It is well known that the University of Michigan is one of the country’s most consistently left-leaning educational institutions. It is hoisted up by a predominantly liberal student body that spews progressive thought in the residence halls and holds hot debate in the lecture halls. The strong progressive foundation that the University upholds appears to be cemented in blue — with a pinch of maize of course — but it is important to recognize not being able to vote wasn’t the only thing women on campus weren’t able to do within the past century.
With all of the controversial topics that remain unresolved from this past year — sexual misconduct scandals, weak COVID-19 plans, etc. — let us reflect on the past for insight on how to prevent history from repeating itself.
It was not until 1956 that women were permitted to enter the Michigan Union through the front door, a lifted restriction that was revolutionary for students at the time. With progress comes its stipulations; upon entering, female students were banned from using the Pendleton Library. Why? To “preserve some spark of the ‘for men only’ tradition,” according to a 1957 publication of The Michigan Daily. This spark has now fizzled, but the fires of the feminist movement have run their course through the University since its founding.
Ann Arbor’s own Annie Smith Peck was one of the first women admitted to the University, most known for her refusal to let gender norms prevent her from scaling both the mountains of a patriarchal society and actual ones. In 1895, she dropped her skirt to scale the Matterhorn, famously photographed touting trousers as she made the climb. Upon descending 14,692 feet from the peak and back to campus, she faced major criticism over her slacks.
“She provoked moral outrage with her daring and eccentric climbing outfit: a hip-length tunic, knickerbockers, stout boots and woolen hose, topped off by a stout felt hat with a veil,” writes Charles T. Robinson for Yankee. Such outrage even culminated in a public debate centering around whether or not Peck should be arrested for her crime of pants-wearing.
For some, it may be hard to believe that the streets of Ann Arbor, now home to its own category of “hipster” fashion, once restricted women to skirts and dresses and that debates held on the steps of the Union or bricks on the Diag were for a right-wing cause rather than left. However, there is a reason why female trousers were left tucked away in wardrobes and entrance to the Union was restricted, and that reason, put simply, is men. Where there is an intermingling of the sexes, the male gaze that we women either dread or relish emerges. This inescapable gaze is relevant in any time period, creating a socialized uniform.
Back in the 1940s, the minds of Michigan men were not only consumed with fears of being drafted, but apparently the potential of soon viewing the outlined legs of women. Articles upon articles of The Michigan Daily during the early 1900s detail the dress code of the proper and rational Ann Arbor woman. One 1941 story details different dress combinations for every Michigan freshman, describing a skirt as a “necessity” in order to follow with the University’s lean towards conservatism and the standards of being desirable. The campus that was once considered one of the more right-leaning campuses of the east must surely be a different campus than the one we walk through today. It is not the same campus it was 60 years ago, but that is thanks to the women who changed it.
It wasn’t until the 1960s, roughly 65 years after Peck’s climb, that counter-culture had finally hit its peak and enacted change in dress reform. Something practical in nature, meant to provide protection and flexibility all while promoting productivity, takes form in pants. An everyday clothing item that nowadays is stuffed in our drawers once represented equality, power and freedom.
Fast forward to present society, the great legging debate continues to upset the nation and college campuses. It was just three short years ago United Airlines sparked outrage when an employee denied two young girls from boarding a flight due to their infamous tight pants. It was only one year ago when a woman named Maryann White published a letter in Notre Dame’s student newspaper asking girls to eliminate leggings from their wardrobe under the belief that leggings “make it difficult to ignore young women’s bodies.”
These instances of the lack of male accountability rekindle the fire that women have fiercely sought to snuff. That mother (and other mothers) argue that there’s a generational gap that justifies their views, but this holds no avail on our campus. Growing up in a different generation is not an excuse for policing women’s clothing choices nor for the lack of male self-control. This issue is not a new concept with the advent of leggings but is in fact generational, making us only hope that Peck would be proud of a new kind of pants that has scaled yet another sexist mountain.
The progressive roots that the University appears to be grounded in do not run as deep as one may think. Recognizing these shortcomings in modern history is important to achieve further progress.
Entering the Union takes on a whole new meaning knowing that, at one point, I — and the now 14,432 women that call this campus home — would not have been able to open the ornate wooden doors at the main entrance. As I am writing this article, I have my feet perched on a chair in the skylit courtyard, sporting my leggings. Something as simple as this is a small victory that we are not to take for granted.
Julia Maloney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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