The battle between feminism and equality


Addie Gleason

Lawmakers in Missouri voted to update the dress code exclusively for women Jan. 11. The new bill requires women’s arms to be covered by a blazer, cardigan or knit blazer. “There’s a lot of cost to purchasing new clothes. If you must wear a long-sleeved blazer or something over a short-sleeved outfit, that is a huge cost to be considered; It requires women to change what’s already [in their wardrobe]. This bill requires female members to take an extra step because not all business-casual clothing for women is made in long sleeves,” social studies teacher Rachel Money said.

The Missouri House of Representatives recently updated its dress code in a 105-51 decision, requiring female legislators to cover their arms with a jacket, cardigan or knit blazer. Mainstream media quickly labeled this move “sexist,” and the 111-52 Conservative House faced a fiery backlash. At the center of this controversy was Republican representative Anne Kelley, who proposed this bill to enforce a “more professional” and “restrictive” attire for women. 

“It’s ridiculous that the clothes you wear should define your level of professionalism because it doesn’t impact your work ethic, so why should it be regulated?” sophomore Alexis Briner said.

Comments like Briner’s flooded the internet, with many noting the irony of a female legislator proposing this bill perceived to restrict women’s rights. Democrats energetically countered Kelley’s legislature, bringing forth several opposing arguments that led to a heated house-wide debate. Democratic representative Raychel Proudie argued that, once again, women’s autonomy was under fire — a hot topic considering the recent national resurgence in discussions regarding abortion — this time for their liberty to choose what they wear. 

Another argument pointed out the uncomfortable situation that the 43 women of the House were put in, having a room of 116 men judge the appropriateness of their tops. The bill also raised concerns for pregnant representatives who would not be able to wear properly fitted blazers; however, a revision passed that allowed for cardigans. Social studies teacher Rachel Money has been actively keeping up with recent dress code modifications in the House.

“I was shocked [when I first heard of the bill]. I wasn’t sure why this was being focused on,” Money said. “It is wrong to tell a woman how she can or cannot dress. The previously enforced dress allowed more freedom and flexibility while still maintaining that certain level of professionalism, and it made sure it was accommodating the vast variety of options there are for women.”

Even though preserving a woman’s right to choose how she presents herself is essential, this liberty applies to all humans. The backlash against this revision — predominantly on liberal social media — has solely focused on a woman’s right to autonomy, yet inspecting the underlying principles behind this new law reveals a different story.

Male representatives in Missouri are required to wear a suit, jacket and tie, so their arms are always covered. The recent change builds on the original dress code, clarifying that women must wear full sleeves. While this does not create a word-for-word equal dress code, it does bring women to the exact expectations that their male peers have been held to. If the Missouri House of Representatives has always had a dress code, and male representatives are subjected to covering their arms as well, why is there such a backlash for women covering their arms?

Another common argument against the bill lies in the feminist movement, which aims to give women total liberty to express themselves in a law-abiding manner. However, bringing women to the same professional standard set by the House does not undermine their autonomy or the feminist movement. In fact, subjecting women to a different dress code and not holding them to an equally comparable set of rules would be inherently anti-feminist.

“Subjecting women to a different dress code and not holding them to an equally comparable set of rules is inherently anti-feminist.”

While the amendment makes the bill more gender-specific, because of simplicity and more inclusiveness, a universal dress code applying to all genders better addresses concerns regarding “professional” attire. Providing the ultimate form of equality, all-inclusive dress codes ensure that standards are consistent, giving inclusivity for nonbinary representatives and leaving the complicated and controversial task of finding equivalent rules for men and women behind. For instance, Rhode Island’s dress code requires all members to “dress in proper and appropriate attire, such as blouses, dress slacks and collared shirts with accompanying jackets,” which allows for a universal interpretation of professionalism regardless of gender. 

Such a dress code also addresses several issues that come alongside deciding which attire is “formal.” Prejudice toward and sexualization of different body types often create a double standard towards those with varying figures, deeming some as “unprofessionally dressed” purely because of how clothes fit their bodies. Rather than allowing for differing standards towards certain body types, creating only one set of guidelines would ideally allow for an equal and nondiscriminatory environment.

Yet body type is only the beginning of this convoluted debate. With the fashion industry and social norms constantly sexualizing women’s bodies, society tends to scrutinize women and their attire even more harshly than men. And, as women examine the clothes available on the market, they may find themselves with much less of an option as to how they can dress professionally. 

“Typically, for males, the dress shirt would be a long-sleeved shirt that they wear with or without the suit coat. But for women, that’s not always the case. A lot of times, [business casual] might [mean] a blouse that has shorter sleeves,” Money said. “So even if it was a short-sleeved dress that did meet former dress codes, this [new dress code] doesn’t accommodate the wide variety of options for women and acknowledge the [current] fashion standards.”

It is imperative that clear, universal and therefore inherently equal guidelines be set in our state’s House so representatives are treated no differently from their peers due to their attire when an issue does arise. 

While institutions may have traditionally enacted some form of a dress code, at the end of the day, the way someone presents themself is in no way indicative of their ability to do their job. Having unequal standards for how two different genders dress can have disastrous effects, leading to power disparities and possible excuses for expulsion, censure or reprimands

The Missouri House’s new guideline helps bring this power dynamic to more of an equilibrium; however, reintroducing a comparable definition of “professional” for House members and inching our way toward a more universal and equal dress code would be the ideal solution. This way, the House can focus on more pertinent issues in Missouri rather than on the length of a skirt or the importance of a sleeve.