The question of gender norms is contentious. (I like to begin with understatement.) I intend today some observations of this contentious subject which I expect will not be contentious. We’ll see.
Judge Barbara Milano Keenan of the 4th Circuit wrote the opinion, which holds that the Charter Day School (CDS) violated the constitutional rights of the girls enrolled in their school by requiring them to wear skirts. I’m going to offer a few quotes from Judge Keenan’s opinion first.
“The record is clear. By reducing girls to outdated caricatures of the “fairer” sex, the gender stereotypes animating the skirts requirement negatively impact female students throughout their educational experience. CDS’ stereotyped rationale for the skirts requirement – that girls are “fragile” and require protection by boys – is both offensive and archaic.”
She also wrote:
“Another expert opined that the skirts requirement “contradict[s] modern educational practices that foster independence, agency, and self-confidence,” by “teach[ing] both boys and girls that girls should value appearance over agency, and attractiveness over autonomy.”
“According to CDS, its female students are “fragile” and must acquiesce to having boys hold umbrellas over them when it rains. Considering this jaw-dropping assessment of girls’ capabilities, we may never know the full scope or all the consequences of CDS’ blatant, unapologetic discrimination against its female students. But the skirts requirement, harmless as it may seem to the defendants, requires only a pull of the thread to unravel the lifelong social consequences of gender discrimination.”
I think those three are enough to give the flavor of Judge Keenan’s views. What I would like to do is to look at the structure of the argument. The gender styles I will consider here are of two kinds: a) similar and b) different.
The point under consideration is that there are costs to girls at CDS of being required to adopt distinct outfits. I would think, just looking at the question broadly that either set of gender styles—similar and different—would grant benefits and impose costs. If you were starting at the beginning—a choice societies do not have—you would ask what the costs and benefits of each set are.
So you would say that treating boys and girls as equal,(and here “equal” mean “identical”) has these costs and these benefits and that treating boys and girls as equal but dissimilar has those costs and those benefits. When you were done,
you would look at that pattern of costs and benefits and say that the one pattern is better than the other.
Doesn’t that sound sensible? Impossible, of course, but sensible. In actual fact, societies trail their histories behind them like so many tin cans. Or they build on their unique foundations the way only they can. Take your pick; nobody starts from scratch.
The wrong way to do it is to pick the style you don’t like and to say that it imposes costs. Yes it does. Every style imposes costs. What we want to know is how great the costs are and who is required to pay them; also what the benefits are and who receives them. An “assessment” that looks at one model of gender styles and finds that it imposes costs doesn’t deserve the term “assessment.”
That’s the part I am counting on you to see as uncontroversial. You can’t argue in favor of one or another gender style without upsetting people, of course, but I am hoping it is still possible to argue that asking a good question is better than asking a bad question.