Dangerous Coats by Sharen Owens
Someone clever once said
Women were not allowed pockets
In case they carried leaflets
To spread sedition
Which means unrest
To you & me
A grandiose word
So ladies, start sewing
Made of pockets & sedition
In the Middle Ages, clothes were designed without pockets and both men and women wore something that looked like small fanny packs. There was a shift in fashion and those little bags were then designed to fit under clothing and slits in the clothes were added so you could grab what was in the bag as needed. For women, more fabric was added to skirts to hide the lumps created by the bags. Over time, the bags were sewn into men’s clothes, creating what we know of as pockets. They didn’t do this for women. In fact, it fell out of fashion to have those little openings to access bags altogether, bringing the bags back outside of the clothing where it was deemed more appropriate. Women digging beneath their clothing was unsightly and there was talk about the kinds of things women might be hiding in those unseen bags. Women’s pockets were private spaces carried into public with increasing freedom which was deemed dangerous especially during the age of revolution. No, the bags should be seen. Men will have pockets and women will carry bags that open publicly. By the 19th century and for more than 100 years, the standard men’s suit had a total of 17 pockets while women had none. These suits, and specifically the pockets, were touted as a natural invention, arming modern men for the marketplace. In contrast, in 1954, Christian Dior, having designed some spectacular dresses for women with what one might call a pocket detail, clarified that men have pockets to keep things in while women use them for decoration. He and most of his colleagues agreed that a woman’s figure shouldn’t be disturbed visually by unnecessary lumps, so as not to distract from the lumps that, dare I say, they wanted taking center stage. Women, it seems, were themselves used for decoration.
Women today have the option of wearing pants which sometimes, although certainly not always, have pockets. We still wear skirts and dresses and finding those with pockets is possible but remains a challenge. The culture of deprivation and of women being secretive, in need of direction and control, or for the visual benefit of those around them all remain in play.
It’s no secret that women have been second class citizens world wide for much of human history. There are examples of exceptions, but they are exceptions. The norm for most of civilization has been that men engage public discourse, determine policy on both the small and large scale and assume positions of power. Women through history have almost never had a voice in the larger cultural or political conversations nor have they had the option of self-determination.
Globally, the number of women in Parliamentary positions has doubled in the last 20 years, but that has only brought us to 24% of seats filled by women. The same percentage increase (doubling) can be seen for heads of state, but in total, we’re talking about 22 female identified Presidents or Prime Ministers out of 195 nations. Fortune 500 companies fare even worse, claiming a total of 6.6% with female leaders, even as women become more educated. Entrenched notions about women in leadership aren’t giving way to experience or competence.
“When it comes to equality of men and women in news media, progress has virtually ground to a halt. According to [a massive study spanning] 114 countries, only 24 per cent of the persons heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio news are women.” Let me say that again. Heard. Read about. Seen. In other words, not only are women not doing the reporting, we are not being reported on. Women’s stories aren’t being told. Over these last 20 years, that number has barely changed. The same is true for digital media where there was much hope for democratization. Again, women make up only 26% of the people featured in digital news or social media. Women’s voices aren’t even being retweeted.
This was made strikingly stark on Tuesday night as the results of Super Tuesday started coming in. The top candidates that night were Biden, Sanders, Bloomberg and Warren. MSNBC had a nice graphic demonstrating how the delegates were being divided up. All the numbers were right, but they forgot to put Warren’s name on the chart. She was completely invisible.
The unconscious bias we have toward women translates in the United States in news media for sure but also to significant underrepresentation in our halls of power. While the global number for female identified heads of state is 12%, here in the US, the total is Zero. Never has a woman been an American Head of State. Since the establishment of Congress, there have been a total of 57 female Senators. 7 of those were appointed to succeed their husbands. Never has a woman been President, Senate Majority leader or Chief Justice. Nancy Pelosi is the only woman who has ever lead the House of Representatives. In all our history, we’ve had 3 female Secretaries of State, no female Defense Secretaries or Secretary of the Treasury and in total, only 32 women have ever had cabinet positions and most of them are Education.
I say all this not to make us feel even more defeated. In fact, the opposite. We are celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote this year. Well, women always had the inherent right to vote and to be heard, but as of 100 years ago, we also got legal access and recognition of that right, bringing us closer to a full array of human rights otherwise denied us.
Including women in the American electorate took decades. From the writing of the Constitution, women were asking for a voice. In 1776 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband reminding him, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands” And she warned, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Sadly, none of the men in the room took her seriously. Typically, women were told they had a vote and their husbands cast it. (To be clear, black women didn’t even have that.) The general assumptions at work over the course of those first 140 years were that women weren’t smart, reasonable, focused, or capable emotionally or intellectually of handling the great responsibility of choosing our nation’s leaders.
