Karen Lewis is president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
*She left high school after her junior year.
The 1968-’69 school year was one filled with turmoil and unrest. Black students across the city organized to address inadequate funding, irrelevant curriculum, and crumbling school buildings. The resultant “Black Monday” walkouts brought together an unprecedented number of supporters who mobilized against the hated “Willis Wagons” (mobile classrooms set up in parking lots and playgrounds purportedly to ease overcrowding in the city’s south- and west-side schools), obvious symbols of years of neglect. That winter had been particularly cruel, and among the major complaints was one small irritation: girls were not allowed to wear pants. While this may seem like nothing in terms of the issues of the day, the reasons given were so bizarre that a huge protest ensued—one that ended in a whimper.
At Kenwood High School, then-principal Elizabeth Mollahan was no stranger to the neighborhood. The former principal of Kozminski elementary, Mollahan was tapped to head the new high school in 1966 after a serious campaign. She did what most new principals did—raided the system for talented veterans and found a few fresh faces, while giving most of the faculty the leeway to stretch themselves and inspire young minds. She did, however, expect an adherence to a dress code that included skirts or dresses for girls.
One of my dearest friends recently recalled having to take off the pants under her skirt in one of the Willis Wagons during the winter because it was a “disciplinable offense.” This sparked an underground rebellion from girls who wouldn’t dare participate in the walkouts. In an interview for the student newspaper, I asked Miss Mollahan why she was so adamantly opposed to allowing girls to wear pants. Her response? “Since this is a predominantly black school and the black matriarchy is so prevalent, we want to maintain the self-esteem of the black boys. Girls in pants would destroy that.” And she said this to me with a straight face.
After I wiped away the tears from my eyes and picked myself off the floor as the peals of laughter died down, she looked at me with a scowl so intense it made me laugh more. I railed at how ridiculous the assertion was and that on some level it was paternalistic and condescending. She acquiesced to pants for the spring on a trial basis but would not commit further than that.
That spring began an intense move toward the wearing of the pants. The green paisley bell-bottoms I diligently saved my allowance money for were the first in a series of in-your-face pants. Most of the other girls were afraid to buck the system, but little by little pants sprung up all over the building.
In the fall of 1969, with the new building opened, the first day of my junior year found me pressing my purple bell bottoms. With a gasp of horror, my mother begged me not to wear pants because it was also my father’s first day as a teacher at Kenwood. I looked at her and said, “All last year you supported the walkouts, but pants you have a problem with?” I was ready, defiant, and walked proudly into Kenwood in those pants. Not a peep, a glance, or a mention. The pants debate was over: a small victory, but one of the first I was able to see to fruition.