For much of human history, most people—men and women—wore loose fitting robes of various types to cover their bodies. It is thought that trousers were invented relatively recently in human history, around 1000 BCE, so that people could be more comfortable riding horses.
The Scythians, nomadic horse people on the Eurasian grasslands (the steppes), had a reputation of being excellent and fierce warriors. They flourished from around 900 BCE to 200 BCE, living mainly in what is now the Crimea region but having wide influence on the steppes to the east. In these nomadic societies, based on the use of the horse, it was common for women to wear trousers and to fight as warriors alongside men. Some of the earliest depictions of trousers were being worn by both male and female Scythian warriors. It is thought that while women were not able to match the strength and size of men—a distinct disadvantage in ground combat with swords, shields, and armor—they could control horses and shoot arrows as well as men. “They were horse people par excellence, and—no coincidence—many of these groups were also distinguished by relative gender equality, compared to the Greeks.”(1) Viking women may also have participated as warriors, but it was the norm among the Scythians.
As other societies adopted the horse, so the use of pants spread. In a 2012 article in The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal reported that evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin
details how the Romans eventually adopted braccae (commonly known to you now as breeches) and documents the troubles a 3rd-century BC Chinese statesman, King Wuling, had getting his warriors to switch to pants from the traditional robes. “It is not that I have any doubt concerning the dress of the Hu,” Wuling told an advisor. “I am afraid that everybody will laugh at me.” Eventually, a different state, the Qin, conquered and unified China. They just so happened to be closest to the mounted barbarians and thus were early to the whole cavalry-and-pants thing.(2)
The report in 2019 of the discovery of a late 4th century BCE site containing multiple Scythian women warriors of ages varying from early teens to 45 to 50 years old buried together with “a cache of arrowheads, spears and horseback-riding equipment”(3) has led to renewed speculation that they were the “Amazons” that so concerned the Greeks, and were described battling with Hercules and Achilles in the Iliad. (More than two millennia later, the origin story of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman is that she was of Amazonian heritage or lived among the Amazons.)(4) Stanford University professor Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, commented on the new archeological findings: “For a while, people have assumed that myths about the Amazons that the Greeks told were just fantasy…Now we have proof that those women did exist and that the lives of those women warriors really did influence the Ancient Greek ideas and visions of what they said about the Amazons.”(5) As Mayer explains, “This was an egalitarian society…The fact that you have a range of ages [of warrior women at the burial site] is important because people previously thought that mothers wouldn’t be out fighting because they had children.” Perhaps it was the equal position of women in society that so frightened the Greeks
Fast forward to the capitalist era, one in which many older forms of oppression of women became solidified and combined with new ones.(6) Even after the modern feminist movement, beginning in the 1960s, secured significant gains in women’s rights and protections, women are still discriminated against or oppressed at work by lower pay, fewer job opportunities, and sexual harassment; as wives, by domestic abuse, expectations that they will do most or all of the housework, and having less economic power within the family. In public, they are objectified as sexual objects and frequently don’t feel (nor are they) safe. Fashion conventions that became the norm under capitalism have accentuated the differences between men and women and play a role in maintaining male dominance to this day. Think of one artifact of women’s fashion: high-heel shoes supposedly make women look more attractive to men by changing their posture, elongating the leg and accentuating the calf—while making women less agile on their feet, less comfortable, and less safe.
After the time of the Scythians and other horse people using pants, women wearing trousers was part of the culture of a number of societies. But in western societies it became more than unfashionable to do so. One aspect of male domination has been the custom that men wear trousers and that women wear dresses and skirts in public, allowing men more flexibility and comfort when engaging in a wide range of activities, while inhibiting women from doing so.
