The Three-Piece Rule

Some of you may not be aware, but in the 1950s and 1960s, these women could not walk down the streets of many major American cities without a very real fear of being arrested.In the years following World War II and up into the early 1970s, from New York to San Francisco to Miami, police had the right to arrest women who favored a more masculine way of dressing. It was considered deviant behavior, and vice squads often raided bookstores, bars, clubs, and other places unmarried women congregated. If you haven’t figured it out by now, these laws were specifically designed to target and punish lesbians.
New York adopted the “three piece rule,” which meant that if a woman was stopped for the way she was dressed but was wearing at least three pieces of traditionally feminine clothing, she was set free. Some women took up this rule, others brazenly ignored it.
I thought I knew a fair amount of queer history, but the further I investigated this sad chapter of American law, the more incredulous I became.  I’m not going to summarzie all the great articles I read on this subject, but if you are interested in learning more, take a look at this article from Florida State University’s law library. If you have a subscription to Lexis Nexis, have a look at this article, Litigating for Lesbian and Gay Rights: A Legal History as well.

I am just so amazed that so much time and effort was spent on arresting citizens who were not breaking any laws, who were going about their business and maybe wearing a pair of pants while doing it. Is that not the definition of persecution? But when the mentality of society is pants = gay and gay = bad, why should I be surprised that actual laws existed for no other reason than to frighten and intimidate a small minority group?

I wear pants not every day, but most of the time. Could I pass the three piece rule any given day of the week? Look down. Could you? This is what the passage of time has afforded us. It was most certainly not just Yves Saint Laurent and his legendary and scandalous-at-the-time Le Smoking pantsuit. It was the courage of women who lived in a culture of fear, the gradual shift in society’s scope of acceptance, and the repeal of unjust legislation.

This is why photos of these Eisenhower-era ladies are so amazing to me. Even in a pre-Facebook world, a photo was still a photo, documentation of the life you lead, and you never knew whose hands it would fall into. The photos in this post came from this flickr photo stream.  I encourage you to check it out too.

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One thought on “The Three-Piece Rule

  1. Pingback: The Social Paradox of Passing (Gender Analysis 23) | Gender Analysis

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