Gender Equality: Where Should the Buttons Go?

With the 4th grandchild due at the end of July, I wanted to knit something for him/her to wear home from the hospital.   I selected gender-neutral light mint cotton yarn that came complete with the pattern and three little duck buttons. As I began finishing it, I realized I couldn’t make the buttonholes or sew on the buttons.  0-3 Placement of these items is determined by sex: buttons on girls/womens’ clothes go on the left and for boys/men, on the right.

Puzzled about the origin of yet another difference between men and women, I did some reading.

It all dates back to military uniforms and the assumption that most people are right-handed.  Men carried their shield in their left hands, leaving the right hand free to wield a sword. Having clothing fold over from the left, protected warriors from being stabbed through slits in the right.  Women, not yet allowed in combat, and presumably protected by men, also tended to have maids to help them dress and button them up. These right-handed servants, facing the garment to be buttoned, could complete the task quicker with the buttons on the left side.

Yet fashion and the military have changed since the days of knights in armor.  Women in the military need to be equally protected as men. Most people- men and women- don’t have servants helping them dress.

For sure the women’s movement has more important things to worry about, but maybe it’s time to lobby for all buttons to be on the right.

Babies, of course, don’t dress themselves. Perhaps I’ll just put the buttons on the left.

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About cyclingrandma

I was a journalist (Danbury News-Times, Ct), before becoming a teacher, and continue to write for professional journals. I have written several study guides for Penguin Books and write for Education Update, a newspaper based in New York City. (www.educationupdate.com). I’ve interviewed many authors, college presidents, and scientists. I wrote “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine's website, www.smithsonian.com. (April, 2009). Two essays have been published in book anthologies; one for Wisdom of Our Mothers, (Familia Books) and the other in “College Search and Parent Rescue: Essay for Parents by Parents of College-Going Students.” (St. Martin’s Press). I was a middle school Language Arts teacher for more than 10 years and have just completed a five year grant position under No Child Left Behind in Newark, NJ public schools. I have three children, two daughters-in law, and six grandchildren. I'm an avid cyclist, knitter, cook, and reader. I love theater, museums, and yoga.
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19 Responses to Gender Equality: Where Should the Buttons Go?

  1. Fascinating! I love historical fun facts. For instance, I’ve heard that Frederick the Great ordered his armies military uniforms to have buttons sewn on the sleeves to keep the soldiers from wiping their noses on them.)

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  2. I had not thought about the origin of the placement of the buttons. It seems to me you should have a choice based on whether you are left or right handed not your gender. Maybe it is time to bring this one down. Babies really do not care. Most of the time they are making the process harder for their poor parents.

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  3. Fascinating, and fun as always! Beautiful knitting Lisa and I vote for the left too!

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  4. Facinating! I had no idea although I have wondered about it myself. Wasn’t there a thing about what side one should part their hair based on gender as well?

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  5. Leah says:

    This is fascinating. I always wondered why there was a difference with button placement on men’s and women’s clothes too!

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  6. essiewb says:

    I sell the things I knit at a local handmade market. I am constantly surprised by parents’ insistence on particular “boy” or “girl” colors, and attention to things like how a cardigan fastens. Famous knitter Elizabeth Zimmerman taught a method to take care of the buttonhole dilemma. As she knit the sweater, she put buttonholes on the right and left button bands, and after the baby’s gender was determined, she sewed buttons over the ones on the proper side.

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  7. Fun history! Now that I have a grandson (after raising two daughters) I’ve had to think about gender equality as I select toys, and it’s been interesting. I did buy him a rag doll, now names J.J. They seem to be buddies!

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    • Jacob’s favorite toy/comfort object was a rag doll that had a button, zipper, velcro,etc. Way too many nights looking for the thing… it gets harder to find great boy clothes as they get older- it becomes either all sports stuff or camoflague.

      On Sat, Jun 15, 2013 at 9:40 AM, cyclingrandma

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  8. karen r-w says:

    Really interesting history – I never noticed until now. Maybe a zipper?

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  9. Thank you for this. I too was wondering of the origin of this. Whoever thought this annoying tradition up was obviously not a knitter. 🙂

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  10. Have you noticed that women’s pants sometimes come with the fly to the left and sometimes to the right? I think it must be that some of them are tailored the men’s way.. For some reason, that always makes me feel they’re better made.

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  11. It would be ever so clever and interesting if you alternate the buttons and holes. THAT would be kosher, I’m sure. 😉

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  12. tchistorygal says:

    There’s nothing worse in sewing and knitting, than getting the buttonholes all cut and realizing they are on the wrong side. You can tell, I have done that! 🙂

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