ve come such a long way. Appreciate the pantsuit, bask in the beauty of suffrage, of Barbara Mikulski and Carol Braun, who dared to wear pantsuits on the Senate floor in 1993. Revel in our progress towards cracking that glass ceiling. Band around the pantsuit, regardless of whether you choose to wear one or not. Because you could if you wanted to, and that matters.