“The wearing of the Mortar Board is optional for all students.”
This is the University of Limerick’s official stance on the wearing of the cap, or mortarboard, but in practice only women are given the option of wearing one for their graduation. However, this information isn’t available on the University’s website or on the website of Phelan Conan, the company that supplies UL’s graduation garments.
Despite this official rule, many female graduates have had confrontations with ceremony staff when they chose to not wear the mortarboard.
Naomi Deevy was entering the University Concert Hall to receive her degree in Language, Literature and Film, wearing no mortarboard, when she was pulled aside by staff. “As we were being called upstairs, we were told that we had to wear the hat going into the hall,” Ms Deevy said.
“It felt strange, after working together for four years of a degree with these bunch of people, of different nationalities, creeds, genders and outlooks and then to be separated into ‘male’ and ‘female’ in this way.”
“I was forced to wear the hat into the hall and took it off again before going onstage to collect my degree and shake hands with the President,” she added.
Ms Deevy hopes that more women leave the hat behind and wants the University to change its policy. “I was delighted to see another couple of women had also chosen to break the rules and leave the archaic symbol of sexism behind. It’s time for this tradition to go, or change to be more inclusive.”
Postgraduate Students’ Union President Aimee McKenzie also had an issue on her graduation day this January. Ms. McKenzie was presented with a mortarboard by Phelan Conan and said: “Thank you, but I am not wearing one.”
“Yet they made me take one and told me that I would not be allowed in to the Concert Hall without one,” she said.
However, the PSU President found a much more creative use for the mortarboard:“I brought it with me to carry my tissues and keys, so I suppose it did serve a purpose, but it certainly was not going on my head.”
She would like to see some changes enacted by the University to inform the students on what the mortarboard is and its history, so female students will feel less singled out. “The graduation robe hire company, Phelan Conan, charges the same price for everyone – why can’t everyone have the option of wearing the cap? If UL highlighted that wearing the cap was optional, perhaps it would not feel as oppressive,” President McKenzie said.
Ms. McKenzie would also like to see the option of wearing caps be open to both men and women as it is in American universities. “I do feel, however, that it is time to make it a level playing field and that all students should be given the option of wearing the mortarboard. The strict distinction makes it feel as though it is a sexist issue.”
While the mortarboard is officially described as optional and does not represent a woman’s education being ‘capped’, the Universities “optional” position on the matter should be highlighted more prominently. The University’s website currently reads: “Women must wear a smart dress or suit (skirt and jacket or trouser suit). Hair pins are useful to secure the mortar board (cap).”
Other sections relating to attire say: “The University adheres strictly to its dress code and, consequently, only those graduands who are properly attired will be presented to receive their parchments. “If you are not robed in time, it will not be possible to allow you to graduate.”
Dr. David Fleming of the History Department was commissioned to write the history of the University back in 2012 and is well versed in the history of these “arcane things.”
“The wearing of the mortarboard by women is simply a matter of etiquette and choice. The University does not stipulate any particular reasons for wearing academic dress,” Dr. Fleming said.
“There is no reason why men at this university could not choose to wear the mortarboard. Indeed it might be encouraged.”
“Wearing the mortarboard at graduation as a symbol that a women’s education was ‘capped’ at a certain level, this is complete nonsense and an urban myth that has existed for some time at Limerick and at other universities,” Dr. Fleming added.
“In the past, both men and women wore mortarboards, but in some places men ceased wearing them, while some women continued to do so. This may have set a trend. What I suspect happens today is that the company that provides academic dress to grandaunts follow existing fashions,” Dr Fleming said.
According to Phelan Conan Operations Manager Simon Norton, the wearing of mortarboards is decided individually by universities and that “[Phelan Conan] would never force anyone to take a mortarboard. Women used to wear hats in Church and that is where the tradition has come from.”
“UL have said that this is the way it is to be.”
Other universities around Ireland, however, have made it abundantly clear to their students that the wearing of the cap is optional.
The National Universities of Ireland, NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth, mention on their websites that the cap is optional, while University College Dublin even states that it is optional for both men and women.
University College Cork doesn’t state if the hats are optional but their robe partner McGinley gown hire gives you the option of reserving a hat and outlines how the hat is optional for students. While UL does not adhere to the same guidelines as the National Universities of Ireland, Simon Norton of Phelan Conan said that all Irish universities follow similar traditions and that each University can decide to follow whatever traditions they want.