clock menu more-arrow no yes
Christina Animashaun/Vox

America’s sexist obsession with what women politicians wear, explained

Ever since women started holding political office, American men have been fixated on their clothes.

When she was in the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun got used to having her clothing scrutinized.

She remembers one incident in particular, she told Vox. “Women’s Wear Daily had me on its cover — actually a picture of my butt,” she said, “and it said, ‘this is what a Chanel sweater set should not look like.’”

Women senators seated around a coffee table (left to right): Patty Murray, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Carol Moseley Braun, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Barbara Mikulski, Mary Landrieu and Dianne Feinstein in 1997
From left to right, Sens. Patty Murray, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Carol Moseley Braun, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Barbara Mikulski, Mary Landrieu, and Dianne Feinstein in 1997.
CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Women in politics “are held to a different standard across the board” than men when it comes to dress, said Moseley Braun, who represented Illinois in the Senate from 1993 to 1999. And it hasn’t necessarily changed much since she was a senator.

In November, writer Eddie Scarry of the conservative Washington Examiner made headlines (and spawned countless memes) when he tweeted a photograph of Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York City Democrat, with the caption, “that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

Eddie Scarry’s now-deleted tweet, showing a photograph of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in black, carrying a coat
Eddie Scarry’s tweet, now deleted.
Twitter

As Gaby del Valle of Vox’s The Goods pointed out, Scarry was trying to cast doubt on Ocasio-Cortez’s working-class bona fides. (He later claimed he was merely “suggesting the incoming congresswoman looked well put together.”) But it’s hard to imagine the same tweet aimed at a man.

Scarry’s comments were just the latest in a long history. Ever since women started running for office in the United States, their clothing choices have been judged and dissected, receiving much more criticism than male politicians’ attire ever gets.

Sometimes, they’ve been subjected to rules their male colleagues didn’t have to worry about; when Moseley Braun was elected, for instance, women weren’t supposed to wear pants on the Senate floor. At other times, the media and the public have focused on women politicians’ clothing at the expense of their ideas.

It’s possible to talk about the clothing of women in politics without reverting to misogyny — after all, clothes can be an important means of self-expression for people of all genders. What’s more, women politicians sometimes send messages with their clothes, as when Democratic women wore black to the State of the Union address earlier this year.

Members of Congress wearing black in solidarity with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements listen as US President Donald Trump delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 30, 2018.
Members of Congress wearing black in solidarity with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements during the State of the Union address on January 30, 2018.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The problem comes in when the media or the public focuses on clothes in ways that belittle or demean the women wearing them, or when women are held to standards of dress or appearance that don’t apply to men. Both excessive media coverage of women politicians’ clothing and restrictive rules governing it are signs of a bigger problem: American politics remains dominated by men, and women are still treated like outsiders.

Ever since women entered national politics, they’ve been judged on their clothes

The first women member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin (R-MT), took office in 1917. Right away, her clothes became a topic of conversation. A Washington Post headline proclaimed, “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair.” According to the Post, Rankin was “thoroughly feminine—from her charmingly coiffed swirl of chestnut hair to the small, high and distinctively French heels. She is given to soft and clinging gowns, and, according to her own confession, is very fond of moving pictures.”

As a blog post at the House’s History, Art & Archives website notes, the article was typical of coverage of early congresswomen, whose looks and dress often received outsized attention. Rep. Katherine Langley, who represented Kentucky in the late 1920s and early 1930s, for instance, was criticized for dressing too colorfully. “She offends the squeamish by her unstinted display of gypsy colors on the floor and the conspicuousness with which she dresses her bushy blue-black hair,” one reporter wrote.

Rep. Jeannette Rankin, circa 1917
Rep. Jeannette Rankin, circa 1917.
Library of Congress via Getty Images
Rep. Jeannette Rankin, circa 1918
Rep. Jeannette Rankin, circa 1918.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

Some of the focus on Rankin’s clothing “possibly stemmed from the fact that reporters and editors, lacking the ability to discuss her on the merits of a prior legislative record, wrote of the Montanan largely in the only terms they knew how—treating her as a society page subject,” the post states. “Some descriptions may have had less innocent motives, however, as not-so-subtle attempts to delegitimize the first woman elected to Congress before she ever stepped foot in the House.”

Early women senators sometimes faced similar scrutiny of their attire. Hattie Caraway (D-AR), who in 1932 became the first woman to be elected to the Senate, commented in interviews and in her diary that “the public seemed to be rather obsessed with what she wore,” said Betty Koed, the historian of the Senate. She typically wore simple, comfortable clothing, and “it was a frustration for her that they tended to focus a lot on her dress,” Koed said.

