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

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

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

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
14 Facts About Margaret Sanger
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Born in 1879, activist Margaret Sanger sparked both revolution and controversy when she began pushing for legalized access to birth control and founded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger remains a controversial figure even today, more than 50 years after her death.

1. SHE BLAMED HER FATHER FOR HER MOTHER'S DEATH.

Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins, the sixth of 11 children. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, also had seven miscarriages, for a grand total of 18 pregnancies within 22 years. She suffered from poor health for much of that time, and when Anne died of tuberculosis at age 50, Margaret was just 19 years old. According to TIME Magazine, Margaret confronted her father at her mother's coffin and said, "You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children."

2. SHE WANTED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Margaret Sanger sitting at a table.
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Sadly, medical school was too expensive, so instead she entered a probationary nursing program in 1900. In early 1902, she met architect William Sanger. The two got married later that year and moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, a suburb about 20 miles away from New York City. They had three children.

3. HER HOUSE CAUGHT FIRE, LEADING HER TO MOVE TO THE CITY.

After the Sangers' house in Hastings-on-Hudson caught fire, Sanger stopped enjoying life in the suburbs. By 1911 the couple had decided to start a new life in Greenwich Village, where Sanger joined the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party. There, she met fellow radicals and reformers—like novelist Upton Sinclair, anarchist Emma Goldman, art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, and intellectual Max Eastman—who supported her ambitions to help working women.

In New York City, Sanger decided to jump back into her career by working as a visiting nurse in the Lower East Side tenements. She often treated women who attempted to give themselves abortions because they didn't have the money to care for another child. Dismayed by the poor health and poverty she saw among immigrants there, she developed opinions that would later lead to her advocacy for birth control.

4. SHE BELIEVED BIRTH CONTROL WAS A FREE SPEECH ISSUE.

Soon after arriving in Greenwich Village, Sanger began writing sex education columns for the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. Her frank discussion of women's sexuality and reproduction offended some readers. In 1913, politician and post office official Anthony Comstock censored her column because he considered her usage of words like syphilis and gonorrhea too vulgar.

A year after her column in the New York Call was banned, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter advocating contraceptive use. Operating under the slogan "No gods, no masters," Sanger used the newsletter to openly defy Comstock's eponymous 1873 laws. (The Comstock laws made it illegal to use the United States Postal Service to send anything containing information about contraceptives or anything else deemed obscene.) She was indicted in August 1914, but she fled to Europe to avoid arrest. She would eventually return to the United States to face trial, but in February 1916 the prosecution dropped the charges.

5. SHE WAS AGAINST ABORTION.

Despite her advocacy for family limitation, Sanger disliked the idea of abortion. She believed proper education and legalized contraceptives would reduce the need for the procedure. In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger described her experience treating Sadie Sachs, one of the women in the East Side tenements. In 1912, Sachs's husband called for Sanger's help after he found Sachs unconscious from a self-induced abortion. After three weeks of treatment from both Sanger and a local doctor, the only advice the doctor could offer Sachs was to avoid "any more such capers" and have her husband sleep on the roof.

Three months later, Sachs became comatose from another self-induced abortion, and Sachs's husband again reached out to Sanger for help. The woman died within 10 minutes of Sanger's arrival. Frustrated by the lack of resources and information available to lower-class women, Sanger resolved to make changes. From that time forward, she wrote, she wanted to "do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the skies."

6. SHE POPULARIZED THE TERM BIRTH CONTROL.

Sanger is often credited for coining the term, but that honor actually goes to Robert Parker, a friend of hers who helped create The Woman Rebel. In her 1979 biography on Sanger, author Madeline Gray described Parker as a polio victim who studied yoga with the hopes of gaining more control over his partly paralyzed hand. Gray wrote:

"It occurred to him that control might apply to birth as well. 'Birth control,' he mused. 'Birth control … I think I like it.' They all liked it. As they put on their hats and left, they agreed that birth control was the best name for the movement."

Otto Bobsien, another of Sanger's colleagues, was the first to use the term to proclaim the start of the Birth Control League of America, a new organization he later said "never had more than a nominal existence." In 1915, when Sanger was away in Europe, Bobsien joined the National Birth Control League and offered the fledgling organization use of the movement's new name. When Sanger returned from Europe later that year, she helped popularize the term, considering it more straightforward than phrases like "family limitation."

7. SHE OPENED THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN THE U.S.

Historical image of Margaret Sanger standing on a street in New York City
Sanger outside of her trial on January 30, 1917.
Bain News Service, Library of Congress

In October 1916, Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn with the help of her sister, Ethel Byrne, and interpreter Fania Mindell. It was the first of its kind in the U.S., and she modeled it after a Dutch clinic she had visited while evading American police. In the Netherlands, Sanger had learned about pessaries and diaphragms and became convinced they were more effective than the suppositories and douches she promoted in the United States. Sanger brought that new knowledge to her Brooklyn clinic, which served more than 100 women on its first day. For a cover charge of 10 cents, Sanger gave every woman a pamphlet of her New York Call column on "What Every Girl Should Know," a lecture on the female reproductive system, and instructions on several types of contraceptive use. The clinic closed just nine days later when Sanger was once again arrested for violating the Comstock laws. Sanger immediately attempted to reopen the clinic after being released on bail, but, as she wrote, she was promptly re-arrested and charged as a public nuisance.

