Equal Choice

The following is excerpted from "The Woman in the Black Corduroy Pants, et al." by Mel Feit, published in
The University of Dayton Review, Volume 18, Number 2.

From the NCM crest printed on our T-shirt

She wore black corduroy pants and had short, straight dark brown hair. She had on no makeup and, except for a pair of small hooped earrings, wore no decorative jewelry.

This was our second date. At the end of our first meeting, for coffee, she raised her lips the six inches or so to mine, and we kissed softly, sweetly, then more passionately. Her eyes sparkled. She smiled and said she wanted to see me again.

This night, over dinner, she reiterated that she was a strong, capable, intelligent, independent woman. She was attracted to me, she said, because she sensed I respected her power. So many men were intimidated by it, resented her for it and rejected her.

I understood. Our hands touched and there was a moment of silence and caring.

After awhile we talked about our work. She worked for a law firm where they didn't mind if she came to work in pants every day. She had demanded of her employer the right not to have to wear skirts or dresses to work, and he consented. She had worn a dress once, a few years ago, and hated it.

"Well," I said, exuberant over having finally found a woman who could appreciate me, "I know what you mean! I am also uncomfortable with sexist dress codes. I dislike having to wear pants all the time, they're too confining. I like to wear skirts sometimes. I like the flow of fabric around my body. I enjoy the cool comfort in summer. I feel more graceful, more completely masculine in a skirt. And besides, pants are boring. Skirts allow me to experiment, to change, to dress more creatively."

"Um… well… oh… wow… geez," she faltered for a moment, and then recovered her composure. She could never be sexually aroused by a man in a skirt, she said. And what was the real reason why I wanted to wear skirts, anyway? Was there something wrong with me? Was I gay?

How dare she. How dare she insist on such a one-sided, self-centered liberation. How dare she be so unwilling to share her new freedoms with me. We moved apart. Our conversation grew stilted. This time, after dinner, there was no kissing. When the check came - brace yourself – this independent woman expected me to pick it up. How dare she.

So that's the story of the woman in the black corduroy pants. Oh, I could have told you about the woman in the blue suit and blue striped necktie, who thought women looked adorable in men's clothing, and who did a lot of her own clothes shopping in the men's department at Macy's, and who abruptly ended our date when I told her I liked to wear skirts. "That's sick," she said.

"You're not going to borrow any of my skirts," she quipped as she left. "You're not going to borrow any of my ties," I shouted back.

And then – this one is my favorite – there was the woman in the green polyester pants with the fly-front. She was an assertive, businesslike, professional woman who did the maintenance work on her car, most of the repair work in her home, and who went to the gym a few times every week to pump iron. She could beat men at arm wrestling and she was proud of it. I was proud of her, too, until she told me she didn't want me to wear skirts, because, she said, if she had to share her femininity with a man it would make her feel like less of a woman. Really, that's what she said. I'm not kidding about this or making it up. "OK, well, what qualities of traditional masculinity are reserved for me, off-limits for you," I asked her in a state of shock, but she had no answer.

I suppose I could also tell you about the woman in the brown woolen slacks or the woman in the faded jeans, but it's not necessary. Same stories only different pants. Women demanding liberation for themselves, expecting men to abide by sexist restrictions, and thinking there was something fair or equal about that. "Men resigned themselves to a lack of individuality in clothes a long time ago," writes feminist author Susan Brownmiller, excusing this lack of male freedom. How dare she.

Let's understand one thing clearly: this clothing issue isn't superficial or silly. In every corner of the world, in primitive and sophisticated cultures, and throughout history, self-expression through fashion has been a natural, vital part of what it means to be a human being. What we're talking about here is the right of men to express the full range of their humanity, to have the same freedom to publicly express their creativity that women have to express their strength. That's not trivial. Too many men are being choked to death emotionally, feeling guilt and shame for wanting the very same choices that women take for granted.

So why do so many women in so many different kinds of pants object so strongly to my wearing skirts? Well, perhaps they have been conditioned to think only in terms of women's rights. Maybe they have been educated to expect change only when it's good for them. After all, the contemporary women's movement began at a time when conscripted men were dying in Vietnam. As tens of thousands of draftees returned home horribly disfigured, emotionally scarred, permanently paralyzed or in body bags, women started a movement to free women. It was a movement born of arrogance and sexism, I feel, because it was designed to completely liberate one gender while ignoring the oppression of the other. It represented a vision of equality in which only men were forced to wear combat fatigues and only women were permitted to wear dresses. Or anything else they wanted.

It is absolutely no accident, then, that a woman has a greater freedom when she gets dressed in the morning. She can wear what she wants to wear because she can be what she wants to be. She can wear traditionally male clothing because she can do traditionally male things, work in traditionally male jobs, assume traditionally male roles and personality traits. She can cross over into a man's world, share men's experiences, then return to a world where no men are allowed. You might say she can choose to wear the pants in the family. She has free choice in fashion because she has free choice in life.

But a man had better act and look like a man. He had better be steady, secure, a good provider and dressed in bifurcated clothing below the waist. A man in a skirt is a direct assault on society's views about masculinity and male responsibility. The image of him in that skirt seems so ridiculous to so many people because it penetrates deeply to the core of sexist prejudice against men. It bears witness to double standards and female privilege, exposes feminist hypocrisy and demands equal rights for men in every area of life. More than any other statement a man can make, his skirt challenges people who profess to believe in gender equality to either put up or shut up.

That is why I believe the struggle for men's equal rights will eventually be fought and won over this issue of dress reform. It packs a huge, highly symbolic, very visible wallop