Why skirt the issue? Ladies rule in trousers

Though we've seen much progress since those you've-come-a-long-way-baby days, women still don't earn what men do, nor will we see a person of our gender making president just yet.

But consider this small but symbolic milestone via your local courthouse: Pants. Women lawyers and judges can wear pants proudly and without fear of repercussion.

Maybe you've heard law schools are graduating as many women as men these days (and, an interesting aside, that veterinary schools have many more women than men.) On the home front, women occupy a third of the judicial bench in Hillsborough and are closing in on that number in Pinellas and Pasco.

Particularly notable judicial genderwise this election cycle: Hillsborough stands to elect as many as five new female circuit judges. Three races are nothing but women; who will likely wear pants.

By now you young professionals out there in your Ann Taylor trousers of varying shades of navy and gray are laughing, or at least thinking this absurd. Of course you wear pants without worry.

It was not always so. "I remember as an attorney just shortly before I took the bench," says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer, about to retire after 23 years. "A juror commented afterward, 'I did what you wanted me to do, but you shouldn't have worn pants.' "

Pantsuits on professional women were new, different and, apparently, scary.

Partly this had to be convention: Dressy meant dresses, or at least skirted suits, though why pants would be more casual on a woman than a man is a puzzle. Women sometimes wore suits with giant, floppy bows tied at the necks of their blouses in, apparently, the feminine approximation of a tie as well as one ugly moment in fashion history.

Susan Bucklew remembers twenty-something years back when she was teaching newbie judges telling them pants in court were not a good idea. "I guess we're all a product of our time," she says now, laughing, because having climbed to the rank of U.S. District Court judge, she wears pretty much what she pleases.

Back then, pull on a pair of pants like a man and you could just be making a statement. And maybe you didn't want a jury to judge you by whatever they thought your pants were saying.

"Back when there were very few of us, that's what they used to call us — the skirts," says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke, finishing her 20th year on the bench.

"I can tell you it took a long time for lawyers, particularly the guy lawyers, to feel comfortable talking to us women about other things besides cases," she says. "With me, it was a little bit easier, because I fish."

Ancient history, right? Twelve years back, lawyer Tracy Sheehan found herself apologizing to a jury for standing before them in pants, which she wore only because pantyhose — surely the world's most mean-spirited joke on women — were not possible because she had a burn on her leg. "Went so well, I kept wearing them," says Sheehan, now a circuit judge.

These days, as courthouse lore goes, a woman on the judicial ballot has an edge on a man, since voters tend to know less about those candidates, and what sets you apart is good. Whomever we elect, bet they'll be putting their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

Why skirt the issue? Ladies rule in trousers 08/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 14, 2008 5:24pm]

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