I prefer pants.
That’s exactly what I tried to explain to the principal of my high school, Oakridge High, when I went to him with my concerns about the dress code for our graduation last month. Yes, I am a young woman. And yes, for as long as anyone can recall, the tradition at our high school graduation ceremonies has called for girls to wear white or cream-colored dress with white formal shoes while boys wear dress pants and a shirt (and a tie, if they so choose).
But so what? I prefer pants to dresses—and always have. Sure, I’ve sported dresses before, have even worn them to school dances. But during those events I was surrounded by people that I have known for years, and we were all too busy dancing to even care.
Graduation, though, is different. For graduation, I wanted to put on pants. And, at first at least, my principal was telling me I couldn’t.
Held at the L.C. Walker Arena in downtown Muskegon, the Oakridge High graduation ceremony is open to the public and draws hundreds of complete strangers to the seats as spectators watch students saunter across the stage to receive their diplomas. Because I’m the class salutatorian and would be onstage throughout the ceremony, the mere thought of that kind of scrutiny was enough to make me extremely self-conscious. Thinking about enduring that scrutiny while wearing a dress made my discomfort exponentially worse.
Soon, though, my discomfort gave way to indignation. Why, exactly, should I have to be uncomfortable on my graduation day? Why is that, in 2015, I have to even entertain the notion that my principal can somehow mandate that I wear a dress to my public high school’s graduation simply because I’m a young woman? And how is it even remotely any of my principal’s business whether I’m wearing a skirt or slacks?
Yet, somehow, he’d made it his business and taken it upon himself to tell me that I had to wear a dress to graduation—or I couldn’t participate.
This was unacceptable. After my conversation with my principal, I went home and did some research and found that I was not alone in this battle. The matter of men dictating how women are “supposed” to dress has for years been the source of an intense and protracted struggle, much of it drawn along gender lines.
I discovered the Title IX of the Education Amendments, section 1681, of 1972 which basically states that the discrimination of men and women in the public school system is illegal. And yet, this is exactly what was happening to me: Men were allowed to wear pants and women were not, and if I didn't follow the dress code, my school was going to bar me from my own graduation ceremony.
Not long after my discovery, I wrote a letter to the principal about why I was pushing the issue and how his refusal to let me wear pants to the graduation was a violation of my rights. I also reached out to the ACLU of Michigan to make sure that other women graduates can wear the formal outfit they feel comfortable in.
Shortly after my letter was received, he changed the dress code. Young women at Oakridge High now can wear pants to graduation without fear of punishment.
I’m proud that the ACLU has stood by me and happy that I was able to convince my principal to eventually change the code.
But for all that my ordeal has taught me about about the struggle for gender equality, I must admit that all of this has still left me with one question that I simply cannot explain:
How, in 2015, was any of this ever an issue in the first place.
By Paula Shay