In an apparent effort to establish “appropriate business attire,” the House of Representatives under Speaker Paul Ryan is enforcing a dress code in the Speaker’s Lobby in the U.S. Capitol—a space adjacent to the front of the House chamber—that bans women from showing their shoulders.
CBS News reports that several female reporters have been kicked out of the lobby for wearing sleeveless dresses as Washington, D.C.’s temperatures and humidity have soared this summer. (One intrepid reporter tried to comply with the rules by stuffing notebook paper in her arm holes, but the DIY effort didn’t work.)
The specifics of the dress code, which also reportedly bans open-toed shoes and requires men to wear ties, are rather vague and not posted anywhere, meaning they are largely determined by the speaker.
Perhaps Ryan simply has an outdated perspective on what qualifies as professional dress, and the current policing of women’s clothing is yet another instance of the federal government’s painfully slow adaptation to modern times. (For evidence of just how mainstream sleeveless dresses have become for women in formal and professional settings, look no further than the outfits first daughter and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump wore to any one of these events or see former first lady Michelle Obama’s State of the Union dress last year.)
Ryan’s old-fashioned take on what qualifies as appropriate attire for the speaker’s lobby is hardly surprising considering the only specific requirements related to dress code are buried in a rules manual that uses language from the 1979-1981 Congress that called for “appropriate attire for female Members.”
Several reporters have pointed out that the dress guidelines are not new, and a Ryan spokesperson says they were in existence when his predecessor Rep. Nancy Pelosi served as speaker.
Nevertheless, the CBS story has prompted cries of sexism, specifically against Ryan and the Republicans. That’s an easy accusation to make since the dress code fits into the on-going narrative of the party pursuing policies that limit women’s rights, specifically control over their own reproductive systems and access to adequate, affordable health care.
The dress code also smacks of the kinds of implications raised by Vice President Mike Pence’s vow to not dine alone with a woman other than his wife. The self-imposed rule regards women as nothing more than sexual beings and reduces all male-female exchanges to sexually charged interactions. Both directives are instances of powerful men building arbitrary barriers for women who are simply trying to do their jobs.
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