“Women in Pants: Manly maidens, cowgirls, and other renegades” by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig

dr. mary walker

Women throughout history have cast aside their cumbersome petticoats, crinolines, corsets, and bustles in favour of more practical bifurcated garments. Although we are still navigating the complexity of the body-image standards to which women are being held today, can you imagine being arrested for wearing jeans instead of a skirt? That’s exactly what happened to Dr. Mary Walker (left) in 1866.

From Bloomers and harem pants to overalls, Levi’s, chaps, and slacks, women have found any number of reasons for mannish garb, even in times when fashion and social propriety dictated that the female form be confined in acres of skirt fabric.

  • Dress Reform: Before women began the fight for the vote, higher education, and birth control, they fought for the right to wear whatever they wanted. Women in utopian communes wore versions of reform dress as early as the 1820s, but it wan’t until Amelia Bloomer‘s 1851 article in The Lily that the bid for fashion freedom went viral.

coal miner

  • Women at Work: Although we often consider the first World War as the turning point for women in the workforce, economic necessity required many 19th-century American women to work. This was especially true of pioneer women in the early west, and of African American women in the old south. European immigrants in the northeast and midwest were also needed in the factories and fields beside the men. Because of the danger wide skirts posed, many of these women chose to wear dungarees and overalls. What is more surprising is how many of these women were still required to wear dresses, even in factory jobs when one wrong move meant that a hem could get caught in the machinery and drag a women to her death.
  • Military women: Many Civil War women worked as nurses and water-bearers on the field of battle. A rare few even dressed as men, disguising their gender so they could fight in combat. Jo March may have dreamed of joining her father in battle, but very few women were able to realize that dream.

arizona scout

  • Female Cowboys: Calamity Jane is probably the most famous cross-dressing woman of the wild west, but there were many like her who never courted notoriety, but rode the Western plains with a liberty that would have otherwise been off limits to them in a side-saddle.
  • Performing on the stage: Back in Shakespeare’s day, all-male troups played the female roles in plays. This trend was reversed when such 19th- and 20th-century thespiennes as Charlotte Cushman and Sarah Bernhardt were cast as male leads in the Bard’s plays. And that’s only the legitimate stage – numerous women in burlesque, Vaudeville, and the circus dressed in trousers to perform anything from comic routines and song and dance numbers to death-defying acts.

baseball player and gent

  • Romance and Lesbianism: Whether it was true love or a college “pash,” many Victorian and Edwardian women pledged their love for each other. All-female mock weddings were very popular in an age when the two sexes were kept socially separate and women turned to each other for the endearments lacking from the opposite sex.
  • College: As Katharine Hepburn and her mother could testify, there were many opportunities for cross-dressing at the various women’s colleges. These schools established a sort of single-sex microcosm of society as a whole, in many ways requiring that it’s members adopt the qualities and roles of the opposite sex. On the one hand, this was the whole point of the women’s colleges – to give women opportunities traditionally reserved for men. On the other hand, many of the transsexual goings on were side effects of the confined academic life. In any case, college women involved in sports and theatre had many chances to don slacks. Until school dances permitted boys in the later 1920s, the upper-classmen often dressed in suits and danced with the under-classmen.


  • Sports and athletics: Women fought for the right to participate in athletics almost as vehemently as they fought for the vote. At first, female athletes were showcased as forms of unusual entertainment. Today many women are still fighting for equal recognition in the sports world. The invention of the bicycle around the turn of the century gave greater legitimacy to the idea of physically active women. Women’s colleges often presented the first and last opportunities for women to participate in sports.
  • Adventurous women: No matter what patriarchal society did to keep women in the kitchen making babies (and wearing skirts), nothing could stop many women from going out into the world in search of adventure. These courageous women pushed limits socially and physically. Sticking out her toungue and blowing a raspberry at convention, the New Woman donned britches and rode west, climbed the highest peaks, toured the far east, and flew airplanes across oceans. And she was damned good at it too!

