Collections Blog

Collections Blog

Pearl Pugsley: “Joan of Arc” of the Lipstick War

Old State House Museum - Monday, May 23, 2016

Pearl Pugsley. Old State House Museum Collection. 2016.006.01

This month's post came to us as the museum's Collections staff researched the fascinating story of Pearl Pugsley, whose photo (seen at right) was recently purchased for the Old State House Museum Collection.


The story of Pearl Pugsley of Knobel, Arkansas, also known as “Pretty Pearl”, and the Lipstick War began on the first day of school in September 1921. Principal N.E. Hicks read the students a list of rules, which had been recently adopted by the board of directors, and announced that every student would be required to follow them in order to attend. Rule Number 3, the eventual catalyst for Pearl’s case, read as follows:

“The wearing of transparent hosiery, low-necked dresses or any style of clothing tending toward immodesty in dress, or the use of face paint or cosmetics, is prohibited.”

Pearl, who had powdered her face with talcum powder that morning, was called into the school’s office with two other girls on the suspicion of wearing cosmetics. She recounted her story in a newspaper interview in December 1921:

“I powder my face a bit every day, just to make it feel better. But I don’t use paint or lipsticks. However, one morning Mr. Hicks approached one of my schoolmates on the playground and said to her ‘Have you paint on your cheeks?’ She said not. But when school was in session, Mr. Hicks asked her again. Then she said she had some powder on her face, and asked if that, too, was under the ban. Mr. Hicks said it was and told her to step forward. With that I arose and said, ‘Mr. Hicks, if powder is against the rule, I suppose I must step forward, too.’”

Principal Hicks told the girls that they could either go to the bathroom to wash their faces or they would be sent home. Pearl, who believed that women had the right to use anything on their faces that would make them look better, chose to go home and was not allowed to go back to the school. Upon returning home, Pearl was taken to an attorney’s office by her father, James Burdette Pugsley, and they immediately filed a lawsuit against the school board’s members, B.A. Scott, J.R. McCoy, and F.J. Sellmeyer. This was the first time anyone had attempted to bring legal action against a school board in Arkansas history. Pearl’s father unfortunately passed away not long after beginning to pursue the case with his daughter. However, Pearl continued with the case to honor her father’s wish from his death bed.

The case was brought before Judge W.W. Bandy of the Clay County Circuit Court in April 1922 and he ruled that the school board had exceeded its authority in expelling Pearl for the use of cosmetics. However, the case was only a partial victory. Judge Bandy refused to issue a writ of mandamus, an order to a lower government official ordering them to correct an abuse of discretion, which would have allowed Pearl to return to school. Since this was the first test of a school board’s ability to enforce restrictions on a student’s dress or personal style, Judge Bandy did not have any precedents from a higher court regarding a school’s right to enforce such a rule. Despite the ruling from the Circuit Court, Pearl refused to back down from her fight and the case went to the Arkansas Supreme Court in April 1923.

In the end, Judge Bandy’s ruling was upheld. The Arkansas Supreme Court stated that the rule on cosmetics was “arbitrary and unreasonable, and one which the petitioner was not required to observe as a condition upon which she might attend the school”, but that the evidence against the school board “failed to show that the expulsion of Miss Pugsley by defendant Hicks was done under the direction or authority of the school board”. It is notable that one of the justices, Jesse C. Hart, dissented with a profound, though often unheeded observation, "Useless laws diminish the authority of necessary ones." Although the court agreed that Pearl was essentially expelled by being denied admission into the school, the majority ultimately decided that the mandamus writ would not be issued since she could have appealed directly to the school board members. Pearl may not have fully won her case for reinstatement to the school in Knobel, but the school board repealed their no cosmetics rule shortly after the case was settled.

Pearl’s case was a sensation, receiving nationwide newspaper coverage, including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. She received thousands of sympathetic letters from people all over the country, and even received a $1000 a week contract offer from a motion picture company! Her story is still cited today in books and articles on free speech and the rights of students.