CLOSE
Original image
Senator Barbara Mikulski hosting newly elected women Senate members, 2000. Getty Images.

Why Women Couldn’t Wear Pants on the Senate Floor Until 1993

Original image
Senator Barbara Mikulski hosting newly elected women Senate members, 2000. Getty Images.

One brisk morning in early 1993, Carol Moseley-Braun selected a favorite pantsuit from her closet and went off to her new job in Washington, D.C. The Democrat, who had previously served in the Illinois state Senate for a decade, had been elected in November 1992 on a platform of women's rights and civil rights. When she won, she replaced incumbent Democratic Senator Alan Dixon and became the first African-American woman to serve as a United States senator. But when she set foot on the Senate floor that winter day, wearing "my nice outfit," as she said later, "the gasps were audible." Unbeknownst to Moseley-Braun—who had donned pantsuits frequently during her time in the Illinois legislature—women were forbidden from wearing pants on the Senate floor.

She had broken a rule, albeit an unwritten one. It was enforced by peer pressure and official Senate doorkeepers who could turn away anyone they didn't think looked "appropriate," and it remained an important fact of daily life among women in the Senate for decades. That is, until Moseley-Braun and another political pioneer intervened to challenge it.

Carol Moseley-Braun declaring victory in November 1992. Image credit: Getty Images

Like other gentlemen of their day, early senators wore waistcoats, frock coats, and breeches with stockings—nothing too fancy, since ostentatious clothing had a whiff of aristocracy about it. But by the late 19th century, senators were dressing in formal clothes, complete with vests, cutaway coats, and striped trousers. Fashion was generally consistent despite some regional differences, and experienced senators policed newer members, ensuring they were dressed to preserve the dignity of the legislative chamber.

When women first began entering Congress—starting when Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916—they dressed in dark colors and conservative cuts to avoid drawing attention to themselves. In the 1940s, once women began serving in the House in larger numbers, Reps. Mary Norton (a Democrat from New Jersey) and Frances Bolton (a Republican from Ohio) would patrol the fashion choices of other female representatives. The historian for the House of Representatives, Matthew Wasniewski, told The Hill in 2011 that "If [congresswomen] were wearing a dress that Norton considered too frilly, she would go up and say something to them."

Trousers became common leisurewear for women by the mid-20th century, but it took a while longer before women wore pants to the office or on formal occasions. Slacks and pantsuits only began entering the mainstream of acceptable workwear for women around 1970, when they were first allowed at federal agencies, including the State Department and the Pentagon—though they were still forbidden at the FBI until after J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972; he hated seeing women in pants.

That year, Pat Nixon wore two pantsuits by American designers in a fashion spread, becoming the first sitting first lady to be photographed publicly wearing trousers. Around the same time, fashion norms started to change in the House of Representatives: Rep. Charlotte T. Reid, a Republican from Illinois, made history in 1969 when she showed up to the House in a "black wool, bell-bottomed pantsuit … a first in the annals of the U.S. Congress." One male colleague couldn’t believe it, remarking to Reid, "I was told there was a lady here in trousers, so I had to come over and see for myself."

Women of the 89th Congress, 1965, with Charlotte Reid standing at far right. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the Senate, norms were harder to change. As the upper house in the U.S. legislature, the Senate has always been more formal and reserved than the House. Even during the 1980s, pants on women were apparently too much for that august chamber to handle. Individual Senate offices had their own rules, but on the floor, women wearing pants were verboten, which could necessitate quick changes. "We've heard from women staff that in the 1980s, if they came in to work—if they were called in on an emergency basis—they needed to keep a dress to put on quickly or they had to borrow one if they had to appear on the Senate floor," Richard A. Baker, Senate historian from 1975 to 2009, told The Washington Post in 2002.

While the dress code for the Senate was never officially codified, the norms were enforced by Senate doorkeepers, who controlled access to the chamber and served partly as security guards, partly as protocol monitors. Even today, they assess each person seeking entry, making sure they are supposed to be there and are dressed appropriately. The problem is that "dressed appropriately" has historically been up to the discretion of the doorkeeper on duty: Doorkeepers made determinations based on personal opinion or instructions from their boss, the sergeant at arms.

