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Missouri Republicans adopt stricter House dress code — but just for women

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives debated an updated dress code for women lawmakers on Jan. 11, which included a requirement to cover arms. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Republican-controlled Missouri House of Representatives used its session’s opening day Wednesday to tighten the dress code for female legislators, while leaving the men’s dress code alone.

The changes were spearheaded by state Rep. Ann Kelley (R), a co-sponsor who was among the Republicans seeking to require women to wear a blazer when in the chamber. She was met by swift opposition from Democrats who called it “ridiculous.”

The state House eventually approved a modified version of Kelley’s proposal, which allows for cardigans as well as jackets, but still requires women’s arms to be concealed. Missouri Democrats tore into Republicans for pushing the new restrictions on what women in the chamber could wear.

“We are fighting — again — for a woman’s right to choose for something. This time, it’s how she covers herself — and the interpretation of someone who has no background in fashion,” state Rep. Raychel Proudie (D) said in a speech on the floor. “I spent $1,200 on a suit, and I can’t wear it in the People’s House because someone who doesn’t have the range tells me that it’s inappropriate.”

While previous rules said that “dresses or skirts or slacks worn with a blazer or sweater and appropriate dress shoes or boots” were allowed to be worn by female lawmakers, Kelley, one of the co-sponsors of H.R. 11, said Wednesday that women needed to wear jackets on the floor as “it is essential to always maintain a formal and professional atmosphere.”

She proposed dress code language be tweaked so that “proper attire for women shall be business attire, including jackets worn with dresses, skirts, or slacks and dress shoes or boots.”

“All we’re trying to do today is to take the same rules that we have and make them more clear,” Rep. Brenda Shields (R) said on the House floor in defense of the stricter dress code.

The move was decried as sexist by Democrats, who questioned why a dress code for female lawmakers was the top priority over a slew of seemingly much more important issues. Among those critics was state Rep. Pete Merideth (D), who called out his Republican colleagues for hypocrisy over how they handled health and safety guidelines when it came to wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of covid-19.

“The caucus that lost their minds over the suggestion that they should wear masks during a pandemic to respect the safety of others is now spending its time focusing on the fine details of what women have to wear (and specifically how many layers must cover their arms) to show respect in this chamber,” Merideth tweeted.

Changes to the Missouri House rules can be debated every two years at the beginning of the General Assembly. Women hold fewer than one-third of the seats in the Missouri House, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Men also have a dress code to abide by in the chamber, but there were no proposed updates to their dress code on Wednesday. The men’s dress code in the House states that “proper attire for gentlemen shall be business attire, including coat, tie, dress trousers, and dress shoes or boots.”

When the debate came to the floor, Democrats lined up to roast the proposal. After Proudie denounced Missouri Republicans for pushing for the updated dress code, she told her colleagues that debating the dress code was not why they were elected in the first place. She also noted there might be colleagues of hers in the Missouri House who are pregnant and would have to buy pricey new clothes to comply with the dress code.

“You surely don’t have the money off the salary that we make to go buy a bunch of new clothes or tailored clothes, and I hope you’re able to continue to wear your cardigan and vote on behalf of the people who sent you here,” Proudie said.

Next up was state Rep. Ashley Aune (D), who had a contentious back-and-forth with Kelley, whom she referred to as “lady.”

“Why did you bring it up?” Aune asked, according to video posted by Heartland Signal, a website for the liberal radio station WCPT in Chicago.

“Why should we talk about something like this?” Kelley replied. “It is absolutely ridiculous.”

Aune, appearing exasperated, responded, “You brought this to the floor, lady, you tell me.”

In response, Kelley pointed a finger at her female colleagues for not wanting the stricter dress code in the first place.

“You would think, you would think, that all you would have to do is, say, dress professionally, and women could handle it,” Kelley said. “You would think elected officials could handle that.”

Aune pointed out Kelley was wearing a sequin top of her own while trying to make the argument of a tougher dress code for just the female legislators.

“But we’re walking around here in sequins and velveteens for the lady’s point,” the Democrat said. “So, what is appropriate, and why do you get to decide?”

Kelley replied, “We need to get over the sequins. That’s ridiculous.”

As the debate went on, Shields offered an amendment to the proposal that allows cardigans to be counted as jackets, the Post-Dispatch reported. The amendment to the dress code was part of a large group of amendments passed by a vote of 105-51. The dress code for female lawmakers now states: “Proper attire for women shall be business attire, including jackets worn with dresses, skirts, or slacks, and dress shoes or boots.”

But some Missouri Democrats remained upset as to why a stricter dress code was needed for just the female lawmakers at a time when there were more pressing matters.

“Just finished floor debate explaining why knit blazers do not include cardigans on an amendment restricting what women can wear in the House,” tweeted state Rep. Jamie Johnson (D). “Why would we need to add additional class barriers to the idea that anyone could represent the people …”

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