Sen. Hattie Caraway (R-AR), the first woman elected to serve as a US Senator, circa 1932
Sen. Hattie Caraway (R-AR), the first woman elected to serve as a US senator, circa 1932.
UIG via Getty Images
Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME)
Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), circa 1957.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

In 1957, when then-Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) became one of the first women to fly faster than the speed of sound, one of the first things a Los Angeles Times reporter mentioned was her outfit, Koed pointed out — “a bright orange flight suit and high-heeled pumps,” according to the paper. The reporter also wrote that Smith “waved like a little girl on a bus ride” as the jet taxied down the runway, using the same infantilizing language Ocasio-Cortez would face decades later.

The disproportionate fixation on women politicians’ clothing continues today — and it’s not just Ocasio-Cortez. Political cartoons often portray women in revealing or otherwise inappropriate clothing, Koed noted. A 2011 cartoon poking fun at Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for taking an expensive vacation depicted her in a T-shirt and bikini bottom. Another cartoon, from 2009, showed Pelosi with a lacy undergarment bunched below her dress and labeled “liar.” “Your slip is showing,” a man whispered in her ear.

In 2008, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin faced criticism after Politico reported that the Republican National Committee had spent more than $150,000 on clothes and accessories for her and her family. As Patrick Healy and Michael Luo noted at the New York Times, the expense was seen as conflicting with her image as “an average ‘hockey mom,’” even though advisers said it wasn’t her decision to buy the clothes.

A 2010 Vanity Fair story about the controversy noted that aides initially cut price tags off the clothes to hide the cost from Palin — still, the article was titled, “Sarah Palin’s Shopping Spree.”

A delegate waits for Sarah Palin’s speech during the Republican National Convention, on September 3, 2008
A delegate waits for Sarah Palin’s speech during the Republican National Convention on September 3, 2008.
Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has been routinely criticized for wearing pantsuits. Even Project Runway’s Tim Gunn joined in, saying in 2011, “Why must she dress that way? I think she’s confused about her gender.”

Women politicians of color, meanwhile, may face disproportionate criticism because of both race and gender. Moseley Braun, the first black woman elected to the Senate, recalled sparking controversy when by wearing her hair in braids. As with the pantsuit, she found the criticism somewhat ridiculous: “I spent a lot of time getting my hair done, and I thought I looked really nice,” she said.

Sens. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), together on “Take your Daughter to Work Day,” on April 27, 1995
Sens. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), together on “Take your Daughter to Work Day,” on April 27, 1995.
Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Later, she found that she had blazed a trail for others. Two women were fired from a McDonald’s for wearing braids, she said, “and their defense became, the United States senator is wearing her hair like this, so why can’t we?”

“I’m not sorry about any of it,” she said.

Women in Congress have faced restrictive rules when it comes to dress

In addition to media scrutiny, women in politics have also had to contend with rules that affect them and not their male colleagues. Until the 1990s, an “unwritten rule” dictated that women could not wear pants on the Senate floor, Koed said. That changed in 1993, after Moseley Braun, unaware of the rule, wore “a very nice Armani pantsuit” to work, the former senator said.

“It was kind of shocking to me at the time that there would be this unwritten rule that women had to wear dresses,” Moseley Braun said. “What century is this?”

The same year, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) decided to challenge the rule by wearing pants and instructing women staffers to do the same, according to Nia-Malika Henderson at the Washington Post. After that, women wearing pants in the Senate became commonplace.

Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) discusses her legislation to help women suffering from domestic violence at the York Street Center, on August 31, 1978.
Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) discussing domestic violence legislation at the York Street Center on August 31, 1978.
Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty Images

But that didn’t mean women’s wardrobe struggles were over. In 2017, women reporters were kicked out of the speaker’s lobby outside the House chamber, according to CBS, because of a purported ban on sleeveless dresses there and on the House floor.

Like the Senate pants rule, this one was unwritten — and, as CBS noted, it was somewhat inconsistently enforced.

Soon after the reporters’ ouster made news, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) challenged the sleeve requirement directly, appearing in a sleeveless dress and telling her House colleagues, “I’m standing here in my professional attire, which happens to be a sleeveless dress and open-toed shoes.”

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar (D-MN, bottom row, center) is one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, has co-authored a proposal with Pelosi and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to create an exception to the House’s 181-year-old ban on hats. Their proposal would allow religious headwear, meaning Omar could wear a headscarf to work.

“No one puts a scarf on my head but me,” she tweeted in November. “It’s my choice — one protected by the first amendment.”

The way women politicians’ clothing is talked about matters — and it shows how far we have to go before we reach equality

Talking about women politicians’ clothing doesn’t have to be sexist. After all, clothing is an important part of self-presentation, and choosing clothes is something some (though by no means all) people enjoy. People in public life, politicians included, typically put a lot of thought into what they wear, and their decisions often have a deeper meaning.

Sometimes women “use their appearance for very political ends,” said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and co-author of the book A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters. For example, when Hillary Clinton wore white, a reference to the women’s suffrage movement, to President Donald Trump’s inauguration, “that was purposeful,” Dittmar said. “She wanted people to cover that.”

Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton arrives with former President Bill Clinton to President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017.
Former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton arrives with former President Bill Clinton to President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Talking about clothes and appearance isn’t necessarily frivolous. Take, for example, Soraya Nadia McDonald’s analysis of the semiotics of Michelle Obama’s book cover photo. The image, including Obama’s hairstyle and clothing choice, “places Obama within the tradition of American first ladies while also projecting her individuality,” McDonald writes. In 2006, Washington Post writer Robin Givhan won a Pulitzer for her fashion criticism, including a close reading of a pair of boots worn by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Meanwhile, male politicians’ clothes and grooming have occasionally become the subject of conversation. Bill Clinton and John Edwards were both criticized for receiving expensive haircuts. Paul Ryan has been routinely ribbed for his baggy suits — in 2012, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times compared him to “Tom Hanks in ‘Big’ when he becomes a kid again.”

President Barack Obama’s allegiance to blue and gray suits became famous; when he deviated from his usual wardrobe, wearing a tan suit, he was the target of outrage, with Rep. Peter King (R-NY) arguing that his color choice showed he didn’t care about foreign policy.

President Barack Obama speaks with the press regarding ISIL and immigration reform on August 28, 2014
President Barack Obama speaks with the press regarding ISIL and immigration reform on August 28, 2014.
Getty Images

Men have also fallen afoul of congressional dress norms. Earlier this year, Koed recalls, Sen. Richard Burr arrived for a vote in summer clothes and had to cast his vote from the Senate cloakroom.

But these instances are the exception, not the rule. The problem with the way we talk about clothing in politics is a problem of inequality; women politicians have generally faced more scrutiny over their appearance than men have, Dittmar said. And that disparity reveals a fundamental problem with the way we see women in government today.

Throughout history, clothing has been front and center in coverage of women politicians in a way it hasn’t for men — sometimes, as in the case of Caraway, threatening to obscure their ideas. In part, women’s clothing gets more attention because women’s options are more varied than men’s — “it’s not just another suit,” as Dittmar puts it. But partly it’s because women still struggle “to be taken seriously as elected officials,” she said.

Things haven’t changed that much since the days of Jeannette Rankin. “There’s a continuing lack of comfort,” as Koed put it, with “women in positions of power.” So the media and the public fall back on what they are comfortable with: critiquing women’s appearance.

Both media coverage of women’s appearance and congressional rules around women’s dress are a symptom of something bigger, Dittmar noted: the fact that women still aren’t completely welcome in the halls of government.

Most of the rules for dress in Congress primarily affect women, Dittmar explained. That shows that “this is not an institution in which the rules were written with women in mind,” she said.

Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-NY), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, (D-FL), Abby Finkenauer, (D-IA), Sharice Davids, (D-KS), Haley Stevens, (D-MI), and other members of the incoming freshman class, pose for a photo on November 14, 2018
Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-NY), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, (D-FL), Abby Finkenauer, (D-IA), Sharice Davids, (D-KS), Haley Stevens, (D-MI), and other members of the incoming freshman class, pose for a photo on November 14, 2018.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

When women politicians are criticized for their clothes, then, it’s about more than the cut or cost of a garment. It’s often a reminder that, in a fundamental way, they don’t belong. Equality wouldn’t mean total silence on the subject of women’s clothing. It would mean both men’s and women’s clothing would be discussed as just one part of their self-presentation as leaders.

In a time when a congresswoman’s nondescript black jacket and coat can inspire mockery, that kind of equality can seem out of reach. But more so than in the past, women are pushing back against coverage of their clothing that they see as sexist, Dittmar said — just as they’ve been more willing to respond aggressively to other types of sexism.

After Scarry’s tweet, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that the reason journalists “can’t help but obsess about my clothes” was because “women like me aren’t supposed to run for office — or win.”

Around the same time, Ocasio-Cortez also tweeted that she was being repeatedly mistaken for a spouse or intern rather than a rising member of Congress. Her message, Dittmar said, is that “these are the challenges that women face every day in male-dominated spaces and I’m calling them out as I see them.”

For her part, Moseley Braun says she’s not surprised Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism over her clothing. When it comes to gender equality, we like to think “we have made so much progress,” she said, when “the fact of the matter is that on some level, we have really progressed only incrementally.”

But she’s optimistic for the future. “I think the young women are going to make the difference,” she said, “because they’re not having it.”

Former senator and Democratic presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), speaks at the California Democratic Party State Convention in Sacramento, California on March 16, 2003
Former senator and Democratic presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), speaks at the California Democratic Party State Convention in Sacramento, California, on March 16, 2003.
Joe Jaszewski/Getty Images
Interviews

Why America keeps turning its back on Haitian migrants

Science & Health

Healing, a saga

Identities

For protesters, trauma lingers long after the marching ends

View all stories in Identities