Mom Gets Backlash for Standing Up for Her Daughter's Right to Wear Pants to School

Girl at schoolIt is difficult to believe that in 2016 -- a year in which the presidential front-runner is a woman and a self-proclaimed "pantsuit aficionado" -- girls are still being told that they cannot wear slacks in their classrooms. It is difficult to believe that this is actually the rule at Charter Day School, a public school in Leland, North Carolina, where girls are mandated to follow a dress code that forces them to wear knee-length or longer skirts, jumpers, or skorts -- even on the coldest of winter days. It is a rule that isn't sitting well with three moms, including Bonnie Peltier, whose 5-year-old daughter asks her why she has to wear a dress every day to kindergarten.


Peltier tells CafeMom that she does not have a good answer for her daughter, who has to be mindful of how she sits on the floor and of how she plays at recess. That's why Peltier and two other moms, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of North Carolina, have filed a case against the school on behalf of their daughters' right to wear clothing that does not discriminate against them in the classroom and in the school yard. Peltier says she learned about the school dress code during orientation and asked school officials why the rule is in place. "Nobody could give me a reason that made sense," she says. "I see no way that it makes for better education to go in a dress or a skirt."

Neither does Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. "[Peltier] does not think that her daughter needs to be wearing a skirt in order to be respected," Sherwin tells CafeMom regarding the response Peltier received from the founder of the school -- a response that included a line about the dress code promoting chivalry and respect, among other controversial claims. "Girls don’t need to be judged in skirts or dresses to be worthy of respect, and certainly there are many women who wear pants -- including prominent leaders, politicians -- so this is quite an outdated viewpoint."

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Sherwin explains that this narrative, which includes telling the girls to "sit like a princess" on the floor with their knees together and their legs out to the side, promotes sex stereotypes and impacts the ability of the girls in this case (ages 5, 10, and 14) to enjoy their education on the same terms as boys. "I think it is particularly shocking when you think of a kindergartner," she says. "She wants to be able to run and play and turn somersaults and climb on the jungle gym." 

Of course, this doesn't mean that girls shouldn't be allowed to wear skirts or jumpers or skorts if they choose to -- or that the moms in this case want the entire dress code dismantled. "They’re not trying to take away girls' abilities to wear skirts if they want to, but they don’t want [the girls] to be limited to only skirts, and we think this shouldn’t be controversial in 2016," says Sherwin of the case, which was filed on February 29 under Title IX (prohibiting sex discrimination in schools accepting federal funds) and the Fourteenth Amendment. While Sherwin says there has been some support from the school community, there has also been backlash. "I think there is a misunderstanding," she explains. "Some people think that we are trying to challenge the entire dress code, and really the only provision that we’re challenging is the one that restricts girls from wearing pants."

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Peltier, who is otherwise pleased with the education that her daughter is receiving at Charter Day School, says that this misunderstanding is palpable. She explains, "Since the lawsuit has come out, some of the parents there are extremely upset about it, and there’s been a lot of, I don’t want to call it bullying, but there’s been a lot of different behaviors..." She says she was personally shut out from Facebook groups involved with the school; meanwhile, the 14-year-old eighth grade student, who has vocally defended her right to wear pants, has been subjected to negative comments from other students. "It seems like everybody would be so supportive of this. Like, what’s the big deal, it’s a pair of pants, right?," she asks. "People have not reacted the way I thought they would react."

But that isn't stopping Peltier from standing up for her daughter -- on both moral and common sense grounds. "It’s cold in the winter," she says. "I don’t care how many pairs of leggings you put on, they're not as warm as a pair of pants. And when you’re 5, just maneuvering that many layers is difficult. If you have to go to the bathroom, and you’re pulling down several layers and then you have to pull several layers back up again and tuck shirts in … it’s a lot for these 5-year-olds to handle."

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The school has responded to the lawsuit in a message to the students' parents on its blog (where the school and its lawyer defend the dress code as nondiscriminatory and maintain that parents made the decision to apply to the school). The school also filed a motion on April 11 to dismiss the case. The school, though, had not responded to CafeMom's request for comment at the time of publication. 

Despite what happens during what might become, as is inherent in most litigation, a long legal battle, Peltier wants her daughter to know that she is standing up for her rights. And she wants that to stick with her as she grows up. "My hope is that they see that I am serious about this, that the other parents involved are serious about this, and they do the right thing," Peltier says of the restrictive dress code provision that Sherwin says really does make the girls feel different.

"Our educators and schools shouldn’t be in the business of sending messages to girls that they’re different than boys or that they deserve less freedom to move about and engage in physical activities as boys," Sherwin states. "And that’s the underlying stereotype that is so disturbing that’s at play in this case ... I think in the long term, we’re hopeful that this will resolve because we believe that it is clearly prohibited by law what the school is doing."

Because if the possible next leader of the free world can be a strong, powerful, respected woman and govern in a pantsuit, then girls should certainly be allowed to wear a pair of pants to public school.



Image via Lucky Business/Shutterstock

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