Hannah Kozak was perplexed.
The Pennsylvania 18-year-old had two months left of high school before her spring commencement. It was March, and she and her parents had just received the administration guidelines for her big day.
Your cap and gown will be wrinkled; remember to steam it.
Do NOT iron it; the fabric will melt.
Boys: “no bow ties.”
Girls: “no pants.”
“No pants,” read Kozak, a reserved and quiet musician in the Norwin High orchestra, a writer on the school newspaper and a soon-to-be political science student at Chatham University.
She understood why the school in Irwin, Pa., might want formality at the ceremony; after all, the boys’ dress code was strict, too (white collared shirt, dark pants, dark shoes, dark-colored tie). And Kozak didn’t even have anything personal against the concept of a “light colored dress or skirt,” which was what her school was requiring her and her female classmates to wear.
It was the principle of it all, the fact that it was 2019 and women had been wearing pants for a century.
“I didn’t think that was very acceptable,” Kozak told The Washington Post.
She knew female students before her had found the policy problematic and that individual exceptions had been made for those who felt strongly enough about the issue to formally ask for permission from administrators to put on pants (though they still had to roll the pant legs up, so their ankles would appear bare — like those wearing dresses.)
“I felt the female students were being disproportionately burdened by going through this extra process that their male counterparts did not have to go though,” she said. “And I did not think that was fair or right."
But nobody had felt powerful enough to dismantle the policy altogether. Maybe, she thought, it was time to try.
“Sometimes when you want something changed you have to be the one to do it,” Kozak said. “Why not be the one to push it?”
First she went to her senior class adviser and biology teacher, who said she didn’t make the rules — she just enforced them. Next, Kozak called on her principal at Norwin High School, who said the rule was about formality and uniformity, that the school didn’t want any one student to stand out from the pack.
That answer, she said, was not satisfying.
So weeks later, on a school night in mid-April, Kozak took her fight to the school board.
She hadn’t had time to get on the agenda, so she typed up a short speech in Google Docs and planned to present it during public comment at the end of the meeting. For two hours, she waited through budget conversations and introductions of the new superintendent, through other student presentations and mundane crosstalk.
At last, it was her turn to talk.
Kozak gave them the rundown, outlining the language and her problem with it. She recapped what she told her principal, that she did not think “an extra two inches of fabric hanging below the commencement gown would draw special attention to any one person.” She offered a brief history on pants and women wearing them.
Kozak invoked the American Civil Liberties Union and its recent legal victory against a public charter school in North Carolina, which had defended its no-pants policy for young girls — and lost.
She used the d-word.
“I wanted to avoid using this term as long as I could, but there truly is no other word to use: discriminatory,” Kozak said. “This rule is discriminatory towards the district’s young females and puts a burden on young girls that their male classmates do not have to face. It is not just, it is not right, and these young girls should simply have the choice to wear what they want on their special day.”
Kozak, a journalist herself, threatened to take the case to the media — and, if necessary, to the courts. As her time came to a close, she called the whole ordeal “sad and disappointing.”
“If you’d like to argue that forcing women to wear a dress or skirt promotes ‘traditional values’ or helps young ladies ‘meet a certain expectation,' I would like to remind you that it’s 2019,” Kozak told the board. “Women do not have an expectation to live up to; women do not have a certain standard to meet. We are not living in the 1800s anymore.”
When she was done, Kozak said the board — on which three women sit — thanked her for her comments. The assistant superintendent of secondary education, also a woman, asked for a copy of her written speech.
But Kozak left feeling like there was still no game plan.
She followed up with the school board a week later and was told to talk with her principal. That finally happened on Tuesday. This time, the principal was more willing to listen, Kozak said.
“I think I had showed at that point that I was very persistent,” she later told The Post.
But the principal’s solution, Kozak said, remained unsatisfactory. He told her she had been granted permission to wear pants; she told him that wasn’t the point.
The next day, Kozak contacted local TV news station KDKA 2, who interviewed her for a story and reached out to the school for a statement.
“The outcome of the principal-student meeting was that it would be acceptable for the student to wear professional business attire, including pants,” the statement said. “The student indicated that she would like that opportunity extended to all students.”
By Thursday evening, the school district announced it had decided — after meetings with various stakeholders and Kozak — to officially do just that.
Now, female graduating seniors in the Norwin School District are guided by a “professional attire” dress code that says nothing about dresses, skirts or pants — only “dress clothing.”
“I do genuinely appreciate their time and consideration for changing that,” Kozak said.
At school on Friday, in the hallways and in messages, her friends offered thanks and classmates sought wardrobe advice. One girl, Kozak said, had spotted a very cute white jumper and wanted to know if that was okay now, too.
For their May 24 commencement ceremony, when they’ll get their diplomas and head toward what comes next, some of Kozak’s friends have planned to wear pants. Kozak has decided she ought to wear some, too.
“I mean, I did go through all of this time, to get all this going,” she said. “At this point, why not do what you couldn’t do before?”