Of all the long controversial topics that are still unsettled in 2019—abortion, immigration, etc.—you wouldn’t expect that the way women and girls choose to cover their legs would be one of them.
Yet here we are: In March, a federal judge struck down a rule at a North Carolina charter school that prohibited girls at the school from wearing pants. It required them instead to wear skirts, skorts, or jumpers. The school had argued that the dress code promoted “traditional values.”
The same month, Hannah Kozak, a senior at a Pennsylvania high school, received the guidelines for her school’s upcoming graduation ceremony. “No pants,” it said for girls, specifying that they were to wear a “light colored dress or skirt.” Kozak had to fight the school board (paywall) for the right to wear pants.
The reasons that Western societies (that is, the men in them) have devised for barring women from covering each leg individually have often fallen back on these sorts of appeals to tradition and values. Gayle Fischer, an associate professor of history at Salem State University and author of Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States, explained on NPR in 2017 that authorities have frequently pointed to the values dictated by the Bible as their justification for reinforcing skirt-wearing. Deuteronomy 22:5 states that women should not wear men’s clothes and men should not wear women’s.
You’ll notice it doesn’t actually say anything about pants though. Over time, it’s just become culturally accepted that pants are something men wear. “It becomes part of the culture in the West that pants are a male garment, and by the time we get to the 18th and 19thcentury, men have been wearing pants for centuries,” Fischer said on NPR. “And so everyone knows that men have always worn pants—even though of course that’s not true.”