Missouri Democrats say the House dress code debate is a distraction

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Women serving in the Missouri House will face a stricter dress code when they return to the floor this week after a debate staged by Democrats as a pointless distraction from the issues facing the state.

The new rules require female legislators and staff members to wear a jacket such as a cardigan or blazer. The Republican lawmaker who passed the change said it was done to provide decorum and reflect the dress code for men. Democrats called it ridiculous, saying women shouldn’t be controlled for their fashion choices.

Republican Representative Ann Kelley, who introduced the amendment, said it cleans up the language in the current house rules so that the dress code for women mirrors the dress code for men.

“It is essential to always maintain a formal and professional atmosphere on the House floor and to ensure that happens I felt compelled to offer this amendment,” she said during Wednesday’s floor debate.

Her initial amendment said women should wear business attire, specifically a “jacket,” which includes “blazers and knit blazers.” After spirited discussions, a revised amendment was passed to clarify that vests could also be worn.

Men in the Missouri House of Representatives were already required to wear a jacket, shirt, and tie. Under the previous dress code, women were required to wear “dresses or skirts or slacks worn with a blazer or sweater and appropriate dress shoes or boots.” A second layer of clothing was not necessary.

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Kelley said ensuring decorum was a big reason behind her proposal — an idea that Democrats seized on.

“I’ve seen a lot of lack of decorum in this room in my two years here and not once has that lack of decorum been spurred on by anyone’s blazer or lack thereof,” said Representative Ashley Aune, a Democrat. “There are many ways we can break the decorum in this room. But a woman, what she wears, that’s ridiculous.”

Aune went on to say that she was personally asked about her attire, although she followed the rules.

“Do you know what it feels like to have a bunch of men in this room looking at your top trying to determine if it’s appropriate or not?” she said.

Virginia Ramseyer Winter, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions and director of the Center for Body Image Research and Policy, said lawmakers shouldn’t even be debating this because it unnecessarily emphasizes what women look like instead of the problems.

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“I think it reinforces the idea that we value women more for their looks than other more important things like their intelligence and their contributions,” she said.

Ramseyer Winter and other critics of the measure said the debate mirrored debate over abortion restrictions that lawmakers approved last summer after the U.S. Supreme Court Roe against Wade.

“I think it also sends the message that we have to guard women’s bodies,” she said.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, a Democrat, disagreed with the amendment before amending it to include “cardigan.” She pointed out that it wouldn’t be easy for pregnant women to comply because “they don’t make jackets or blazers for pregnant women. That can be very uncomfortable, especially in a pro-life state.

The dress code was one small part of a package of rules that state lawmakers finally approved last Wednesday.

“There are some very serious things in this set of rules that I think we should debate, but instead we are once again fighting for women’s right to choose. And this time it’s how she covers herself,” Proudie said.

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Lawmakers in other states have taken issue with dress codes as sexist and culturally insensitive. Congress’ longstanding ban on sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes sparked a fight in 2017 before those rules were updated.

Missouri Republicans said criticism of the dress code was exaggerated, when the rules merely spelled out what was required.

“It’s a normal process for any entity with respect to a professional work environment,” said Republican state Representative Doug Richey. “We happen to have a political context that we have to navigate and so it’s ripe for some members to step up and try to make it into something it isn’t.”

Still, Representative Peter Merideth, a Democrat, refused to vote on the dress code change because he was afraid to say what is appropriate or inappropriate for women to wear. In the House there are 43 women and 116 men.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “Our people sent us here to pass laws…not to fight over mandates and regulations for women’s clothing.”