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Missouri Legislature Sets Dress Code for Its Women Members

By LawCommentary | Posted on January 23, 2023

jefferson city capitol building

jefferson city capitol building

In 44 B.C., the Roman Republic passed a law that forbade women from wearing togas. In 900 A.D. Chinese women were forced to bind their feet because the Emperor liked them to be “dainty.” In the Middle Ages, dress codes that permitted different attire for different women according to their status were thought to be handed down directly from God. In 1600, wealthy women in the Ottoman Empire were required to cover their heads outside the home to demonstrate their piety and modesty. Women in Khartoum were arrested for wearing trousers in 2009. In 2014, Muslim women were stoned to death in Iraq because they did not wear gloves along with their hijabs.

In 2023, the Missouri House of Representatives passed a law that mandates women members cannot enter the House chamber with uncovered arms. This is not history. This is not a foreign county. This is America today.

On January 11, by a vote of 105 to 51, the Missouri legislature passed a 37-page new rules package that will govern procedures in the House. Similar reviews take place at the start of each new session. One small section of this year’s rules revisions requires women legislators to wear sleeves when they enter the voting chamber. They will have a choice of long sleeves, jackets, sweaters or blazers, but their arms must be covered.

The bill, Rule 98, a section of the 102nd General Assembly’s Rules, was introduced by State Representative Ann Kelly (R). Kelly said the rule “is essential to always maintain a formal and professional atmosphere in the House.” She also said it “mirrors the dress code language for men.” However, there were no rule revisions for men.

Kelly’s resolution reads, “At all times when the House is seated, proper attire for gentlemen shall be business attire, including coat, tie, dress trousers, and dress shoes or boots. Proper attire for women shall be business attire, including jackets worn with dresses, skirts, and slacks, dress shoes or boots. For the purposes of this rule, "jacket" shall include blazers, cardigans, and knit blazers.”

The Missouri House is composed of 116 men and 43 women. Previous versions of the House dress code also required professional dress for both sexes but did not contain any language about women’s right to ”bare” arms. The Missouri Senate does not have a similar rule.

In a Facebook post, Kelly said that some new members entered the House chamber wearing shirts and sweaters, even though they had been told to wear jackets. She also explained that the chief clerk of the House had wanted a rule against uncovered arms for many years.

Not everyone was pleased with the new dress code. According to the New York Times, Democrats called it “sexless and pointless,” but sponsors said it was necessary to “ensure professionalism in the chamber.” The Secretary of the Missouri chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) said her members were “outraged” that Republicans had wasted time focusing on a “futile, misogynistic issue,” instead of things that were important to the state’s residents.

House Member Rachel Proudie (D) said those who wanted to enact the new dress code language were being “quite pedantic” when they offered such “petty rules.” She pointed out that pregnant members might find jackets hard to find, and would be uncomfortable if they could be located. Her comments led Republicans to add cardigans to the list of acceptable arm coverings.

Another House member, Ashley Aune (D) who called the new bill “Sweatergate,” asked CNN, “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?” Aune also compared the new dress code to Republican abortion bans and other attempts to control women. Others reacted to Kelly’s Facebook post with comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale in which fertile women are placed in slavery where they must reproduce.

Critics also pointed out the hypocrisy of Republicans who fought using masks to cover mouths and noses but promoted wearing sleeves to cover shoulders.

Throughout most of history, women’s dress codes have carried political baggage. Writing in Bustle, an online blog aimed at millennials and Gen Z members, Marlen Komar commented in 2017 that there “might not always be an ulterior, oppressive motive” behind dress codes, “but every time a woman’s body is sexualized, politicized, and maneuvered in order to fit a certain standard of definition that is outside her own, then it’s not merely just a dress code.

“It’s a reiteration on how that society sees that woman’s place – and it’s just as weird now as it was back in the Middle ages.”

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