You should wear heels. Have you considered wearing more makeup? I think you should try a dress, or at least a skirt.
A couple weeks ago I was at the Keystone Progress Summit, listening to a panel of four Pittsburgh women discussing what it was like to run as first time candidates. Some of them had already won their races, like Emily Marburger, mayor of Bellevue. Bethany Hallam was the newcomer of the group, she announced her run for Allegheny County Council at Large a couple weeks ago.
The women shared their stories, and all had some variation of being told to “wait their turn.” Political nepotism fosters mediocrity and creates more barriers to women and people of color. The good ol’ boys club isn’t new of course, but it’s still disappointing. The pièce de résistance for me however, was the outdated, unsolicited fashion advice that was a common thread in all of their stories. This is still fair game for women candidates? Of course it is.
Three days after the conference, the State of The Union aired. There was a powerful visual; a striking swath of dozens of Congresswomen all dressed in white.
Discussions of women candidates almost always includes commentary on their appearance, whether they like it or not. Therefore, the adornment and clothing women candidates choose is inherently political, and politicians have been utilizing this as another way to subvert the patriarchy and traditional gender roles. In 2009 Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was told to keep her appearance during her confirmation hearing subdued, down to the minute detail to keeping her nails a neutral color. She defiantly wore her signature red nails. Nearly a decade later, newly inaugurated Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez wore white as a nod to suffragists, a red lip as an ode to Justice Sotomayor and hoop earrings, stating “Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”
Politicians wearing white to invoke the symbolism of women, power and equality isn’t new. Since women in the U.S. suffragist movement chose to wear white clothing as their identifier, elected officials have since donned the same. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm wore white when she was sworn in as the first African American woman in Congress. VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro did the same in 1984, and Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
While the symbolism of the suffragettes is effective because it is universally recognized, it isn’t without its problems. To be clear, the voting rights movement for women was a white women’s movement. While women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott are revered as kickstarting America’s first wave of feminism at Seneca Falls, we must acknowledge that women of color were left behind. Feminist author/activist bell hooks once said that “Patriarchy knows no gender.” At worst, white women were primarily concerned about getting the same structural power as white men. At best, fighting for only white women’s vote was seen as the expedient thing to do, and that black women could wait. Between Jim Crow and a plethora of barriers, they waited decades more.
In 2018, two years after Donald Trump’s win, we saw the most diverse group of candidates ever elected up and down the ballot across the country. For the first time we have a Native American and Muslim woman in Congress, and more black and latina women than ever before. The 2019 State of the Union took place less than 100 years after the 19th amendment was ratified. The sea of white clothing paid homage to an imperfect movement, and the varied identities of the women in white was a united sign of resistance, making it their own. It’s oppressive and sexist that appearance still carries so much weight, but women are using this medium as a canvas to be subversive and make a statement.
Now, let’s move on from white suits to a pink coat and fur stole. I was over-the-moon excited when I saw the pictures of Kyrsten Sinema being sworn in to the United States Senate. The layers of irony have been noted as this became one of the first memes of 2019. America’s first openly bisexual Senator was sworn in not on a bible, but on a copy of the US Constitution. The fact that her oath was given by openly homophobic Vice President Pence was simply delicious. A high femme-presenting woman wearing her hair in curls, makeup done up, and a fierce dress showing off her shoulders, Sinema stood boldly in contrast next to a man who refuses to dine alone with any woman who isn’t his wife. The juxtaposition here is a picture of beautiful defiance. As a queer woman who has a penchant for hair fascinators and fabulous outfits, I felt SEEN.
Hillary Clinton wore her signature pantsuits, some said in an attempt to remove gender as a part of the conversation. As the first woman nominated for president in one of the major parties, this was a losing battle; when there isn’t a framework for a new paradigm, like it or not, her gender was front and center. I spoke with a candidate who told me she purposely wore all neutral colors because she never wanted her clothing to be a discussion point. Even in deciding to be demure, women are still conscious of what their appearance will say to others. Some electeds, like Sinema, are turning up the volume. Dressing up highly femme is not in fact in contrast to being serious about governing, policy and getting shit done.
Bethany Hallam asked for my thoughts about the advice she was given to wear heels rather than her signature sneakers. “I’ve been an athlete all my life- not a politician. This is what I’m comfortable in; this is who I am.” But now, Hallam is both. I told her to wear the damn sneakers. The more women that run for office and present as their authentic selves, whatever that looks like, creates space for others to do the same.
Women elected to office are creating their own molds for what femme politicians can look like — however they want.