Speaker Paul Ryan has done something I never expected: He listened to women.
Ryan was at the center of a social media storm earlier this month after Haley Byrd, a congressional reporter for Independent Journal Review, said she was kicked out of the Speaker’s lobby — a favorite room to grab a quick interview with lawmakers — because she wore a dress without sleeves.
The criticism stemmed not from a belief people shouldn’t appear professional when reporting on Congress but rather from the way the rules are enforced.
Dress codes get a lot of flack because they are so often terrible and sexist — particularly in schools. Any dress code that describes typical girls’ clothing, such as leggings and tank-tops, as “distracting” deserves some close scrutiny. It is sexist to send a girl home for wearing pants someone determines are too tight because a boy was staring at her rear end. Teach boys to concentrate on the task at hand instead of teaching girls that they need to dress for boys’ comfort rather than their own.
Anyway, to get back on topic, according to CBS News, this particular dress code has been in place for years in the House but is vague when it comes to women’s attire and haphazardly enforced.
The dress code for men requires a jacket and tie. While that seems excessive to me — particularly in Washington’s summer months — at least it’s clear. Plus the House has been known to provide ties for men who don’t have them, which is nice.
But while open-toed shoes and sleeveless dresses are banned in practice, the only written rule for women requires them “to wear proper attire as determined by the Speaker,” according to CBS News.
Billy House of Bloomberg News, who chairs a committee of congressional correspondents, told CBS that there isn’t a specific ban on any articles of clothing, including open-toed shoes and sleeveless dresses.
“However, for anyone hoping to find any actual, official code of attire? Good luck,” he said.
Look, I can see the problem. Men’s fashion is simple and has largely remained unchanged for decades. Women’s fashion, on the other hand, can get complicated and changes a bit each year.
However, while that’s a challenge to address, saying women should have “proper attire” and leaving it up to some guy to decide what that means isn’t the way to deal with it.
It’s unreasonable to expect your average security guard to be an authority on women’s fashion and determine what’s appropriate and what’s not. It’s understandable that the guys in charge, who don’t particularly want to spend too much time dealing with clothing, would settle on things like “No shoulders and toes showing,” since those are fairly common traits for sundresses and beach sandals, which no one would suggest are professional. But it’s not a fair way to police women’s clothes.
Ryan responded this week with plans to address the complaint.
“Decorum is important, especially for this institution, and a dress code in the chamber and in the lobby makes sense,” Ryan told Politico on Thursday.
You won’t hear me say this a lot, but Ryan isn’t wrong. It is important to dress professionally in a professional setting. It shows you take the responsibility of your job seriously, and you should absolutely respect the institution of the U.S. Congress, even if you privately think all its members are the worst.
Ryan then added, “But we also don’t need to bar otherwise accepted contemporary business attire, so look for a change on that soon.”
Sleeveless dresses are professional attire. Not all of them certainly, but simply whether a dress lacks sleeves isn’t a good indicator of whether it’s appropriate. Look to Ivanka Trump’s outfit while she sat in the House gallery during the president’s February address to Congress or Michelle Obama’s dresses during several State of the Union addresses. Both women’s clothing was perfectly professional. Or look to Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who more recently wore a sleeveless dress to work Wednesday to prove they are acceptable in some cases.
Ryan did. He listened to the experts on women’s fashion — you know, women who need to look good every day to be taken seriously — and will modernize the rules. And I’m glad to hear it.