Fears that the Greeks had of “Amazon” warriors who wore pants is paralleled in more recent times by fears of the independence and enhanced revolutionary potential of women wearing pants. Toward the end of the 18th century, as revolution erupted in France, some of the revolutionary women took to wearing pants. As described by Elisabeth Krimmer in In the Company of Men: Cross-dressed Women Around 1800:
Many women used the societal turmoil of the French Revolution to foray into the masculine territory of politics. Some participated in public uproars and marches, others joined the armed forces. Théroigne de Méricourt (1762-1817), for example, who led the women’s march to Versailles, felt that male clothing enabled women to participate in public events more directly. For female Revolutionary Republicans, cross-dressing and political action went hand-in-hand. During the May 1793 ousting of the Girondists from the legislative assembly these women—wearing red pants—assisted their male comrades, the Jacobins, by guarding the exits with swords.(7)
This “dangerous” precedent of women participating in revolutionary activities was apparently the impetus for the outlawing of women wearing trousers (without the permission of the police) in France in 1800. Although exceptions were made later in the 19th century for women riding bicycles and horses, and it was clearly not enforced for many years, the law nevertheless remained on the books until 2013! (8)
Women wearing pants was linked, in the thinking of men, to the fostering of radical ideas and actions. And indeed, there really was a connection between women wearing pants and exerting themselves in politics demanding change, demonstrated once again, although briefly, in the 1850s within the women’s political movements in the United States. Inspiration for the mid-19th century small-scale pants rebellion in the U.S. came from Turkey, where women routinely wore a type of trousers (and, also unlike in the U.S., had control of their own money).(9) In the early 1850s, after wearing “Turkish trousers” for gardening, Elizabeth Smith Miller,
wore this unconventional costume on a visit to Seneca Falls, New York, where she stayed with her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton and her friend and neighbor Amelia Bloomer “at once joined me in wearing the new costume,” Miller recalled. Bloomer, a temperance activist and abolitionist, had launched a newspaper for women, The Lily, following the first women’s-rights convention, which was held in Seneca Falls in 1848. When Bloomer published an editorial in praise of the new outfit in the April 1851 issue, circulation soared, and she was inundated with requests for patterns from around the country. Thus, the “freedom dress” got a new name: the bloomer.(10)
For a short period of time many leaders in the women’s suffrage movement wore pants. However, the reaction of men and the media (male controlled, of course) was brutal, with women subjected to a variety of forms of harassment—what suffragist Mary Livermore described as “a daily crucifixion.”(11) In 1852 in an article that appeared in The Ladies Wreath magazine titled “The Cult of True Womanhood,” there is a didactic passage that Barbara Welter describes as follows:
The girl expresses admiration for the bloomer costume—it gives freedom of motion, is healthful and attractive. The ‘”Professor” sets her straight. Trousers, he explains, are “only one of the many manifestations of that wild spirit of socialism and agrarian radicalism which is at present so rife in our land.” The young lady recants immediately: “If this dress has any connexion with Fourierism or Socialism, or fanaticism in any shape whatever, I have no disposition to wear it at all … no true woman would so far compromise her delicacy as to espouse, however unwittingly, such a cause.”(12)
It seems strange, doesn’t it? Somehow, women wearing pants would make them revolutionary!! Fourierism, socialism, and agrarian radicalism; pants on women could spell real trouble. My goodness, they might even want to vote!
Although the women relished the new freedom that wearing pants afforded, with Stanton saying that she felt “as joyous and free as some poor captive who has just cast off his ball and chain”(13)—by the end of the 1850s the suffragists abandoned pants and returned to wearing the bulky dresses of that era as an expedient, not wanting consternation over their choice of clothing to detract from their message of universal suffrage. Soon, another item of clothing became an acceptable emblem of the movement: Susan B. Anthony’s red shawl. It was described in detail in Washington D.C.’s Evening Star during the 1898 American Woman Suffrage Association convention:
It is silk crepe of exquisite fineness, with long, heavy knotted fringe…For full thirty years Miss Anthony’s red shawl has been the oriflamme of suffrage battle. She wears it with the grace of a Spanish belle.(14)
To have “the grace of a Spanish belle” was more than acceptable because that meant women were “still women,” while women in pants was just too far over the top. This concern with women wearing pants in the United States was expressed well into the 20th century in dress codes at work and in school. There was a prohibition against high school girls in the U.S. wearing pants until well after mid-century. And at almost all workplaces women were expected to wear dresses or skirts. It may be hard to believe, but female U.S. senators were not allowed to wear pants in the U.S. Senate until after Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley Braun, flouting of the rules, wore trousers onto the floor of that august body in 1993. The Senate dress rules were changed forthwith following their actions.
