This week we had a letter home from the school, it looked like any other letter the schools sends home to us, this one was entitled ‘Scottish Standardised National Assessments (SSNA)’. Unusually I read the letter immediately, rather than relegating it to the ever-growing pile. It was the usual stuff around updating us on the developing assessment system for school children in Scotland and then, to my surprise, came a very significant announcement thrown in at the end. Our children’s school was lifting their ban on girls wearing trousers.
The school which has stoically held out against the march of progress and female sartorial emancipation was, at last, changing its policy. I actually felt rather emotional. When my younger daughter, who hasn’t worn a skirt or dress since she was old enough to say ‘no’, was about a year away from moving up to secondary school I had a conversation with her. I had heard that other parents and pupils had failed in requests to wear trousers and I was worried. There would be no chance at all that Natalie would be able to wear a skirt – the most upset I had ever seen her was when someone was trying to get her to wear a skirt or a dress, when her identity as a shorts wearing, football playing, wear-a-tie-on-a-smart-occasion, sport-loving girl is squeezed into someone else’s idea of what her identity should be.
I explained that there were two options for us: we could start our own campaign and get the school to change; or we could send her to another school where she would be able to wear trousers. I have to admit I was kind of relishing a bit of a fight, a chance to deliver a small blow for justice and equality. Having delivered many a campaign through work and in my spare time I already had the campaign strategy worked out in my head and it even had a name “Operation Girls Wear the Trousers”. But it would be hard work, could take a while and would mean that Natalie would be in the spotlight and would need to be a full partner in the project.
She was all for taking on the school – ‘let’s change it’ she said, and I did a little dance. It seemed to me that this should be a relatively easy campaign to win. I looked up other cases of parental challenges to schools that refused girls to wear trousers (and those where boys had campaigned to wear skirts) and they all had something in common, if they went as far as lawyers getting involved, in every case the school had backed down before it reached court on legal advice that the case was unwinnable. This meant that there was no case law on the subject, however I read clear guidance from the Scottish Government to schools that there should not be gender specific uniform policy, and (utterly ignorant on matters of law) surmised that, if Natalie showed up at school in trousers and the school sent her home, thus denying her an education, they could be breaking the law in the form of the Equalities Act 2010 (Scotland) and I could justifiably call the police.
However this was the stuff that would be rolled out if all else failed, the final stages of our campaign. At the moment we needed to get everything else in line – first a direct appeal to the school and then, if that failed, drawing local councillors, MSPs and the media into the campaign. Natalie did some ground work and wrote to all the councillors standing in the local election and asked their views on girls being allowed to wear trousers to school. She had a great response and offers of help with her campaign. Then we heard back from the school, they would meet with me and Natalie to discuss the issue.
We showed up to the school office at the allotted time, Natalie very smart in her primary school uniform: dark shorts (she always wore shorts then), smart shirt and a tie, short back and sides. The Deputy Head invited me in, for now Natalie would wait in the office. After the starting pleasantries and explaination that Natalie would never, could never, wear a skirt he said thoughtfully, “So….Would you say that this is a gender issue?” (pronouncing ‘gender issue’ in the same, half whisper that Miranda would use when saying ‘sexual’).
‘If you mean that Natalie is a girl who wants to wear trousers and she isn’t allowed to because she’s a girl. Then yes I would say it is definitely a gender issue’ I was thinking, But I said “What do you mean by ‘gender issue’”
“Erm….what I mean” he said delicately “is whether there is a …erm…gender identity issue”
“Well Natalie is very happy, she plays football, she wears trousers, climbs trees, hangs out with boys, she’s happy being herself. You could say she’s a tomboy”.
“Well in that case school policy clearly states that she will need to wear a skirt” was the reply.
I was a little floored at this so tried to clarify that Natalie absolutely wouldn’t wear a skirt, it just wasn’t a possibility. She couldn’t bring herself to, it just wasn’t, well …it just wasn’t her.
But the policy was immovable. She would just have to wear a skirt if she was attending the school.
“So you are saying to me that I need to tell Natalie that she’ll just have to wear a skirt, no discussions, unless she wants to be a boy. In which case she can wear trousers?” I said.
“Do you really think that telling my happy, well-balanced eleven year old that she will have to become a boy if she wants to keep on wearing trousers is in her best interests?” I asked, getting perhaps a little shrill as I thought through how that conversation would go.
How ludicrous, I thought, that we cannot allow the possibility of a trouser-wearing girl; that someone who wears trousers must actually secretly want to be a boy. We are in the world of 2017 where some of the world’s most powerful people are girls in trousers: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkle. For crying out loud I wear trousers all the time, half the female teachers at the school wear trousers and I am supposed to go home and talk to my daughter about whether she actually wants to be a boy. Even Enid Blyton, hardly the most feminist of authors had a tomboy character in the Famous Five books, the short-haired, shorts and sensible shoe-wearing George.
“Well, when you put it like that” said the Deputy Head “I suppose it does sound a bit strange.” We brought Natalie in and chatted about her ambitions and plans. She was determined to attend the school she explained because it had such a good reputation and she wanted to be an engineer, or an accountant or perhaps an architect. She chatted a bit about football and why she always wears trousers or shorts ‘just because that’s what I wear’ she said.
We went home, Natalie having had a good meeting, me having had an extremely draining and stressful one, and awaited the verdict. It arrived in a week, bearing news that yes Natalie would be able to wear trousers at school. What a relief. But also a disappointment that it was the end of our campaign. We had won the battle for Natalie to wear trousers, but we hadn’t won the war and I thought of all the people that would come after us having to have that awkward, strange and potentially damaging meeting. However now we had nothing to fight against. I assured Natalie that if she wanted to campaign when she got to the school I would roll out Operation Girls Wear the Trousers with glee, but until that moment, the campaign plan would be mothballed.
I was still waiting for that opportunity when the letter came through. First I was really happy; I cried a little; I was filled with relief for all the girls and their families that would come after us that wouldn’t have to go to ‘that meeting’*. And then I laughed and laughed when I read those three paragraphs again, slipped in nonchalantly at the end of a letter about something completely different. To announce the news that they were belatedly entering the 20th century, they had chosen to use archaically 19th century language.
‘Some may see trousers as modest, comfortable and practical’. Eh?!!? Do all the others think trousers on women are shockingly provocative? Like women riding astride a horse rather than side saddle, or going out without a chaperone?
And that conference where they met to discuss emerging practice? A friend was wondering about what that conference agenda contained…
“After a short break for luncheon Miss Euphemia Fotheringay-Burnett will discuss “Trousers: comfortable, practical and modest – but not the only option”
Finally, there’s that extraordinary last paragraph where they seem to suggest that allowing girls to wear trousers could be a slippery slope to boys demanding to wear skirts, as if women wearing trousers is some new experiment and hasn’t been common in society for considerably more than 70 years.
And all this in a country where a skirt is the national dress for men. I simply give up….
However I feel Natalie and I won’t be able to hang up our campaigning sensible shoes just yet. As Natalie’s 15 year old sister gleefully reminds her on a regular basis, next year, while the boys are timetabled basket ball coaching, the girls will do cheerleading. It goes without saying that this is anathema to Natalie… I can’t help feeling that compulsory cheerleading for girls may be the next bastion of sexism in the school to fall.
names have been changed to protect the innocent….
*I have, since, discovered another family from the school who had ‘that meeting’ and, judging by their description, it had a similar content to ours.
I know many, many pupils and parents from the school have campaigned for the right to wear trousers over many years. Please feel free to add your own experiences to the comments section.