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New Kansas Senate dress code singles women out for "inappropriate" attire

Sen. Mitch Holmes, right, consults with Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, left.
Sen. Mitch Holmes, right, consults with Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, left.
(AP Photo/John Hanna)

A Kansas state legislator has sparked outrage for prohibiting women from wearing revealing clothing during his committee hearings — and for suggesting that men don't need similar guidance because they know how to look professional.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that Kansas state Sen. Mitch Holmes, a Republican from St. John and chair of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, included a rule in the committee's code of conduct that says witnesses must present themselves in "professional attire."

But he only got specific on what "professional attire" meant for women. "For ladies, low-cut necklines and mini-skirts are inappropriate," the rule says.

Holmes told the Capital-Journal's Tim Carpenter that he felt the need to clarify this because he'd seen women dress provocatively in the Capitol. But he didn't lay out any specifics for men.

"Holmes said he considered stipulating men had to wear suit and tie when addressing his Senate committee, but decided males didn’t need supplemental instruction on how to look professional," Carpenter wrote.

Holmes also didn't offer any specific guidance on how short is too short for skirts, or how low is too low for necklines.

"It's one of those things that’s hard to define," Holmes said. "Put it out there and let people know we’re really looking for you to be addressing the issue rather than trying to distract or bring eyes to yourself."

Some of Holmes's women colleagues on both sides of the aisle didn't take kindly to his new rule.

"Oh, for crying out loud, what century is this?" said Sen. Laura Kelly (D-Topeka).

Sen. Vicki Schmidt (R-Topeka) wondered who was going to define "low-cut," and whether these rules would also apply to senators. Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican from Sedwick, said she worried that the rules might discourage ordinary citizens from testifying if they don't have clothing that meets Holmes's ideal.

A similar controversy about sexist dress codes is playing out in middle schools and high schools around the country

By focusing on the idea that an improperly covered female body is "distracting," and by showing that he doesn't trust women to judge their appearance for themselves, Holmes sounds more like he's creating a high school or middle school dress code than the professional code of conduct for a state lawmaking body.

But even high school and middle school dress codes have been taking heat in the past few years for reinforcing sexist standards. These dress codes usually have guidance for both boys and girls, but they are often enforced more harshly against girls. They're also commonly used against transgender students who dress in a way that defies the gender norms of their legally assigned sex.

School administrators typically justify requiring girls to cover up because otherwise boys will be "distracted," which will reduce the overall quality of the learning environment. But young feminists are pushing back against this idea using social media activism, online petitions, and staged walkouts.

Student activists say that these standards victim-blame and slut-shame teenage girls by holding them responsible for how their male peers might react to their appearance — a classic symptom of rape culture. Activists also say that sending students home for wearing "inappropriate" clothing, or barring them from events like prom, is a bigger violation of those students' right to learn than any "distraction" they might theoretically pose to immature classmates.

They also say that it's just flat-out creepy for school administrators to implicitly sexualize teenage girls:

"We are 17 years old, stop sexualizing our bodies." Imgur

Meanwhile, Kansas legislators have passed a bunch of laws restricting reproductive health

In a Topeka Capital-Journal op-ed, state Rep. Annie Kuether (D-Topeka) called out her colleagues for spending unnecessary time and taxpayer dollars on health care restrictions — especially restrictions on women's health. She said the state has spent more than $1 million defending laws that unconstitutionally restrict access to reproductive health care, and that hospitals are struggling due to the state's failure to expand Medicaid.

One of these new laws bans the most common and safest second-trimester abortion procedure, which could effectively ban abortion after the first trimester in the state of Kansas. That law was struck down Friday by the Kansas Court of Appeals, but that decision will likely be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court — spending even more taxpayer money on court fees in the process.

Kansas has passed 30 new abortion restrictions in the past five years. That's more than any other state, even Texas, at a time when some states have been engaged in an unprecedented frenzy of anti-abortion lawmaking.

On the same day Kuether published her op-ed, the Topeka Capital-Journal's editorial board condemned Holmes's dress code as "disrespectful to responsible Kansans." They said the restrictions show that some legislators "want to monitor input from every-day citizens based on their attire," which will only add to the disenfranchisement voters are feeling about a dysfunctional state government that failed to conduct its 2015 session in the time allotted.

Taken together, the op-eds make a case that Kansas state lawmakers are wasting taxpayer time and money on counterproductive, embarrassing efforts to hold women back.