8. SHE ONCE TOLD A JUDGE SHE COULDN'T RESPECT EXISTING LAWS.

Sanger and Byrne's court trials began in January 1917. Sanger's sister was tried first and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse, but she immediately went on a hunger strike; Byrne fasted for a week before being force-fed by prison staff. When Sanger went to trial on January 29, she was supported in court by several Greenwich Village socialites and about 50 of the women she'd treated in the Brooklyn clinic. Presiding Justice John J. Freschi offered her a lenient sentence if she promised to obey the law, but Sanger responded by saying, "I cannot respect the law as it exists today." Sanger was found guilty and Freschi also sentenced her to 30 days in a prison workhouse.

In 1918, Sanger appealed the court decision and won a victory for the birth control movement. Although the court upheld Sanger's conviction and she still had to serve her 30 day sentence, Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals also ruled that doctors could prescribe contraceptives and disseminate information about birth control under certain conditions. Sanger ran with the new loophole in 1923, when she established a new clinic staffed largely by female doctors. The new clinic operated alongside the American Birth Control League. Almost two decades later, in 1939, the league and the clinic merged, forming the Birth Control Federation of America, and in 1942 this new organization officially became known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

9. THE ROCKEFELLERS ANONYMOUSLY SUPPORTED HER CAUSE.

In the mid-1920s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. anonymously donated $10,000 to the American Birth Control League to fund research into contraceptives. Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller III, continued his father's early support of Sanger's work, albeit more publicly. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund donated money to Planned Parenthood until 1981, when it decided to start funding agricultural research—which was decidedly less controversial—instead.

10. LIKE MANY WELL-KNOWN INTELLECTUALS OF HER DAY, SANGER SUPPORTED EUGENICS.

Many historians believe Sanger's support of eugenics was part strategic and part ideological. Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin's, initiated the Western eugenics movement by suggesting that traits like "talent and character" could be passed down to children through intentional breeding. Several British and American academics latched onto the idea, including figures like Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Alexander Graham Bell. Sanger's support for sterilizing the diseased and "feebleminded" legitimized the birth control movement by aligning her ideas with those of contemporary intellectuals.

Sanger's belief in eugenics was a little different from other intellectuals', though. Eugenicists, she said, believed a woman's first duty should be to the state, and that all "fit" women should bear children. Sanger, on the other hand, thought a woman's first duty should be to herself. She contended the primary reason for birth control was to prevent pregnancies among women who couldn't support a child financially. Sanger believed her ideal of economic eugenics was morally superior to the views posed by traditional eugenicists.

The modern-day Planned Parenthood doesn’t hide Sanger's controversial support of the eugenics movement, but it doesn't endorse it, either. In a document published in 2016 [PDF], the organization said, "We believe that [those ideas] are wrong. Furthermore, we hope that this acknowledgement fosters an open conversation on racism and ableism—both inside and out of our organization."

11. HER BOOKS WERE AMONG THE FIRST BURNED BY NAZIS.

In May 1933, Nazis sanctioned the burning of more than 25,000 books deemed "un-German." Sanger had published at least nine books by that point, and they were all among that number, as were titles by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and dozens of others. Sanger's books, which advocated for women's choice in everything from childbirth to politics, directly contradicted everything the Third Reich believed. Adolf Hitler supported traditional gender roles and wanted to maintain high birth rates, ideas Sanger decried in her books.

12. HER NIECE WAS PART OF THE INSPIRATION FOR WONDER WOMAN.

A panel of a Wonder Woman comic from 1978.
Tom Simpson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Olive Byrne, Sanger's niece, was involved in a polyamorous relationship with Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston. Marston credited both Olive and Elizabeth as his muses, according to historian Jill Lepore. In her 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore wrote that Marston based part of Wonder Woman's costume on the silver bracelets Olive often wore. Lepore also suggested Sanger herself may have been an influence on the popular comic book character. Feminist movements in the early 1900s often symbolized female oppression with chains, and Sanger was quick to adopt such symbolism with books like Motherhood in Bondage. Wonder Woman's use of chains and ropes as weapons echoed Sanger's vision for female liberation.

13. SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE 31 TIMES.

Margaret Sanger received 31 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize between 1953 and 1963. In 1960 alone, she received 20 nominations from 16 university professors and four members of India's parliament (Sanger took several trips to India, where she worked with people like Gandhi to discuss birth control).

14. SHE LIVED JUST LONG ENOUGH TO SEE HER LIFE'S WORK COME TO FRUITION.

Planned Parenthood's publicity director looks over a poster in 1967.
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Two important legal milestones happened after Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. In December 1936, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively overturned all federal restrictions on birth control, making it legal for doctors throughout the United States to provide access to contraception. On the state level, contraception was legal in some form or another everywhere except Connecticut, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the state laws preventing married women from accessing birth control. Griswold v. Connecticut later served as precedent for cases like Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which gave unmarried couples unrestricted access to contraception; Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized abortion; and Carey v. Population Services International (1977), which made it legal for doctors and pharmacists to distribute contraceptives to minors.

Sanger died on September 6, 1966, about a year after the Supreme Court decided on Griswold v. Connecticut. The next day, Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening spoke about Sanger in Congress. In an address to the president, Gruening said Sanger was "a great woman, a courageous and indomitable person who lived to see one of the most remarkable revolutions of modern times—a revolution which her torch kindled."

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