Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

Girls Who Dress Code

A North Carolina charter school tried to bring back “chivalry” and “traditional values” by requiring its female students to wear skirts. The female students fought back...and won.

A federal judge filed a ruling last week that the dress code imposed at Charter Day School discriminates against females and is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the ruling, Judge Malcolm Howard of the Eastern District of North Carolina noted, “The skirts requirement causes the girls to suffer a burden the boys do not, simply because they are female.”

A tuition-free charter school of 900 students in Leland, N.C., Charter Day School enforced a dress code prohibiting girls from wearing pants or shorts as part of its general attempt at preserving “traditional values" amongst its students.

For the school’s female students, however, the policy has brought discomfort and inconvenience. Keely Burks was an eighth grade student at the school in 2016 when she wrote a blog post detailing her experience with the dress code.

“Personally, I hate wearing skirts,” Keely wrote. “Skirts are cold to wear in the winter, and they’re not as comfortable as shorts in the summer." Keely also described the “distracting and uncomfortable” effect the dress code had on her, as she was instructed to "constantly pay attention to the position of her legs" while sitting in class.

Apart from the inconvenience, it was more importantly an issue of equality for the female students. “We should have a choice,” Keely wrote. She started a petition with her friends that garnered more than 100 signatures before it was confiscated by a teacher. Later that year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the girls and their guardians, with the judge ruling in their favor nearly three years later.

In an email to a parent addressing the uniform policy in 2015, the school’s founder, Baker Mitchell, wrote, “The uniform policy seeks to establish an environment in which our young men and women treat one another with mutual respect." In explaining his rationale, Baker even invoked the 1999 Columbine High School shooting as his motivation to push for a return to “simpler times.”

What exactly does a return to “simpler times” entail? What does chivalry have to do with forcing female students wear skirts?

The school’s policy seems to echo the millennia-long belief that men and women are expected to fulfill expectations “appropriate” for their respective sexes due to intrinsic differences in their mental faculties. Meredith Harbach, a law professor at the University of Richmond, published a paper in 2016 that addressed the sexualization of women in public school dress codes. Harbach argued that when schools impose gender-based requirements implicitly based on gender stereotypes, they communicate a victim-shaming message that blames young women for distracting men. This kind of notion “deflects any and all conversation about appropriate mutually respectful behavior,” said Ms. Harbach.

The court ruling duly noted the inconsistency in the rhetoric promoted by the school, stating “the defendants have shown no connection between these stated goals and the requirement that girls wear skirts.”

The ruling came in the wake of similar incidents around the nation that sparked debates on how female students are perceived and expected to behave. At the University of Notre Dame, a letter to the editor by a “concerned Catholic mother” in the student newspaper urged female students to stop wearing leggings.

“Leggings are so naked, so form-fitting, so exposing,” the letter reads; the author implores women to “think of the mothers of sons the next time.” Intense backlash ensued, including students wearing leggings in protest.

Critics have found such rhetoric typical of the rationale that punishes women for men's sexualization of their bodies. Instead of expecting men to respect women regardless of how they present themselves, such rhetoric assumes and welcomes the notion that men are innately and justifiably virile creatures. As such rhetoric exempts any wrongdoing on men’s part when supposedly “tempted,” the burden of retaining “mutual respect” instead falls solely on women.

Many in the nation have sought to reform dress codes and other mandates they deem discriminatory. The hashtag #iammorethanadistraction, created in 2014 by a group of students in New Jersey in response to their high school’s dress code, continues to have an active presence nearly five years later. Victoria Schantz, a senior at Indian Trail High School in Kenosha, Wis., created an online petition last year that received 3,000 signatures and successfully made the school board change its dress code to permit leggings and tank tops. On Change.org, the largest, online platform for petitions, there have been over 500 listed dress code petitions seeking to challenge rules regulating buzz cuts, shirt dresses, hair extensions, and more.

It seems as though progress is slowly yet steadily being made. There is certainly a long way to go, as Kaitlyn Wong – the Notre Dame senior who organized the protest in response to the legging editorial – reflected in an interview with the school newspaper: “Anything you can do is better than sitting idly and accepting it. Keep going, keep pushing. Push for social activism, and if you think that something’s wrong, do something about it, say something about it".

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