Mary Wears What She Wants

Mary Wears What She Wants, by Keith Negley

This biographical picture book, which will appeal primarily to 4-8 year olds, tells the story of Mary Edwards Walker, who grew up in the 1800’s when women were not allowed to wear pants. She feels restricted by her uncomfortable dresses so she chooses to wear pants anyways, a decision for which she is ridiculed and punished. However, she stands strong and eventually inspires other women to wear pants as well! The book’s message is simple and the illustrations are vibrant; it would make a great classroom read-aloud.

While her claim to fame may be her fashion choices, Mary Walker was a truly remarkable woman in other ways. She became a doctor in a time when women were discouraged from attending medical school, she was a Civil War surgeon and is the only woman to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and she also was a writer, teacher, and women’s rights activist. In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8) I suggest you grab this book and read it with your little girls (and little boys!) to inspire them to be independent and unafraid to challenge societal and gender norms.

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After reading, ask the following questions:

  1. Why was Mary unhappy with wearing dresses? What did she want to wear instead?
  2. How was she treated when she wore pants instead of a dress? Why do you think people treated her that way?
  3. Nowadays, do you notice girls and boys wearing the same kinds of clothes or different clothes? Are there any clothes that are just for boys? Are there clothes that are just for girls?
  4. What if this story was about a boy who wanted to wear dresses instead of pants? How do you think he would be treated? How might he feel?

For further reading…

This book can be a great starting point for talking about gender stereotypes and society’s expectations of boys and girls. I believe this is a very important conversation to have with even the youngest children, who pick up on differences between boys and girls even as toddlers. If we can help them find the words to explain what they feel and see in the world around them, then we help them develop the tools they will need to face these issues. And by exposing them to stories that feature characters who don’t fit neatly into a particular gender stereotype, they will develop empathy for others and an understanding that they can be who they choose to be.

Karen Patten, of The Midlife Mamas, compiled a list of her favorite books with characters that challenge gender stereotypes. And Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, one of my absolute favorites, made the cut! Check her list out here:

37 Children’s Books that Crush Gender Stereotypes

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