New Statute in California Cuts Women Some Slacks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THIS just in: Working women in America's cutting-edge state for fashion, culture, and social trends have just made the world safer ... for pants.

Beginning today, from boardrooms to backrooms, lobbies to legislative chambers, California women who opt for slacks instead of skirts will no longer tiptoe in trepidation of employers who wield Victorian dress codes.

The ``Pants-Are-OK'' law is one of the more peculiar of dozens of statutes taking effect this week in states across the country.

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Many of them have been motivated by concerns about crime and meager treasuries. In Georgia, for instance, a tough two-strikes-and-you're-out law will put two-time violent offenders away for life without parole. Indiana is enacting a tax credit for those donating used computers to public schools, Maine is lowering workers' compensation costs for employers, and Pennsylvania is compelling divorced parents to provide health insurance for their children, even if they don't have custody.

In California, meanwhile, supporters of the new pants statute tout it as the most progressive development since the zipper.

``Women make important business decisions every day,'' says Gov. Pete Wilson, who signed Senate Bill 1288 in September prohibiting employers from refusing to allow employees to wear pants solely on the basis of their sex. ``Indeed, working women should be able to make the simple choice on the professional attire they wish to wear.''

Some say they idea is more flaky falderal from the state that once funded a commission to study self-esteem. But others say the cut-me-some-slack(s) trend belongs on California's growing list of more serious, cutting-edge social trends. ``It strikes you as silly when you first hear about it, but it's also very important,'' says Fredelle Spiegel, a socio-historian at the University of California, Los Angeles. ``What is silly is that in this day and age such a bill is necessary - what's important is consciousness-raising over the inequalities that still exist over what a woman wears.''

Despite social changes in recent decades that have made pants-wearing by women far more accepted than in the past, a list of complaints topped 100 this year to the office of Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D) of Los Angeles:

* A Sacramento supermarket checker, fired after wearing pants because she had to do lifting.

* A Brea office worker fired after wearing an Italian pantsuit to work.

* An employee at a medical and dental assistants' school says she lost her job for wearing pantsuits.

A 1994 San Francisco Chronicle article highlighted radio and television stations in Fresno and Sacramento that prohibited pants on women employees. The California chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) has received enough complaints to speak out. And Ms. Martinez herself had been held to the California Capitol rules of decorum that required dresses or skirts only on the Assembly and Senate floors.

But the bill failed twice, until its language was incorporated into another bill carried by Sen. Charles Calderon (D) of Whittier, prohibiting gender-biased pricing.

``I don't understand why it has been so difficult to pass this legislation. This should be a no-brainer,'' said Senator Calderon on the Senate floor. ``I've even worn a skirt on occasion during Halloween or special occasions. It's the most uncomfortable thing I've ever worn.''

Now, employers who violate the law could be sued by employees for reinstatement, back pay, and damages - and could be fined $50,000. (Restaurants and hotels that utilize employee uniforms are exempt.) But Marylou Remy, owner of 9-to-5 etc. Business Services in Beverly Hills is not overly sanguine. ``None of this would have come up if more women were bosses. It shows the work world is still too much run by men.''

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