Artists Acres

Women Wearing Pants in Public
Written by Lois Bartlett Tracy   

women-pants-xsmWhen I was growing up in the early 1900s, all women had long hair and no women wore pants. Soon after I sacrificed my long gold curls for freedom for women while I was a freshman at Florida State College for Women, the boy I had been seeing in Gainesville wrote to me that he did not intend to have dates with a woman with short hair. I was not sorry to be rid of him. It was a restricted era: at the women's college, all teaching was related to Home Economics. swamp-sm

No men were allowed. We couldn't even ride up a hill on a very hot day with a man in the car. Absolutely no men - not even your roommate's father in the car.

The next year I went to Michigan State College, where women had just been allowed to attend. Here I hoped to enjoy newfound freedom. My family owned a cottage at Eaton Rapids Camp Grounds not too far from the College. The river it was on had been named Wasttenonstepee by Indians, but white settlers renamed it Grand River. At the beginning of my sophomore year in 1921, two friends and I decided to take a weekend camping trip there. We wanted to dress comfortably. At that time the men had returned from World War I and were still wearing their short wool pants with their legs wrapped in cloth strips from the ankle up. We girls talked three young men into loaning us those wonderful pants for our hike.

The first night, we decided to walk to town and go to a movie when it got dark. We dressed sensibly in our borrowed warm pants. I lined up to buy our tickets and was suddenly confronted by a policeman. He made the girl at the window give back my money and I had to return the tickets. Then he told us he was arresting us for wearing pants in public in Eton Rapids. Herded together by the policeman's club, we were led down the street about two blocks to the jail, where half a dozen men were standing around, and charged and seated in view of the jail cell. The problem was there was nothing on the books about what to do with women who wore pants on the street. Our picture was taken, and after a great deal of arguing it was decided that we should be taken back to the campground. By that time the grounds would be locked, but I knew a way to get back in. Our police guard saw us to the other side of the gate. His farewell was a very disapproving, short, emphatic lecture about us and our short pants. Of course, not one inch of flesh showed anywhere. Our legs were well wrapped.

The next morning a picture of the three of us in jail wearing pants appeared on the front page of the Detroit Free Press with the caption, "Women Wear Pants in Public."

Twenty years later, during World War II, I was an artist who loved to paint trees. I painted along the Myakka River where there were some pretty wild locations. Sometimes a nearby ranch owner let me use a horse that had a deep swayback, a natural saddle. I would set out with the cowboys who would drop me in a dense hammock in the early morning and pick me up on their return late in the afternoon, usually with two 30 x 40 canvases I'd started and would finish at home.

On such painting trips in the jungle I needed protection from snakes, insects, and other wildlife. In those days women still did not wear pants, but riding a horse through the jungle could be very hard both on skirts and legs. So I bought some tough canvas and had pants made up. Very, very stiff, they were nowhere near as comfortable as the soldiers' woolen pants, but they were protective.

When the The Sarasota Herald Tribune put together its annual mail-away edition, a kind of Chamber of Commerce effort to attract tourists to the Sarasota area, the city was becoming known as a center for the arts. I was active in developing art in the area, so they decided to take a picture of me to show the natural beauties of Florida. The photo of me painting by the river in my heavy canvas baggy pants ended up as the full front page of the Sunday paper on November 9, 1941. No doubt readers wondered about the strange fashions of the local artists.

Yes, there were limits to my freedom in 1941, just as there were in 1921. But I'll bet that there were not many women in those days who made the front page of two major city newspapers wearing pants!


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