Cady Mansell has always had a strong sense of fashion. At 9 years old, she likes trying on makeup and painting her nails. She likes shopping trips to Chicago with her fashion-conscious mother. And since she asked for her first bow tie during one of those trips to the mall when she was just 4 years old, Cady has had a thing for snazzy suits.
When it came time for her First Communion, a major event for Cady, she naturally started thinking early about what she wanted to wear on the big day. She settled on a brand-new all-white suit.
“It kind of sparkles in the sunlight,” she enthused when she tried it on.
But then word got out at her Catholic school about Cady’s planned attire. School officials told Cady’s parents that she couldn’t participate in First Communion with the rest of her class unless she wore a skirt or dress. When the Mansells dug in their heels, insisting that their daughter should wear the outfit she had picked out for her special day, the argument escalated quickly — to the point that the Mansells pulled their daughters out of the school and the church altogether.
“It made me sad and mad,” Cady said. “We should all be equal and wear what we would like.”
At the school, St. John the Evangelist in St. John, Ind., an official, who asked The Washington Post not to publish her name because she didn’t make the decision to ban Cady’s suit, said that the school simply couldn’t bend its dress code to suit Cady’s style.
“We have a dress code in place for our school. We consistently enforce that,” she said. “Oftentimes you’ll get somebody who wants to wear sneakers instead of dress shoes, or a purple shirt instead of a white shirt.”
The dress code prescribes dark slacks and a white shirt for the boys at the school, and a white dress or skirt for the girls. A girl would not be allowed to wear an outfit that fits the boys’ dress code, the official said, though she couldn’t give a reason, other than that it is against the dress code.
“Most people have dress codes at work. They have dress codes for other things. They’re in place for a reason: so that there’s a consistent, uniformly enforced dress code,” she said.
The Rev. Sammie Maletta, the priest at St. John the Evangelist, told the family that a deacon at the church could administer Cady’s First Communion privately, but that she couldn’t attend the ceremony with the rest of her classmates unless she wore a dress or skirt. Cady was upset by that; she wanted to sit with her friends. Maletta declined to comment on this story, according to a school official.
“We couldn’t go to the real Communion Mass,” Cady’s mother, Chris Mansell, said. “We would have to wait until all the kids left the building, then come in like a secret. No picture, no anything, like we were ashamed of her. I said, ‘That’s not an option.’ ”
After Chris, who worked at the school as a teacher’s aide, discussed the dress code with the principal. Her husband took Cady to the rehearsal for the ceremony. There, Chris said, Maletta pulled Cady’s father aside.
In Chris’s telling, Maletta said: “You’re raising your daughter wrong. You’re setting bad examples for her. She doesn’t have the brain development and maturity to decide if she wants to wear a suit. It’s your job as a parent to say, ‘You’re not wearing a suit. You’re wearing a dress.’ If you won’t do this, you’re raising your daughter wrong.”
Mansell responded by saying that if that was how Maletta saw it, the family would leave the parish, which was central to their lives. It meant pulling their daughters out of the school and Chris quitting her job at the school. They went through with it.
“He already said I was raising my daughter wrong and we’re bad parents. At that point, I don’t want to be in an organization like that,” Chris said.
Chris said that all this has nothing to do with Cady’s gender identity or sexuality — her 9-year-old girl definitely identifies as a girl. Cady does have short hair right now, for excellent reason. She has twice grown her hair long and then cut it to donate to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for patients who lose their hair to disease. Her father has shaved his head several years in a row as a fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research.
This year, Cady declared, “Can I shave my head for St. Baldrick’s? I want to see if I can make more money than Daddy ever did.” And she did it — she said that she raised $6,000, the most of anyone at the event, and after she shaved her head, they gave her a medal almost as big as her face.
Her hair is still growing back right now; she wears it plain at school, but at home, she sometimes plays around with silly styles like a mohawk. Ask her about her fashion sense, and you’ll get a list not just of clothing but of all her many favorites: “I like Star Wars stuff. I like cartwheels. I like drones. I like math. I like to color.”
Cady said she’s enjoying the new Catholic school that her parents enrolled her in a few days after they left St. John the Evangelist at the end of September. But the kids at her new school already did their First Communion at the end of third grade, instead of the beginning of fourth grade like Cady was supposed to do at St. John the Evangelist, so Chris (who will also need to find a new job) is looking for a church where Cady can finally take her First Communion.
That matters a lot to Chris, who said she tried attending a nondenominational church for about a year but returned to Catholicism specifically because of her deep connection to Communion. “I just felt really called to go back because of the sacrament. I prayed on it a lot. I always wanted my girls to make the sacrament in the Catholic Church,” she said. “The Eucharist is just something so special. I think when you’re a cradle Catholic, it’s different. It’s in your blood. It’s in your roots. I just wanted my daughters to be able to experience that.”
Until that day comes, Cady is getting ready — she practiced Communion at home with orange soda instead of wine. Her mom posted a photograph of her in her suit in the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, a group of feminists who supported famous pantsuit-wearer Hillary Clinton. Cady liked hearing some of the responses on Facebook.
“I really love it,” she said, “because then I’m not the only one that thinks girls should wear suits.”