In defense of the “Order of the Gown”


Photo courtesy of University of the South Flickr

by Robert Beeland


At 5 p.m. today, March 15, voting on the name change referendum for the Order of the Gownsmen will be closed. Before I delve into my opinion here, I must admit that, leading up to the vote of last year’s name change referendum, I was a staunch supporter of keeping the name “Order of the Gownsmen.” And, when the new referendum was called, I decided that I would write a piece for The Purple regarding why the name should stay “Order of the Gownsmen.” However, my research led me to, as you may now be expecting, a change of heart.

The controversy regarding the name of the Order is a nuanced one. OG President Sarah Tillman Reeves’ (C’17) email to the members of the Order regarding the new referendum notes this could be the fifth time a vote has been proposed. Nonetheless, I will try to simplify the debate.

One side—the side most likely to vote in favor of changing the Order’s name to the “Order of the Gown”—believes that the term “Gownsmen” is exclusionary. Reeves’, the driver of this debate’s most recent reincarnation, stated in her email that the name change would  “help the Order rid itself of such negative connotations related to the University’s past,” which, I can only presume, regards the role (viz. lack of a role) played by women at the Order’s beginnings. Indeed, the Order of the Gownsmen was established in 1873, nearly one hundred years before women were admitted as full-time students at the University and, therein, allowed as members of the Order. The other side of the debate—the side most likely to vote in favor of keeping the Order’s name as the “Order of the Gownsmen”—invokes a rebuttal to the claim that any change needs to be made to the name of the Order. Supporters of this side, in my experience, believe that the terms “gownsmen” is not exclusionary and that tampering with it would adulterate an important university tradition.

As I see it, the real debate lies in semantics with regards to the gender neutrality of a given word, in this case, “gownsmen.” Considering that the original meaning of the term “gownsmen” defined a group of people that were only men, there’s reason to believe that the inherent meaning of the word is exclusionary towards women. Of course, this debate is not limited to the word “gownsmen,” either. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started referring to freshmen as “first-year students” in 2012, and Elon University did the same in 2014. However, I believe the arguments made by those in favor of this sort of change are guilty of what linguists call the etymological fallacy. While the original usage of a word can certainly inform the word’s current meaning, the etymological fallacy holds that meaning and usage evolve over time, leaving whatever true meaning one might glean from a specific word to the realm of current usage. Indeed, lexicographers decide on definitions not by studying a word’s etymology, but by its current usage. Understanding this, it seems as though there is little room to argue that the word “gownsmen” is inherently exclusionary.

This does not totally exonerate the term “gownsmen” from the accusations made of its gender bias, though—it’s certainly possible that its current usage is exclusionary. From the sustained debate over whether or not the term excludes women, it certainly follows that many people do think that the term is exclusionary. I think, however, that the sustained debate also presupposes that a correct answer to the question of whether or not “gownsmen” is exclusionary will be impossible to come by today.

Nonetheless, I think some more digging into semantics can yield a satisfactory result in spite of the nuances on both sides of the debate. In considering that the tradition of wearing gowns at Sewanee is one borrowed from Oxford, where the “the definitive record of the English language” is published, the Oxford English Dictionary might be a good place to start.

First and foremost, the OED defines an order as “An institution… which confers an honour or honours for merit on those appointed to it.” Of course, the Order of the Gownsmen fits within this definition seamlessly. You get the grades, you get the gown. The second part of the OED’s definition, however, complicates things, reading: “The badge or insignia representing or demonstrating membership of an order of knighthood, honour, or merit.” The Order of the Garter founded in 1348 and the single highest order of chivalry in the United Kingdom, is given as an example in that the insignia for which it is named, the garter, is worn by members on ceremonial occasions. This definition’s analogy to the Order of the Gownsmen leaves little room for interpretation. Indeed, the insignia of our Order is the gown, and referring to the Order as, quite simply, the Order of That Thing Which Is Our Emblem is the most accurate and appropriate thing to do. Why, then, the Order should be referred to as anything other than the Order of the Gown, makes little sense to me.

Perhaps my proposal does not solve the question of whether or not members should be referred  to as “Gownsmen,” “Gownsmen and Gownswomen,” or something like the essentially ugly “Gownspeople,” but debates like this should continue on campus indefinitely. In again considering Reeves’ expressed interest in reintroducing the referendum—to “rid [ourselves] of such negative connotations related to the University’s past”—we might come to the conclusion that, at the very least, we must continue scrupulously evaluate the debates at the forefront of discussion on campus. Simply put, complacency is the enemy of progress. In the case of one of the oldest and most important traditions of our university, it is time to finally reckon with a debate that has seeped through the cracks of discussion for years. To be leaders, both in Sewanee and out in the world, we must be prepared to act concretely and proactively. If you are a member of the Order of the Gownsmen and you’d like to do this, vote to change the name of the Order to the “Order of the Gown.” While you’re at it, wear your gown.

5 thoughts

  1. There are a few things in the University’s past that have a true negative connotation. However, with regard to this issue, it does not. There is no more of a negative connotation for a University originally founded to educate men as there is for a University originally founded to educate women.

  2. There are many instances when a name should be changed, particularly when it is blatantly offensive to a group of people without merit. However, to change every organization’s name to be ‘politically correct’ is not feasible ,and honestly divisive in
    its own regard.

  3. This is not “politically correct.” It is, simply, correct. Please stop using that phrase, as it does not mean what you think it means. Also, misogyny is not becoming of a Member of the Order.

  4. Oh for crying out loud, the name should have been changed in 1973. Stop dragging your feet Sewanee.

    Purple editor 85 Elizabeth Estes Niven and member of the Order of the Gown.

  5. I support old academic traditions and the wearing of a gown is a foundation of academia going back to the founding of Oxford and Cambridge. That said, renaming it, “The order of the Gown” seems to be a realistic concession to the presence of women on campus and a rejection of patriarchy in organizations. The emphasis of the Order should emphasize the wearing of the gown in academic tradition and not only the custom at your university. This may be a narrow point to make but it would connect the tradition to all of university history and not only to the all male past of one institution in the American South. This would lend a more inclusive approach in general and it should be considered.

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