Hard as it is for my granddaughters to believe, there was a time when a woman could be arrested for wearing pants.
I was still cutting roses shortly before Thanksgiving because November’s higher-than-average temperatures gave us a longer-than-usual growing season. When cooler temperatures finally arrived, a discerning neighbor commented, “You have pants on for the first time since last spring!”
I have the freedom to garden clad as I like—and I like to wear shorts or a skirt. Hard as it is for my granddaughters to believe, there was a time when a woman could be arrested for wearing pants.
In 1938, a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles arrived in court to testify in a burglary case and ended up in jail. All for wearing slacks. Before Helen Hulick could give her testimony, the judge ordered her to go home and come back to his court “properly attired”—as in, a dress. Hulick had other ideas. She returned to court in slacks. The judge warned her that she could be jailed if she did not comply. She returned to court again attired in slacks, but with an accessory—her attorney.
Back at my grandparent’s home in Mountain Lake, Minn., women were going about their business raising food and children. Mountain Lake was a tight-knit community formed when Mennonites emigrated from Russia. In their new home, these Mennonites clung to each other and their religious customs. The older women still wore bonnets. Women were not allowed to drink, smoke, dance, go to movies or wear their hair short. And no slacks, for sure.
My grandmother, Hilda Falk, was an outsider. She arrived in Mountain Lake during the Depression with a nursing diploma signed by William and Charles Mayo of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She worked at Mountain Lake’s first hospital, and she wasn’t one to let customs hamper her knowledge and common sense. She wore slacks. But to wear them, she had to make them. That’s how uncommon they were.
But there’s more.
My grandmother made slacks for other women too. A nearby neighbor, Linda Shriock, gardened on the busy main street in her dress, and the prairie breezes lifted that dress most days. The locals gossiped and laughed at Linda’s lifted dress. My grandmother had other ideas. She sized up her neighbor and sewed her a pair of slacks.
My mother still remembers Linda Shriock’s defiant words, “Mrs. Falk made me slacks and I intend to wear them.” And she did. Gardening in slacks until the end of her days.
Here’s to the Helen Hulicks, Hilda Falks and Linda Shrioks. They prevailed. They were the pioneers of pants: trailblazers in trousers.
Learn more about Helen Hulick’s day in court and her trailblazing career in education.