Stephen F. Austin State University

Who Wore the Pants in the Early 20th Century Families? (March 2014)

Who Wore the Pants in the Early 20th Century Families?
By Marvin Mayer

Last month, in an article titled They Eyes Have It, we read about attempts by local governments to protect women from being harassed by men making "goo-goo eyes" at them. This month, we'll see how those same self-righteous politicians attempted to regulate who could wear what, at least in public. Image how this type of intrusion into our personal lives would be received today.

The 1890s to the 1920s was known as the Progressive Era. Progressivism embodied attempts to reform social and political behavior throughout the United States. Progressives believed that the family was the foundation of American society, and the government, especially city government, should work to strengthen and enhance the family. City councils, and later commissions, were expected to pass and enforce whatever rules might be necessary to achieve their progressive goals. Smith County's Tyler was no exception! The following Ordinance was adopted in 1988:

Whosoever shall, in this City, appear in any public place in a state of nudity or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex, or shall make an indecent exposure of his or her person . . . shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor.

This wording, "in a dress not belonging to his or her sex" was certainly not unique to Tyler. That exact phrase shows up in the city ordinances of Columbus, Ohio, as early as 1848, and in Chicago in 1851.
It became the basis for arresting women in uniform during the Civil War if they were discovered in town as opposed to inside a military camp, in which case they were handled by the provost.

Prohibition of men wearing women's clothing and women wearing men's clothing seemed to be part of the standard set of city ordinances adopted across the country. Why? Was it simply a reaction to Deuteronomy 22:5 in which God commands that a woman is not to wear that which pertains to a man and a man is not to wear that which pertains to a woman, for all that do so are an "abomination"? A primary reason, according to at least one book, was actually to deal with "gender fraud." According to Nan Hunter, cross-dressing was mostly used by women seeking the advantages of manhood by passing themselves off as men, in an era that severely limited employment and travel opportunities for single women.

City ordinances sought to enforce (or reinforce) "proper" sex roles by prescribing dress and behavior-men wear pants, and women wear corsets and petticoats and floor length dresses and sometimes bustles.

It's a safe bet that some cases likely involved transvestites and/or transgendered persons, but such persons also were subject to compliance with the referenced ordinance. The cross dressing regulation remained in effect throughout the Progressive Era, and not just in Tyler, Smith County, TX. For example, in 1896, a Fannin County girl was arrested in a barbershop for wearing clothing of the opposite sex while trying to run away from home. In 1916, another young woman was arrested in Fort Worth for being on the streets in men's clothing. Apparently, she was on her way home after attending a masquerade party!

Although no such instances of disregard for "the law" made news in Tyler, the ordinance cited above clearly shows the city fathers were ready! After all, they saw it as their duty to protect youngsters from such "dangerous" individuals. Maybe this type of legislation later encouraged screen writers to create the popular 1950s TV situation comedy, Father Knows Best!

As with last month's article, I want to thank and acknowledge Vicki Betts for allowing me to reproduce the images in this article, and utilize her script from a talk she presented to the Smith County Historical Society in late 2013. Ms. Betts invested a great deal of time and effort researching the ordinances referenced herein and assembling her research to form the basis of her presentation, and I am most grateful to her for allowing me to use it to write this and last month's article.