It’s been quite a week for girls and their pants.
On Thursday, the girls at Charter Day School in North Carolina were delighted to learn that they can finally wear pants or shorts to school. A federal district judge ruled that their publicly funded K-8 charter school’s dress code, which prohibits girls from wearing pants or shorts as part of its standard uniform, was unconstitutional, in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The dress code kept girls from playing freely at recess, required them to sit in uncomfortable positions and overly focus on how they were sitting, ultimately distracting them from learning, the judge ruled. Girls were also colder in the winter.
The dress code for boys was not limiting in any of those ways, he said. “The skirts requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female,” Judge Malcolm Howard wrote in his ruling.
“This type of policing of girls’ femininity and appearance is so ingrained and accepted from such an early age,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and lead counsel in then case. “It really does send a message that girls’ education is less important than boys’, and their comfort is less important.”
In related pants news earlier this week, the Notre Dame University student paper published a letter to the editor in which a self-identified Catholic mother of four sons begged female Notre Dame students to stop exposing themselves to their male counterparts by wearing leggings.
“Leggings are so naked, so form fitting, so exposing,” wrote mom Maryann White. “Could you think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead?”
The letter went viral, sparking a campus protest and probably ringing up a few extra sales at Lululemon.
There’s a clear connection between the dress code of young girls at a small-town school and the protests of a well-intentioned mother in the Midwest: the idea that girls’ sartorial choices must be policed, not for the girls’ sake but for the boys.
The messaging starts young, with policies like Charter Day’s. In court, the school tried to argue that its dress code promoted mutual respect between girls and boys, and reflected its commitment to traditional values.
The judge said the school offered no evidence to back up either claim, noting that women have been wearing pants in professional and other settings for decades.
The ruling in North Carolina came four years after the suit was first filed by three unnamed girls, who went to the school, and their mothers.
Charter Day’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a question about whether they would appeal.
“For the past eight years I’ve been putting up with this [dress code] and I’m very glad it’s over now,” the 13-year-old daughter of plaintiff Erika Booth, identified only as I.B. in the lawsuit, told HuffPost. She said her friends were equally excited.
She recalled crying in the morning on her first day of kindergarten, when her mom told she’d have to wear a skirt.
Indeed, it seems the ruling has done more to foster self-respect among the girls at Charter Day than any dress code.
“I think this is incredibly empowering,” Booth said.
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