When I was in grade school in the 1960s in Wisconsin, girls could not wear slacks to school except on days when we had physical education, and then only for half-days. At lunch, we had to go home and change.
We also sometimes wore slacks under our skirts on cold winter days. Pre-global-warming Wisconsin could get plenty cold, and I walked a half-mile to school, but we girls had to take off our slacks when we got there and leave them in our lockers.
Even then, we thought the rule was stupid, one of many rules only for girls. We were unhappy, and we worked to change what we could.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1973, we could wear slacks to class, but that same year, Helen Thomas was ridiculed by President Richard Nixon for wearing them to the Oval Office.
Women staff members were not allowed to wear pants at the White House, and over at Congress, female aides in slacks were sometimes harassed.
Thomas, at that moment, was the chief White House correspondent for United Press International and had traveled with Nixon to China the year before. Eventually she became the first female officer of the National Press Club and first female president of the White House Correspondent’s Association – which she had enlisted the help of President Kennedy to open up to women.
But Nixon was no Kennedy. “Helen, are you still wearing slacks?” Nixon said. “Do you prefer them, really? Every time I see a girl in slacks, it reminds me of China.” He asked her if they cost more than “gowns.” She said no, and he replied: “Then change.” The room erupted with laughter.
Her fellow reporters – males – complained that she had been ridiculed. “It was a cheap way for the President to get a laugh,” one said. Another thought “she was too nice” and should have taken Nixon on.
Thomas responded “The President has not been out on the American scene enough to recognize that pants are not just a trend but a part of the American woman’s wardrobe. I don’t know the President very well, but I do know he is a gentleman of the old school. He views women as he saw them in the ‘30s or ‘40s. Or even ‘50s.”
At that point, I was about to begin university studies for journalism. Helen Thomas hadn’t been my inspiration, but she showed how far I could go. Like her, I might become the only reporter in the White House Press Corps to have a personal assigned seat in the White House Briefing Room. I might be the one to say “Thank you, Mr. President” to signal that the briefing was over, and no one would argue with me about that, not even the President himself.
Eventually, I became a journalist and loved the work. Then I branched out into other kinds of writing and loved that. I also campaigned for women’s rights. I wore slacks whenever I wanted. And I was happy.
Sue Burke now lives in Madrid, Spain, and works as a writer and translator. More information is available at her website, http://www.sue.burke.name. She is also part of a crowdfunding campaign to translate a Spanish science fiction anthology into English at http://igg.me/at/CastlesInSpain.