Why skirts are such a hot-button issue.
This past January I wrote a piece for the website Faith and Family Live! entitled Skirting the Issue. In it I asked readers to weigh in on the question of why some Catholics feel that women should favor wearing skirts over pants. 200 passionate responses were left in the combox before Danielle Bean, the web editor, opted to disallow additional comments.
In August, Austin Ruse, President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, wrote an article entitled Ninnies, Tyrants and Those Damned Pants challenging the opinion of an influential Catholic author that women should consider jettisoning their pants. His article blew up on Facebook after being shared 204 times.
In September, Simcha Fisher challenged that same author on her blog, I Have to Sit Down. She, too, chose to close her combox after the number of comments climbed to 317. That conversation was continued on author Mark Shea’s site, Catholic and Enjoying It!, where his comments eventually numbered 324.
What is it about a topic as seemingly mundane as women’s fashion that touches a nerve with so many? Why, when this topic is raised among Catholics, do web editors and blog owners have to step in and close comments due to heated rhetoric and flaring tempers?
Our Unique Place in History
We find ourselves in a unique place in history. Though women today are experiencing unparalleled freedom, we are not yet far enough away from a time when we were socially marginalized to have completely moved on. Because there may be some residual fear of having their liberties taken away, some women have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear it suggested that there might be some benefit to their favoring skirts over pants. Several of the individuals who contributed to this conversation asserted that the mere fact that the question had been raised concerned and insulted them.
When questions are raised regarding the appropriateness of women wearing pants, they are often received as a demand that women take a step backwards in the quest for equality. One of the key tenets of the feminist revolution of the 1960’s was that, in order to be equal, women should not be asked or expected to do anything differently from men. The assumption being that to do so would be an infringement upon our autonomy and might prevent us from living full lives. This worldview has so infiltrated our culture that the average American wouldn’t even think to question it.
Most Catholics are desperate to do something about rampant immorality. For those of us with children the issue of sexual immorality feels especially urgent. During this debate the “Live and Let Live” argument was repeatedly put forward by those who rejected the assertion that women ought to show preferential treatment to their skirts. That is not an argument that will appease many Catholics, though, as it is overused and often misapplied in today’s indulgent atmosphere. The fastest way to alienate a group of Catholics is to hand them the “Live and Let Live” card as it implies that the discussion isn’t even worth having. That simply isn’t going to suffice for those gravely concerned about the decline of Western civilization.
The Convert Experience
As a convert, I can attest to the fact there is often a period of correction and healing that we must go through at the beginning of our conversion experience. Fashion can play an important role in this process. For those who came from a fundamentalist background, wearing pants may help them to heal from a repressive religious or family upbringing. For those who grew up in a liberal environment that celebrated androgyny, wearing skirts may help them to rediscover and celebrate their femininity. This is an important journey for many converts and there can be a temptation to get upset when these necessary corrections are questioned.
Rise of Sexual Abuse
The numbers of those affected by sexual abuse continues to rise. For these individuals the issues of modesty, sexuality and gender identity may be particularly difficult ones to consider. Several people involved in this debate contended that pants are cut in a way that is too suggestive for a woman’s figure. The argument was then made that women who wear pants are sources of temptation and should assume some responsibility for the resulting sins of men. For victims of sexual abuse such an assertion sounds far too much like the cruel implication that they had asked to be abused. In fact, society as a whole has such an acute awareness of the horrible phenomenon of sexual abuse that even those who have not been abused may become understandably upset with any philosophy that seems to blame the victim.
Our Church leaves much up to personal discretion. How a woman chooses to clothe herself is included in that category. That is not to say that the relative goodness, or lack thereof, of various fashion trends is not worth discussing, but as the Magisterium is unlikely to ever weigh in authoritatively on such issues the debate will probably persist indefinitely.
As we continue to carry on these sorts of discussions we would be wise to take into account that we usually know very little about the individuals we encounter online. We can only begin to imagine the wide variety of experiences that lead people to their conclusions. Without the benefit of being able to witness another’s facial expressions, hear their tone of voice and ask follow-up questions that require extensive clarification and elaboration we all run the risk of falling victim to misunderstanding.
It takes humility to remember that the person on the other side of the screen might have certain life experiences that lend themselves to a better understanding of the issue than your own. It takes compassion to see that there might be pain behind another’s misguided comments. And it takes fortitude to soldier on in defense of the truth when dealing with unjust treatment. If we can persevere through these challenges, though, we will all benefit from the shared wisdom of individuals around the world who can only be united by that imperfect little thing called the Internet.