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“Women Can’t Wear Pants to Work”

Women Can't Wear Pants to Work, monotype by Rose O'Donnell (click for a larger version).
Women Can’t Wear Pants to Work, monotype by Rose O’Donnell (click for a larger version).

This month, during our “The Feminist Movement in Art” exhibit, some Art League staffers are reflecting on important works of feminist art that have influenced and made a mark on their lives. Gallery Director and printmaker Rose O’Donnell wrote about the story behind her honorable mention monotype. Click here to read the other article in this series.

I feel very fortunate to have had a piece accepted into this month’s “Feminist Movement in Art” exhibit. Not only that, I received an Honorable Mention from our juror, Amanda Jirón-Murphy, from the Hamiltonian Gallery in DC.

My monotype of a red pants suit with two pairs of scissors preparing to cut off the pant legs has inspired a lot of people to ask about the story behind this piece and to share some of their own experiences. The monotype is titled Women Can’t Wear Pants to Work, and it is based on my own experience in 1972.

Here is my story and some of the stories I have collected about being a working woman in the 1970s. It shows that women have come a long way in the workforce. But it also shows that we have a long way to go to achieve true equality.

I graduated from University of California, Berkeley in the heady days of the Vietnam War protests. The feminist movement was just gaining strength. Gloria Steinem had just begun to gain prominence as a leader in the women’s rights movement with her article in 1969, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.” In 1971, the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded and shortly after that the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced, fought in Congress, but did not pass. I was aware of all these things but more concerned with just getting a job.

Close-up of the Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, by Adelaide Johnson (1920) (Courtesy Architect of the Capitol). Click here to read Erica Fortwengler's reflections on the monument.
Close-up of the Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, by Adelaide Johnson (1920) (Courtesy Architect of the Capitol). Click here to read Erica Fortwengler’s reflections on the monument.

I found work as an accountant at the local Montgomery Ward department store. My daily task was to total up all the receipts from each department on a giant 10-key adding machine. Our office was a “pool” style workplace. We all sat at long tables and didn’t really have desks of our own. It was a boring, soul-sucking job, but I was trying to save up money to attend graduate school.

One day I wore a red pants suit my mother had given me for Christmas. It was the nicest piece of clothing I owned at the time and I was proud of the way the double-knit bell-bottoms fit (I was skinnier then). At work that day, my boss told me that the store manager wanted to meet with me. I thought at the time that maybe I was up for a promotion.

I walked into his office. He was sitting behind his desk, and the human resources guy was sitting on the corner of the desk, “Mad Men” style. The manager said, “Nice pants suit.” I thanked him, very pleased with myself.

He then said, “You can’t wear pants to work.” I just stood there, slightly stunned, looking back and forth at him and the HR manager, both in pants. He then explained, “Women can’t wear pants to work.” The HR manager then chimed in, “Plus, we’d like to see those pretty legs of yours.”

I was horrified. In those days, you didn’t speak up. You just “took it,” according to my mother. I went home and cried but I never wore that pants suit again.

More artwork from "The Feminist Movement in Art"
More artwork from “The Feminist Movement in Art”

When I started sharing this story, I began hearing of other women who encountered similar discrimination in the workplace. One artist told me that the women in her Austin, Texas office got together and marched around the cubicles demanding the right to wear pant suits to work. Another woman told me that she interviewed for a job as a legal secretary and was asked to sign an agreement that she wouldn’t get pregnant. Another person told me that she was scheduled to attend a business conference with her boss. He came to her and said that women weren’t allowed to travel.

The women’s movement and the feminist art movement helped to bring about a lot of changes in our world. I wear pants almost every day now. And, even though women have advanced from being paid 60 percent of what a man in the same job made in 1970, today we only make 73 percent of what a man would make. We still use the phrase “who wears the pants in that family” as a derogatory term about women who are the decision makers in their families.

These stories and my own enrage me even today. Why did we put up with that? Why did I put up with that? It is our job as humans to bring about even greater change so that, as Steinem put it, we create “… a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned.”

— Rose O’Donnell

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