A women’s rights history moment: Helen Hulick was called to court as a burglary witness in November 1938. The 29-year-old kindergarten teacher 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.
By taking this stand, Helen launched a national discussion that helped to free women of “anti-slackism.”