As we enter Sarah Calhoun’s White Sulphur Springs shop, Red Ants Pants, we bring the smell of campfire with us. We spent two nights at Camp Baker, the put-in spot for boaters on the Smith River, and temperatures got down to the single digits. The fire has been our warmth for two days, and we carry its scent on our clothes. The shop is small, warm, and classy. The back walls are lined with shelves that appear to be made of aspen trees which still have many of their natural features; the pants are resting among tree tops. The wood floors and ornate ceiling of the former saddle shop are accented by Red Ants Pants’ signature bright red. One side of the store features handmade jewelry, books, carpentry pencils, and several other small gifts. The rest of the shop displays shelves of sturdy brown pants and shorts, T-shirts of many kinds, and soft work shirts. What makes this shop special is that these pants are designed for women’s bodies and run in thirty-seven different sizes, so as to make sure everybody can find a pair that works for them.
Before we can browse for too long, the shop dog, Nellie, bursts out of the door at the back of the shop and enthusiastically greets us all. Sarah follows, tall, strong, and smiling in a way that seems to welcome you to be yourself. After introductions, she begins to tell us her story.
Throughout her life she has worked and played outside. She grew up on a small farm in Connecticut, working as an instructor for Outward Bound and as a trail crew leader for the Student Conservation Association in her early career. Throughout these careers, she grew more and more frustrated at the lack of work clothes made for women’s bodies. Working in clothes that simply do not fit adds an extra layer of difficulty to any active job. After moving to Bozeman, Montana, Sarah decided to do what she could to create the change she wanted to see in the apparel industry. While sitting in a coffee shop reading Small Businesses For Dummies, a man approached her, curious about what sort of business she was planning. As it turns out, he had worked in design and production for Patagonia and was willing to help.
Rooted in doing what’s right, she modeled her business around several aspects that felt important to her: her pants are and always will be made in the USA, her shop is located in a rural community, and the pants are designed for working women. In 2006, Sarah moved to White Sulphur Springs, bought her store front, and began to develop her unique line of clothing.
When Sarah talked to us about Red Ants Pants, I felt that her ideas resonated with a past discussion we had about ecofeminism. Recently, we’ve gone deeper into philosophical ideas that provide different lenses into the environmental movement. Ecofeminism is the school of thought that places the oppression of women and the oppression of nature in parallel with each other, arguing that feminism and environmentalism should be tied together as they advocate taking down the same oppressive frameworks. Oppressive conceptual frameworks are based on claims that stem from stereotypes and create a divide between two neutral categories, claiming that one is inherently better. According to philosopher Karren Warren, the framework that “justifies” male domination of women is rooted in the idea that, “women are identified with nature and the realm of the physical; men are identified with the ‘human’ and the realm of the mental” (Warren, 130). I pick up on two main false assumptions: that there is a dichotomy between men and women, when in reality gender exists of a wide spectrum, and that one end of this gender spectrum has an identification with nature while the other has an identification with “human.” In our discussion, we approached some confusion about what this claim meant, especially regarding how exactly women are associated with nature. Women, unlike men, have not historically been thought of as campers, hikers or adventurers, but rather as witches who conjure up evil spirits in the woods or as sinners picking forbidden fruit and ruining the life in the garden that we once had. When women went out to the woods, they were evil; when men went out to the woods, they were courageous and strong.
In class, we wandered into discussing the ways this constructed idea has affected the outdoor recreation industry. The women among our group brought up the fact that just about every outdoor activity has ample options for clothing and equipment for men and is often lacking for women. Many opportunities in outdoor activities for women, such as hunting and trail crew work, are often very male dominated, although this seems to be steadily improving. My male classmates voiced frustration about the pressure to behave in a tough, unemotional way in relation to experiences outdoors. Those who fall outside the bounds of male or female will walk into any outdoors store and find hardly any apparel geared towards them. Looking at the outdoor industry, I see that it’s rooted in an oppressive gender binary and logic of domination that makes it difficult for people of any gender.
In an ideal world, clothing and equipment would be made for bodies, not genders. Sarah’s line of clothing exemplifies this revolution in the outdoor clothing industry. Although still marketed as “women’s pants,” the way Sarah’s pants are sized is inclusive to all genders. When my classmate, Nick, asked if men ever bought Red Ants Pants, Sarah explained how she’d been wearing her dad’s old pants before Red Ants Pants and had managed to make them work, so she didn’t see why men couldn’t wear them too. Nick proceeded to purchase a pair.
I’m inspired by Sarah and her way of creating an inclusive environment in the outdoor apparel industry. I hope that in the future it’s taken one step further by including people who have genders other than male or female in the branding and advertisement of gear and clothes. As the construct of gender and oppressive frameworks in place continue to break down, I have hope that one day I’ll walk into a store to find clothes made for bodies rather than genders.