Authors Catherine Smith (Assoc. Prof., Mott Comm. College, Flint, MI) and Cynthia Greig (fine-art photographer and independent curator) have compiled a superb collection of photographs and quotes for “Women in Pants: Manly maidens, cowgirls, and other renegades.” The book gives us a glimpse into an unexplored aspect of the Victorian/Edwardian female world. Some of the anecdotes are gutsy and funny, while others, like those about the dangers of women’s dress, are tragically sad. The best part about the photographs is the women’s faces. Some of the women shyly avoid the camera’s gaze, while others giggle at the fun of having their picture taken in slacks. But my favorite are those women who stare directly at the lens, shoulders back and chins held high, as if challenging the viewer to protest. How would you caption the thoughts of each of the women below?

line of bloomers

Women in Pants” could be more cohesive in it’s presentation of the photographs – though the chapters are divided into distinct categories, some of the pictures seem to overlap classifications. The chapter about women’s colleges is far too short and lacks the depth that subject could offer to this book’s subject of choice, which is odd because many of the pictures in other chapters are of college women. Also, the book ends so abruptly that I thought there must be a mistake in my library copy. There is no conclusion to the volume, just a picture and a quote, as on every other page, and then you’re in the bibliography!

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Despite it’s lack of direction and depth, I found it very informative. Without being too much of a sledgehammer feminist tract, it showcases a fascinating slice of women’s history. Below I have pulled some of my favorite quotes and images from the book. Enjoy!

“The burden of restrictive garments laid off, and women could enter upon the arts, studies, professions and labors which the late rapid growth in public sentiment has opened to them, and instead of endangering women’s little store of present strength, would replenish it.” (Mary Tillotson, Progress versus Fashion, 20)

“Heretofore rags have been the primary, and women the secondary; we propose, now, to place woman in her true position, making her primary, and rags secondary.” (Elizabeth Cady StantonThe Lily, 1851)


Calamity Jane“When I joined Custer I donned the uniform of the soldier. It was a bit awkward at first but I soon got to be perfectly at home in men’s clothes.” (The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself, 1896)

“When I first started to ride, we wore divided skirts and tied them down below the knees when we did fancy riding, being very careful not to expose any leg between the skirt and the boot top. Later we put elastic in the skirt hems and let them blouse over. That at least kept them down. The next step was to get rid of the boots themselves; we wore sneakers…. But they left the calves of our legs exposed; I for one decided they’d just have to be exposed! Cowgirls were supposed to be rough anyway… Finally, this spring I made my bloomers tighter. I’d learned several new tricks that could be dangerous if I got hung up in baggy clothes. I wished we could wear pants, but back then we didn’t even wear Levi’s at home on the ranch.” (Vera McGinnis, Rodeo Road: My Life as a Pioneer Cowgirl, 1974)


“But even through the pain, through the haziness of it all, there was something which shot like a flash… I was weak and in pain. But there was only one thing to do – to go on, to finish my work. My heavy uniform had absorbed the blood; the dark color prevented the seepage from being seen… That night the work was even harder, for I was sorer and stiffer now. But an old addage of the circus world kept pounding in my brain: ‘The show must go on.'” (Lucia Zora after being mauled by a tiger during her circus act, “The Bravest Woman in the World,” Ladies Home Journal, 1924)

Sarah Hamlet

“When I walked out of the theatre, they didn’t know if I was a boy or a girl. Then, when I got to Paris, that’s what caught their attention first; it was my hair. They even said, when they first saw me, ‘Are you a girl, or are you a boy?’ I never would answer them. I would just laugh.” (Josephine BakerRemembering Josephine, 1976)

“It seems as if, at this age of the world, we all ought to know that our notions of what is womanly or unwomanly, feminine or unfeminine, are very largely a result of education. Had we always seen men in petticoats and women in breeches, it would seem very unfeminine for a woman to put on skirts.” (Frances E. Russell, Arena, 1892)

