Some male students wore white and some female students wore black at the Lincoln Academy Class of 2017 graduation June 1 – a product of a student-led debate about gender equality and the color of graduation gowns.
The color of graduation gowns at Lincoln Academy commencements has fluctuated between black for all students and black and white throughout Lincoln Academy’s history, LA Head of School David Sturdevant said in an email.
Since 1969, black and white gowns have been worn, Sturdevant said. Traditionally, female students have worn white and male students black, with seating at graduation determined by the color of the gown.
“The separation of color and gender just seems unnecessary in this day and age,” said graduating senior Esther Martin, who led the charge that called for an end to the school tradition.
Martin learned about gender equality and gender fluidity, which examines gender identities outside the male-female dichotomy, while a student at the Chewonki Semester School during her junior year. The subject matter was inspiring, she said.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, working for gender equality and women’s rights became increasingly important to her, Martin said. Seeing the separation of men and women at Lincoln Academy graduations “sparked something in me,” she said.
Martin brought the question of the color of graduation gowns to the student council and the administration in January, when students were beginning to select their gowns. She was in favor of all students wearing black gowns.
A Facebook survey Martin created to gauge sentiment among her class generated more than 100 responses and a passionate debate on both sides of the issue. “There was definitely backlash,” she said.
Several students called the color of graduation gowns a non-issue and spoke in favor of tradition. Others supported and joined in the effort to end the tradition, which they said unnecessarily segregated students.
“Everyone kept talking about tradition,” Martin said. “It was really frustrating for me.”
From 1929-1968, with the exception of the class of 1949, all students wore black gowns, Sturdevant said. From 1969 to the present, black and white gowns have been worn, he said. Black and white are Lincoln Academy’s school colors, so the administration opted to keep them, he said.
According to Sturdevant, the practice for the past several years has been to allow students to choose the color of the gown they would like to wear.
In the past few years, some students have approached the administration, said they were uncomfortable with identifying as either male or female, and asked to choose the color of their graduation gown, Associate Head of School Andy Mullin said.
While there were more students from the class of 2017 asking about switching the color of their gowns than previously, the response has always been that students can choose, Mullin said. “Forcing students to wear a particular color is something we would not do,” he said.
Only the students who have asked have been told they have the ability to choose the color of their graduation gown, Mullin said. “Any student that did it, did it personally and individually, as opposed to a blanket request,” Mullin said. “The answer has always been ‘Sure.’”
The debate about the color of graduation gowns was mostly limited to Facebook, Mullin said. The administration did discuss students’ requests to go to a single color for graduation gowns, but chose to stick with black and white because those are the school colors, he said.
Elsewhere in the county, the Medomak Valley High School Class of 2017 wore a single color – blue. Wiscasset Middle High School divided graduates by gender, with female graduates wearing red gowns and males wearing black.
The issue of gender and graduation gowns has not been raised by students or staff in Wiscasset, Wiscasset School Department Superintendent Heather Wilmot said.
Lincoln Academy Director of Communications and Community Engagement Jenny Mayher said that while there may have been previous requests from LA students to wear a different color graduation gown, no student has worn a color different than the one designated for their gender in recent history.
“It may not have been a change in policy, but it is definitely a change in tradition,” Mayher said. Mayher is also Martin’s mother.
Martin was informed at the end of January that students would be able to choose the color of their graduation gowns, she said. However, the form to order graduation gowns only allowed students to identify their gender, not the color of the gown they wanted.
Because most students had already completed the form, several students who wanted to wear a different color graduation gown were not able to, Martin said. Seven female students wore black and two male students wore white to graduation.
Lincoln Academy intends to explore a switch to a gender-neutral form for graduation gowns in the future, Mullin said.
The tradition of asking students in white gowns and black gowns to sit in different sections during commencement is for the purpose of aesthetics, Mullin said, but the school will re-examine that as well.
“How would it look if it was a smattering of white and black?” Mullin said. “We don’t know. We’ve never done it before. It’s something we’d like to look into as well.”
Martin said she hopes the school will re-evaluate the tradition of black and white graduation gowns in the future and switch to a single color for all students.
Martin plans to attend Bates College in the fall to pursue a career as a scientist focusing on climate change.
“I will be working to break down barriers and inequalities in my everyday life and career,” Martin said.