The Girls Who Are Suing For The Right To Wear Trousers
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
When Bonnie Peltier’s daughter gained a place at Charter Day School, a publicly funded K-8 school with a good reputation, she was thrilled. Her initial excitement at her daughter’s prospects at this school turned to dismay as she learned at the school orientation that Charter’s dress code prohibits girls from wearing trousers or shorts as part of its standard uniform.
Like many girls, Peltier’s daughter didn’t like wearing skirts or dresses. The mother of two couldn’t understand why she would have to force her daughter to wear clothes that would make her uncomfortable.
In an effort to understand the school’s reasoning, Peltier emailed its founder Baker Mitchell. In his reply, Mitchell explained that the dress code was about “chivalry” and claimed that it helped instil traditional values, including better manners and well-behaved children. Mitchell then suggested that the school’s dress code could help prevent school shootings.
This email, received by Peltier in 2015, marked the beginning of a battle with Charter Day School that has yet to be resolved.
With Charter Day School the best in the area, Peltier does not want to withdraw her daughter at the expense of her education. Equally, she feels the dress code goes against her daughter’s rights.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Peltier and two other mothers sued Charter Day in federal court in 2016 on behalf of their daughters. The mothers desired nothing more than for their daughters to have the option to wear trousers or shorts. They argue that the restrictive dress code discriminates against girls and violates Title IX, the part of the federal civil rights law that covers public education.
Erika Booth, who joined the suit on behalf of her daughter, said:
“They need to go ahead and treat girls equally. That’s it. That’s the bottom line.” (Huffington Post)
Charter Day defended their school’s dress code as part of its “traditional values” framework. They claimed that it would hurt the school to get rid of a policy that parents like. Peltier and Booth disagree with this claim, saying they have had “a lot of support” in their case against the school. Their petition to change the dress code is an example of this, receiving over 100 signatures.
Keely Burks, an eighth-grader at the school said:
“When we go outside for recess, the boys in my class will sometimes play soccer or do flips and cartwheels. But I feel like I can’t because I’m wearing a skirt.”
Burks also said that she had been put in a time-out in the first grade for sitting with her legs crossed, rather than curled to the side as was expected of girls.
In its argument in court, Charter Day avoided the reasoning that was offered by Mitchell in 2015, perhaps because it was so outrageous. The email had linked the school’s dress code to the Columbine shooting, which occurred the day before the school was founded. Mitchell seemed to suggest that Columbine would not have happened if the girls in the school wore skirts, therefore preserving “chivalry and respect” between young men and women.
Charter Day argued in the court documents that the email was not an “official pronouncement”.
The school stands by the idea that the dress code encourages a culture of respect. Peltier and Booth however, argue that the unequal policy is disrespectful to female students and perpetuates outdated tropes of sexism. Booth said:
“My daughter has aspirations to do things that are traditionally men’s jobs. She wants to be a soldier. I’ve never seen a soldier in a skirt.”
Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, senior counsel for education at the National Women’s Law Center, agreed that gendered dress codes don’t work towards goals of mutual respect. She said:
“There tend to be more rules for girls than boys. It tends to be another way to police girls’ bodies.”
Over the past year, prohibitions of certain dress codes have been gaining more media attention. There is no nationwide data on the use of gendered dress codes in schools, but prohibitions are increasingly being called out for perpetuating gender stereotypes or sexualising young women. Arguments relating to black girls’ uniform have gained particular attention, as many dress codes ban styles specific to the girls’ cultures, including certain hairstyles.
Included in the case against Charter Day are claims that they are helping reinforce damaging stereotypes about boys and girls. Girls at the school have been told to “sit like a princess” or “sit like a girl” and have even been reprimanded for cartwheeling in the playground as they inadvertently show their underpants.
Peltier voices years of frustration, saying:
“We’re having to tell our daughters, even though this is what they’re teaching you, this is not the way the world works anymore.”
In Exeter, the boys of Isca Academy saw success in their fight to wear shorts after they attended the secondary school wearing skirts in protest. In 2017, the story of the boys’ campaign went viral, with major UK newspapers including The Independent and The Guardian covering the story. The aptly named ‘box-pleat rebellion’ fought against an out-dated policy that shorts were “simply not part of our school uniform” as they were deemed not to be smart enough (The Guardian). In response to the growing pressure from parents and the wider media, the school decided introducing shorts for boys would be in its best interest.
With media attention surrounding gender dress codes in America growing, there is high hope that the girls of Charter Day will see the same success as the Isca boys and attend a school that reflects the freedoms of its society.