“A young lady in Fifth avenue dressed in male costume for years, travelling all over Europe and this country. She says it would have been impossible to have seen and known as much of life in woman’s attire, and to have felt the independence and security she did, had her sex been proclaimed before all Israel and the sun. There are many good reasons for adopting male costume… A concealment of sex would protect our young girls from these terrible outrages from brutal men, reported in our daily papers… When we have a voice in legislation, we shall dress as we please, and if, by concealing our sex, we find that we too, can roam up and down the earth in safety (not seeking whom we may devour), we shall keep our womanhood a profound secret.” (Elizabeth Cady StantonThe Sibyl, 1869)

pipe smoking“Diaries and letters reveal that many Victorian women often addressed their closest female friends as ‘My beloved,’ ‘My Dearest Darling,’ or ‘My Dearest Lover,’ expressing themselves with both tender and passionate emotions… In fact, many other women declared their love for each other with equally intense embraces and kisses. The frequency of such emotional attachments might suggest that almost all nineteenth-century women shared sexual relationships that paralleled what we today identify as lesbian. However, when viewed within the context of the time, such ardent words and physical expressions of devotion more often reflect a culture of communication that allowed for greater intimacy, openness, and spontaneity between women when social etiquette demanded a more formal and reserved nature in the company of men.” (Women in Pants, 121)


“I am often asked if my progress is not impeded by the weight of so much clothing, to which I answer, No… A skirt, on the contrary, however short and light, anything depending from the waiste to the shoulders, is some hinderance to movement and of noticeable weight… Neither do I consider that an abbreviated skirt would add to the gracefulness of my appearance… In rock climbing the shortest skirt may be an added source of danger.” (Annie Smith Peck, The Search for the Apex of America, 1911)


death by skirt



Although Katharine Hepburn is not featured in the images and quotes of “Women in Pants,” she is mentioned in the very first sentence of the introduction as one of the first to come to mind when we think of women in pants. As a girl, Hepburn shaved off her hair and told everyone to call her Jimmy. At Bryn Mawr, she sometimes played male roles in college theatrical productions. I thought I’d just sneak in a photo of Miss Hepburn in Bryn Mawr’s production of The Truth About the Blades. Thanks so much for stopping by – I hope you’ll go to your library and check out Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig’s “Women in Pants: Manly maidens, cowgirls, and other renegades.” Happy reading!BM blayds

3 thoughts on ““Women in Pants: Manly maidens, cowgirls, and other renegades” by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig

  • Charles

    I am dismayed to see you describe college women earlier as having had opportunities for “cross-dressing” by wearing pants. Cease giving legitimacy to the psychiatric cult. No cross dressing exists past women in athletic supporters or men in bras. All trousers, skirts, plain and fancy clothes, are sex neutral! Because the rational way to decide the issue is along lines of individual preference—not along gender lines. But, that’s our M.O. today—but only regarding women! Women dress as individuals with actual choices, men are regimented by psychiatric slander terms into a collective without variety. Social forces alone caused the trouser/skirt sex division, and the plain/fancy clothes sex division. Horseback riding put men into pants; factory work in WW 2 put women into pants, far more so that any phenomenon before. I saw a late 19th century reference to men in petticoats. They still wear them on occasion in Albania, Greece, Indian Kathakali, and in Bhutan—and always in context of presenting as men.

  • Fashion Avenger

    Fashion of the last fifty years is the ultimate sexism and the victim are males; females have a much greater choice of traditional/historical menswear then men; how biased and ridiculous that is !
    Why should cross-dressers have much more fashion choices than the gender that this fashion was originally made to be worn ? I own several cross-dresser made jeans for myself; Why ? they are sexier and more aerodynamic than the baggy style now limited to males since female transvestism is vogue. I remember when all the famous Hollywood cowboy heroes from Tom Mix to Roy Rogers wore tight legged, fancy pants tucked into military riding boots or cowboy boots ; time to bring them back for males.

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