Columnist

No, I will not be writing about Maryann White.

It’s mostly a blessing and occasionally a hazard of this job that readers send me column ideas — things from the news that have made them angry. Hence, my inbox Thursday was full of the same repeated suggestion, linking to the same article: A University of Notre Dame mom named Maryann White had written a letter to the student newspaper, which was published as “The Legging Problem.”

The problem, as she saw it, was that young women were wearing them. She postulated that leggings “make it hard on Catholic mothers to teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters.” Her own sons were “nice guys,” but leggings were a temptation too far. Ladies, she pleaded. Stop wearing leggings so moms like her could stop finding “scarves to tie over the eyes of their sons to protect them from you!”

No, I won’t be writing about her.

At least, not in the way that readers seemed to want. Not in a way that “mocked” her, as one suggested. Not in a scorched-earth diatribe. What would be the point? Within hours of the letter spreading, the earth was already scorched. Demonstrations had already been organized where participants were invited to come in leggings. People were already infuriated by the implication that women were temptresses and men were helpless walking hormones. The public was already having the correct emotional response.

“My column would be four words,” I joked with a colleague. “Yep, she’s the worst.”

Characters like Maryann White come along, and they’re so easy to hate. Swimming through the news cycle today is exhausting when done carefully — and the Maryann Whites of the world are convenient life buoys. She doesn’t require thoughtfulness; she requires only rage. Uncomplicated rage can feel like such a respite, a comfortable thing to cling to. But I don’t know if doing so solves any problems.

It doesn’t address the core of her argument: that her sons will respect women only if they realize they are “someone’s wives and daughters.” The implication is that women aren’t independent humans, but rather appendages of their male relatives.

White didn’t come up with that theory, though, and she won’t be the last to repeat it. For years, this was actually a widely used argument put forth by lots of well-intentioned folks, both men and women: Guys, every time you feel tempted to harass a lady, think about how you’d feel if it was your sister.


A group of mannequin legs displayed outside a casual clothing shop, each wearing a different pair of colorful leggings or tights. (Fresh Start Images/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)

And mocking Maryann White doesn’t solve the complicated discussions we’re only beginning to have, regarding teaching boys how to navigate the world without “scarves tied over their eyes.”

It’s possible to notice someone’s “naked rear ends” — as White described women in leggings — and not have that turn into a creepy leer. It’s possible to do the very hard work of questioning your own behavior instead of taking the easy way out and asking other people to change their clothes.

I won’t be writing about Maryann White because her letter to the editor was all about taking the easy way out. Mocking her is also taking the easy way out.

A lot of folks know how to have the easy conversations. That’s why so many people knew to be immediately angry at White’s ridiculous letter — it’s a life buoy we knew how to swim to.

What’s underneath the letter, though? How do we swim deeper?

Since all this began a few days ago, Maryann White hasn’t been heard from. Other journalists said they’ve reached out with no response. I spent 30 minutes on social media, trying to figure out which profile was mostly likely hers, among dozens of middle-aged Midwestern women who mostly looked like my mom.

Here’s what I wondered, scrolling through the profiles. Is there a conversation we could be having that would not just mock Maryann White, but would make others who think like her really consider what it meant to ask women not to wear leggings?

Is there a conversation that would explain that the anger is not really about your letter, Mrs. White. It’s not about leggings. This anger is about bad patterns that are so entrenched that you, a woman yourself, are trying to address them in the only broken, feeble way you can imagine — by asking younger women to stop having visible butts.

That’s the conversation I want to have. And it’s not about Maryann White. It’s not really about her at all.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.