The current swell of student activism follows in the footsteps of earlier generations. In the 1960s, American high school students fought for their right to have a say in the rules that were imposed upon them. One of the important strands of this history had to do with hair. Specially, long hair on males. A public debate about masculinity and long hair raged in America from the mid-1960s and it was especially intense for high school boys.
This all might seem trivial today, admits historian Gael Graham, but the “tenacity with which both proponents and opponents of long hair pursued judgments in their favor” suggests otherwise. These were fights over individual choice, authority, and definitions of masculinity. In all, over a hundred “hair cases” were appealed to the federal courts; nine of these were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which side-stepped the issue again and again.
Graham details the “great hair debate” that emerged in the hirsute wake of the Beatles, who introduced the “mop top” hairstyle. The “social significance of hair,” however, has been an issue for many years. Graham points to such social/political hair to-dos as bobbed hair for girls and women in the 1920s; the perennial “good,” “bad,” and “natural” hair debates in the African American community; the mandatory haircuts in nineteenth-century missionary schools for Native American children; and, going back further, the Puritan magistrates who condemned whites with long hair “after the manner of savages.”
Most of the arguments for long hair heard in 1960s courtrooms were basically arguments for freedom. The arguments against long-haired boys in high school had to do with tradition and the authority of the adults running schools. But there was also a strong strain of sex panic in the opponent side that sounds much like our contemporary debate over transgender bathroom access: long hair meant you couldn’t tell the boys from the girls; long-haired boys would sneak into the girls’ room; and, ultimately, chaos would result from the blurred gender lines.
The landmark 1969 Tinker decision by the Supreme Court affirmed that high school students were citizens with free speech rights. The case concerned a trio of Iowa high school/junior high students who protested the Vietnam War by wearing black arm-bands. But the Court’s decision was ambiguous: the Court specifically said the decision didn’t apply to regulating clothing, the length of skirts, hair styles, or deportment. So lower courts continued to issue widely different decisions in hair cases.
One of these hair cases went all the way to the Supreme Court, sort of. Three high school members of a Texas band were suspended because of their Beatles-like hair. The boys lost at the appeals level and took the case to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it, meaning the earlier decision stood.
The issue was never definitely settled by the Supreme Court. And it still occasionally erupts. In 1997, a Texas school ordered a third grader to cut off his 5″ ponytail. When he refused he was forced to study in a windowless room separated from other students until his parents took him out of the school system entirely. The Texas Supreme Court ruled the school had not discriminated against him. In 2009, another school in the same state had to be compelled by a federal judge, citing religious reasons, to let a young Native American wear his hair to his collar.
Flaunting the Freak Flag: Karr v. Schmidt and the Great Hair Debate in American High Schools, 1965-1975
The Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 2 (Sep., 2004), pp. 522-543
Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American Historians