Having made no significant headway, in 1848, women began to organize. Using the skills they were learning as part of the abolitionist movement, the mostly white women who attended the first meeting of the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca, NY were seeking legal recognition of citizenship. They had no rights to things like property, education or even custody of their own children. Our own Unitarian Lydia Maria Childs challenged cultural chivalry as a cover for robbing women of their rights and declared it ultimately a violence toward women and girls.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the radical revolutionary who looked like Mother Hubbard planned the meeting with Lucretia Mott and together they created a meeting on women’s rights, although they didn’t entirely agree on what those rights were. Voting was not on the agenda and Stanton was the only one who thought it should be. Interesting historical note- it was Fredrick Douglas who convinced them during that meeting that the right to vote should be part of the national conversation for women.
Suffrage changed from 1848 to 1920. It started with the argument that men and women are the same, so women should have the same rights. After the Civil War, white women aligned themselves with southern segregationists and argued that they could neutralize the black vote by adding so many new white voters to the rolls. When that didn’t work, somewhere around the turn of the century, they argued that women are actually better than men and would bring decency and morality to public discourse. The fight for full citizenship was ugly and often violent. The women were accused of being divisive, and angry which was an unattractive trait for a women – some things don’t change. There were picket lines, arrests, public beatings of women and hunger strikes along the way, but in 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified.
And lest you forget the power of the pocket, in the 1800s, the Rational Dress Society was founded to fight for reasonable women’s clothing and in 1910 the Suffragettes created their own suits promising 6 pockets to every women.
I like history. I use it as a road map, a way of looking back to see what to expect as I move forward. I learn from history and I’m inspired by it. The history of women’s roles in this country is mind blowing, not only because of the real change regardless of the resistance but because of the hope that lies in cultural transformation. Women went from being seen politically as irrelevant to becoming presidential contenders, Supreme Court justices, senators, Speakers and leaders in every field. While we have a long way to go, 100 years ago, the idea that women would play significant roles in the national political conversation would have seemed like a dream. I mean…seriously. We went from “women can’t have pockets” to “women can lead the United States of America”.
And this week, I need to be reminded that there have been difficult days before that have led to significant gains. I need to remember that as the last woman standing is now out of the presidential race. I need to remember that as anxiety increases around the corona virus and the road in front of us looks more frightening than the road behind us. I need to remember that as our nation becomes even more divided. I need to remember that as the news around climate change becomes even more bleak.
There’s a lot of anxiety in the air this week. It’s a good week to stay home and hide.
And here I am talking about pockets. But, we know I’m talking about a lot more than that. I’m talking about progress. We aren’t where we want to be, but we’re a lot further along than we used to be.
I mean, listen to those facts again. Internationally, women have been 2nd class citizens, and now 24% of the seats of Parliament around the globe are filled by women. 22 nations have female heads of state. 33 Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Are we at 50%? No. But are we way ahead of where we were 100 years ago. Absolutely.
And that’s the result of real work. The arc of history doesn’t bend toward justice on its own. It’s got to be pulled. Change isn’t natural and it rarely comes easily. Culture fights change. It’s human nature to want things to be as they are.
Some people become our guides. They can see the world that’s possible, the world the rest of us don’t see. They call us to something better than what we have and sometimes they can do it so well, we become willing to trust them. That’s because in each of us, we know there’s something better. We know there’s a world where women don’t have to fight for full citizenship, where communities value all their members. And if it doesn’t exist now, history tells us, it will exist soon.
I know a lot of women and I’m sure some men are feeling stung by the loss of Elizabeth Warren as a candidate. For some, it’s exhausting to work so hard for someone who inspires you only to find it come to nothing. For some, the loss is symbolic, resting in the idea that a woman will always be judged more harshly than a man.
I’m profoundly grateful for the women who have gone before me. Women like Adams and Stanton and Lott and Childs and so many others like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth who poured themselves out in service of a dream many of them never saw come to fruition. That’s the kind of faith we all need. The idea that the work is good, even if we don’t ever get to witness our success. Someone will. Someone will be grateful for the ways we moved the conversation forward, for the thousand little losses we suffered before the big gains. I don’t know the names of all the women who organized for those early conventions, but I love them. I don’t know the names of the women who went on hunger strikes, but I love them, too. And in a hundred years, people won’t know our names either, but they’ll feel their gratitude in their bones for all we did to help them.
So, for today, at this moment in our history, especially today as we head downstairs to talk about the state of our beloved church, we can breathe in gratitude for all the work that has been done to bring us to this point. We can put our hands in our pockets, smile and look for what’s next.