Today is Election Day.
As the hashtags #Pantsuit and #Nation sweep the internet, I am reminded of a day many years ago when I made a momentous decision involving a pantsuit.
I know, I know! Hard to imagine a pantsuit being involved in an earthshaking moment, but this one was.
In the late 1960s, I was a supervisor and trainer for the newly-minted college graduates who came to work for the insurance company in Hartford where I had been employed, originally as a computer programmer. In those days, not too many people knew what a computer was, let alone what a programmer did. The field then was called “data processing” and that’s what it was — the insurance company had set out to replace the sea of clerks, who wrote on and filed index cards, with computers that could process and file premium payments, as well as claims. The company also was awarded the contract to process all transactions in Connecticut for the new Medicare system.
I was born in 1946, and my age cohort was on the cusp of the change in societal attitudes around the roles of women. I was an ardent feminist (although I don’t think I used that word in those days), and an advocate for equal treatment of women in the workplace. Many, if not most people younger than I shared that attitude, but few people older than I did.
My management style seemed to suit people who felt isolated and left out of the mainstream. As a result, I was often assigned oddball or problem employees. With the insight I’ve acquired over the years, I believe that I was sympathetic, even empathetic, to people of color, folks with dodgy pasts, gays, women, and other mistreated people because (unbeknownst to me at the time) I am autistic, and had experienced the same kind of isolation and misunderstanding.
Many of the new hires who reported to me were women, which was unusual because they were coming in at a fairly high level. Of the 2,000 or so people who worked in the building, most were women, but almost all of them were doing clerical jobs. I think there were about 200 officers of the company, and only two of them were women.
One day in 1969, one of the young women I supervised came to me with a question. Cheryl was a bright, eager, recent college graduate, married, and I held her in high regard.
“Would it be all right if I wore a pantsuit to work?” she asked.
I was taken aback at the idea of a woman wearing pants to work, not because I opposed the idea, but because it just wasn’t done.
“What do you mean, ‘pantsuit’?” I cautiously inquired.
“Well, I have this nice beige polyester outfit that looks very businesslike, but it is a jacket and pants, not a skirt.”
“I see. And do you wear a blouse under the jacket?”
“Yes, a white blouse. I think it looks very professional, but I’ve never seen any woman wear pants here, so I thought I’d ask if it’s okay.”
I hesitated. I wondered if this was my decision to make. Perhaps I should go up the chain of command, or call the personnel department. Then the rebel in me took over. The hell with it, I thought, it’s a great idea. Shake ’em up a bit. One more step toward equality.
“I don’t see a problem with that!” I said. Of course, I did, but I was willing to live with the consequences.
Cheryl beamed. “Okay, thanks!” she said, and I put the matter out of my mind.
The next day she arrived at work in her pantsuit. I don’t remember thinking it was the cat’s meow, but it was as she described, very tame and businesslike. To me. But oh! the firestorm!
Shortly after the workday began, Cheryl came over to my desk and sat down. “What do you think?” she asked.
“I’m getting a lot of funny looks.”
“Don’t worry about it!” I reassured her. “The outfit is just the way you told me it would be. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
It didn’t take long. I soon got a call from someone in personnel, asking me if I had approved the outfit that was causing such a stir. Yes, I confirmed, I did — why? was there a problem with it?
“We’re not sure. We don’t have a policy about that, but it seems we may need to create one to address all the complaints we’ve been getting.”
There followed a fairly long conversation in which I vigorously defended Cheryl’s right to wear pants. Hard to believe in this day and age, but at the time it was a big deal. Several hours later I got a call back. “We’re not going to make an issue of it, and we decided not to have a formal policy, but it’s okay. Women can wear pantsuits.”
I went over and told Cheryl, and all her friends within earshot gave her a big cheer.
The Revolution had begun!