Girls started being allowed to wear pants to school the year after I graduated. And shortly after that my new job also allowed me to wear them. I adored the film star Katherine Hepburn for her forward-thinking actions of women wearing slacks. By my generation it was blue jeans. This is where girls started thriving in sports too. They had been liberated. If not for the defiance these women showed, where would we be? All because of prejudices about women’s clothing!
And then Helen went on to a very successful career.
A women’s rights history moment: Helen Hulick was called to court as a burglary witness in November 1938. The 29-year-old — an innovative educator who pioneered auditory-verbal approaches to working with deaf children — arrived in her usual attire of a top and slacks.
But seeing slacks on a woman so greatly offended Judge Arthur S. Guerin that he would not allow Hulick to testify. Instead, he rescheduled her testimony and ordered her to wear a dress at her next appearance.
She refused. As the Nov. 10, 1938 issue of the L.A. Times reported, she stated: “You tell the judge I will stand on my rights. If he orders me to change into a dress I won’t do it. I like slacks. They’re comfortable.”￼
When she appeared in slacks once more, the judge chastised her for both attire and what he perceived as problems with her demeanor. “The last time you were in this court dressed as you are now and reclining on your neck on the back of your chair, you drew more attention from spectators, prisoners and court attaches than the legal business at hand,” Guerin said. “You were requested to return in garb acceptable to courtroom procedure. Today you come back dressed in pants and openly defying the court (…)
“The court hereby orders and directs you to return tomorrow in accepted dress. If you insist on wearing slacks again you will be prevented from testifying (…) But be prepared to be punished according to law for contempt of court.”
The Times quoted her response as follows: “Listen, I’ve worn slacks since I was 15. I don’t own a dress except a formal. If he wants me to appear in a formal gown that’s okay with me. I’ll come back in slacks and if he puts me in jail I hope it will help to free women forever of anti-slackism.”
Hulick returned wearing slacks, but this time, she also brought with her Attorney William Katz. Katz was armed with citations supporting her argument that she had the right to appear in the attire of her choice.
Judge Guerin held her in contempt of court nevertheless, sentencing her to five days in jail. There, she was forced to wear a denim prisoners’ dress. She was quickly released on her own recognizance, however, after her attorney declared they would be appealing the sentence.
As Hulick’s story garnered attention, hundreds of supporters sent letters of protest to the courthouse.
Finally, the Appellate Division overturned Judge Guerin’s contempt citation.
She continued to do amazing work throughout her career: In 1985, Lafayette College awarded her an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree “for her work as teacher, scientist and pioneer in the field of auditory therapy,” and in 1988, when she was 80, the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf awarded her the organization’s highest tribute, Honors of the Association.
Thank you, Dr. Hulick, for not only making a difference in so many students’ lives, but also for helping to free women of “anti-slackism” along the way. 👩⚖️👖🚶🏻♀️