In 1972, a group of female Senate aides wrote a letter to the chairman of the rules committee, complaining that each doorkeeper had his own fashion requirements and asking that a written dress code be developed so they’d know when their outfits were acceptable. "It's just so silly," one aide told the Los Angeles Times. “You just don’t have the time to second-guess the sergeant-at-arms at 8 in the morning when you’re trying to get dressed.” The rules committee apparently ignored their request.

Sens. Patty Murray, Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Boxer, Carol Moseley-Braun, and Diane Feinstein in 1992. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In 1993, the gender balance in the Senate finally started to shift. Until that year, only two women senators had ever served simultaneously. But in November 1992, four women won Senate seats, joining Nancy Kassebaum (a Republican from Kansas first elected in 1978) and Barbara Mikulski (a Democrat from Maryland first elected in 1986) for a total of six women—the largest-yet group of female legislators in the upper house.

One of those new senators was Moseley-Braun. During her years in the Illinois state legislature, she’d grown accustomed to wearing pantsuits, and when she joined the U.S. Senate, she was unaware they weren’t allowed. "It was one of those unwritten rules that they don’t tell you about unless you're part of the circle," she said recently in an interview with WBEZ. "And nobody was talking to me about these things, so I had no clue."

On that winter day in 1993, after hearing the gasps from the men in chamber, Moseley-Braun recalled that she'd wondered, "'What’s up? What’s the problem?' It’s not like I had on a kilt." The senator didn't realize what she'd done until female staffers came up to thank her. They'd been fighting for the right to wear pants for years, and now they had a senator on their side.

Barbara Mikulski and other women Democratic senators at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Image credit: Getty Images.

Actually, they had two. Around the time Moseley-Braun was inadvertently bucking the no-pantsuit rule, Sen. Barbara Mikulski had made up her mind to challenge the same outdated norm. "It was a snowy day" sometime in early 1993, she told Vice, "and I found out more bad weather was coming. I just really wanted to be comfortable. I'm most comfortable wearing slacks."

Unlike Moseley-Braun, Mikulski knew she was breaking a long-standing tradition, so she approached fellow Democrat Robert Byrd, then the President pro tempore of the Senate, to advise him of her plans to wear pants. Byrd had the Senate parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, check the rules to make sure pants on women weren’t explicitly outlawed. When he determined that they weren't, Byrd "gave the nod," Mikulski remembered. "He didn't say yes, but he gave a nod." Soon Mikulski was walking onto the Senate floor in a pair of slacks, and from the reaction, she recalled, "You would have thought that I was walking on the moon." (While there are no official Senate records showing which woman wore pants on the Senate floor first, newspaper accounts suggest Mikulski's act followed Moseley-Braun's.)

The pants-wearing senators had set a precedent—one that would soon become permanent. The Senate sergeant at arms that year was Martha Pope, the first-ever woman to hold the job (she had been elected two years prior). According to the Chicago Sun-Times, her doorkeepers followed a written policy manual that stated, "Women are required to wear business attire, i.e., dress, skirt and blouse or business suit." After Moseley-Braun and Mikulski wore pantsuits on the floor, Pope circulated a memo to her staff, amending the manual to read, "Women are required to wear business attire, i.e. dress, skirt/blouse, business suit, coordinated pantsuit (slacks and matching blazer; no stirrup pants)."

Sen. Barbara Mikulsk on her way to the Senate floor in 2014. Image credit: Getty Images

Senator Diane Feinstein joined her colleagues in wearing pantsuits from time to time, and female staffers and journalists took advantage of this new freedom as well. Female Senate aides also had a new line of argument for pantsuit-averse supervisors. According to Moseley-Braun, "What happened next was that other people started wearing pants. All the women staffers went to their bosses and said, 'If this senator can wear pants, then why can't I?' And so it was the pantsuit revolution."

Additional Sources: "Women Aides Are Upset: Fashion Furor in the Capital," Los Angeles Times; "Women Now Can Wear the Pants in the Senate," Chicago Sun-Times

Original image
iStock
arrow
Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
Original image
iStock

The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

Original image
iStock
arrow
History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
Original image
iStock

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER