TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican Sen. Mitch Holmes clearly recalls when women have worn “over the top” attire during his decade in the Kansas Statehouse.
“A blouse that came way past the rib cage was one of the most outlandish ones,” he told The Associated Press. Such women’s wear can distract from the legislative process, he said, explaining why a dress code was needed in his Ethics and Elections committee.
Holmes dropped his guidelines on Tuesday, the day after his AP interview, after he was shamed on social media as a “sexist” and “cave man” for telling women how to dress. In a written apology, he said he “meant no offense” by suggesting that “for ladies, low cut necklines and mini-skirts are inappropriate.”
It’s at least the fourth time that lawmakers have retreated from dress codes for female colleagues, lobbyists, interns and other citizens recently.
After Missouri’s House speaker resigned in a scandal last year — he acknowledged exchanging sexual text messages with a female intern — some of his colleagues suggested an intern dress code could help eliminate “distractions.” Republican Todd Richardson quickly squelched that idea after taking over as speaker.
Montana’s House speaker, Austin Knudsen, also suffered backlash when he issued a dress code before the 2015 session urging women to be “sensitive to skirt lengths and necklines,” while telling men simply to wear jackets, ties and dress pants.
Knudsen, a Republican, later called it a “rookie mistake” and reversed course. “It wasn’t a hill worth dying on at the beginning of the session,” he said.
One of the women who led that charge was Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck, of Helena. Women already have to be smarter and work harder to be considered equal, she said; a dress code suggests men have permission to evaluate women based on their bodies.
“You can trust that women will get up in the morning and figure it out,” she said.
Female lawmakers aren’t immune: In 2014, Republican Peggy Mast, the Kansas House’s speaker pro-tem, drew First Amendment complaints after suggesting dress code changes for interns.
She pulled back some — interns can apparently wear perfume and cologne after all — but their manual still asks women to avoid “halter tops, strapless tops, backless style, miniskirts and revealing necklines.” There’s no list of forbidden attire for men.
“The notion that the men in the legislature are going to dictate how women dress feels (like) a bit of a throwback to a bygone era that I think we had thought we had left,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Women are a slight majority of the U.S. population, but remain a minority in all 50 state legislatures, filling 1,808 legislative seats this year, 24.5 percent of the nationwide total, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s a historic high, but their ranks have remained relatively unchanged in the last five years.
If their number more closely matched the nation’s demographics, what they wear probably wouldn’t be an issue, said New Jersey state Sen. Diane Allen, a Republican and former chairwoman of the National Foundation for Women Legislators.
The backlash grew in Kansas last week after Democratic Sen. David Haley shared the rules with a female lobbyist who snapped a picture that spread on social media.
Holmes initially defended his guidelines, saying they had been in effect for at least a year and no one complained.
“We’re really looking for you to be addressing the issue rather than trying to distract or bring eyes to yourself” while testifying, Holmes told The Topeka Capital-Journal, which labeled the guidelines “disrespectful” and “alarming” in a Sunday editorial.
Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, called them “condescending toward women” because men weren’t told what to wear.
Holmes was still holding his ground on Monday.
“I just want to make sure that we have proper decorum,” he said. “Males have such little choice about what they wear with suits and ties. But you know, I’m reasonable and I’m willing to make sure that no one feels like they’re being singled out.”
Haley praised Holmes after he finally threw in the towel the next day, saying “he’s a gracious leader to recognize parity in the process.”
Missouri Rep. Nick King, a Republican and Mormon from suburban Kansas City, said his thoughts “didn’t get expressed very well” last summer when his email to colleagues suggested that “a good, modest, conservative dress code” for both male and female interns would help lawmakers stay focused by “removing one more distraction.”
But Missouri Rep. Stacey Newman finds disturbing similarities in all these controversies.
“To have that emphasis put back on what women are wearing — that it’s ‘distracting’ or whatever — is really diminishing our contributions,” said Newman, a Democrat from suburban St. Louis.