Control over what women wear in public may seem innocuous and passé. And it may be minor compared with other abuses that women suffer: domestic violence, job discrimination, unequal pay, and the continuing effort to take away a women’s right to control her own body. Despite all the accumulated evidence of intellectual and moral equality between the sexes, the prejudice against women is still strong and the position of women in society continues to suffer. To this day, a global survey under auspices of the UN Development Program (UNDP) revealed that “Nine out of 10 people [were] found to be biased against women…Of the 75 countries studied, there were only six in which the majority of people held no bias towards women.”(15)
In Britain, a 2017 report on dress codes for women found that “Discriminatory dress codes remain widespread.”(16) The report was commissioned because restrictions on temp workers’ shoes and dresses came to light in 2016 when a woman was sent home from a workplace because she was not wearing high heels—for a job in which she would be on her feet for most of the day!
In 2017, both the Philippines and British Columbia passed laws outlawing the high heel requirement at work. In Britain, “Parliament studied the issue but stopped short of passing a law.”(17) In 2019 Japanese women petitioned for a law that would prohibit the requirement that they wear high heels at work. The New York Times article about the petition in Japan stated that “Women fighting back against high heels is one of the most consistent stories in modern history, as seen in a trip down the archives of this newspaper.”(18) The wearing of high heels has been compared by some to the binding of women’s feet in China, a practice that began among nobility but then spread to other social classes. This supposed sign of beauty resulted in considerable pain and restrictions on women’s activities.
This stress on women’s clothing—including lengths of dresses and skirts that focus attention on women’s bare legs—not only accentuates the differences between men and women but also hypersexualizes girls and women (as does the portrayal of women in media) is a detrimental trend with negative effects on both girls and boys as well as on men and women. In addition, an acceleration of fashion changes—what is called the “fast fashion” industry—has helped maintain the obsession with fashions and promoted the obsolescence of style. Instead of two seasons a year (fall/winter and spring/summer), every few weeks new styles are promoted. People are induced to purchase clothes more often during the year, increasing industry profits and at the same time increasing thrown away “old” clothes that contribute greatly to filling up landfill space. The 2015 documentary, “The True Cost,” provides a sobering glimpse of the perversity of the entire industry, focusing on mostly female labor forced to work under the worst conditions for starvation wages in order to enhance industry profits.
- ↩ Adrienne Mayor, “Who Invented Trousers?,” Natural History 122(8): 28-33 (October 2014).
- ↩ Alexis C. Madrigal, “Q: Why Do We Wear Pants? A: Horses,” The Atlantic, July 2012.
- ↩ Derek Hawkins, “Amazons were long considered a myth. These discoveries show warrior women were real,” December 31, 2019.
- ↩ Ibid.
- ↩ Ibid.
- ↩ For more context on oppression of women (as well as other types of oppression) in capitalist societies see Chapter 4 (“Capitalism’s Effects on People”) in Creating an Ecological Society: toward a revolutionary transformation by Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, from which small parts of this essay were taken.
- ↩ Elisabeth Krimmer, In the Company of Men: Cross-dressed Women Around 1800, p. 38 (Wayne State University Press, 2004)
- ↩ John Lichfield, “At last, women of Paris can wear the trousers (legally) after 200-year-old law is declared null and void,” The Independent, February 4, 2013.
- ↩ Sara Catterall, “Women’s Trousers and Such: The Ottoman influence on early western feminism,” Humanities 41(1) accessed March 9, 2020 at www.neh.gov, 2020.
- ↩ Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, “When American Suffragists Tried to ‘Wear the Pants’,” The Atlantic, June 2019
- ↩ Ibid.
- ↩ Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18 (Issue 2, Part 1):151-174, Summer, 1966.
- ↩ Op cite, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
- ↩ Op cite, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
- ↩ Liz Ford, “Nine out of 10 people found to be biased against women,” The Guardian, March 5, 2020.
- ↩ Dan Bilefsky, “Sent Home for Not Wearing Heels She Ignited a British Rebellion,” New York Times, January 25, 2017.
- ↩ Ueno, H. and D. Victor. “Japanese Women Want a Law Against Mandatory Heels at Work,” New York Times, June 4, 2018.
- ↩ Ibid.